From poor immigrant to Arizona's 1st Hispanic governor
Apr. 10, 2015
PHOENIX (AP) — Raul Hector Castro first noticed discrimination on his way to school in a dusty Arizona border town.
Why, he wondered, did the white kids ride on a bus while he and his friends from Mexico had to walk? And later: Why were Hispanics always working as laborers, not in offices or carrying the mail?
Castro would stare down discrimination and overcome extreme poverty on his way to becoming Arizona's only Hispanic governor and a respected American diplomat.
After nearly a century of blazing trails, Castro died Friday in his sleep. He was 98.
Undeterred by the legions of school principals who wouldn't make him a teacher or the law school dean who didn't want to admit him, Castro spoke adoringly of the opportunities afforded to Americans willing to work for them. He was the embodiment of the American dream, a self-made man who left a life as a hobo to make an improbable career in the law, politics and diplomacy.
It's a message he'd deliver to young audiences well into his 90s.
"I like to motivate them and say, 'Look, this is the land where anyone can accomplish whatever they want to accomplish," Castro told The Associated Press in a 2010 interview.
Castro's success in politics was unlikely for a Mexican-American in the 1970s.
Arizona's Hispanic community was sizeable but not active in politics. Despite deep nerves, many voted for the first time when they cast a ballot for Castro, he said.
"From then on they became more engaged, they became active participants, they became part of the state," he recalled.
Castro's races for governor were two of the closest in state history. He lost to Republican Jack Williams in 1970 by 1.5 percentage points. He fared better four years later, defeating Republican Russ Williams by less than 1 percentage point.
Castro, a Democrat, was governor for 2½ years before resigning when President Jimmy Carter appointed him ambassador to Argentina.
"The thing that bothered me the most when I resigned as governor, the Hispanic community felt that I had betrayed them, because they worked so hard to get me elected," he reminisced decades later. "I had to convince them and persuade them that being an American ambassador was just as important as being a governor. I had more authority."
As an ambassador and judge, Castro was used to having unquestioned authority; he struggled to adjust to the checks and balances imposed on a governor, said Alfredo Gutierrez, a fellow Democrat and legislative leader while Castro was governor.
"It was a very difficult beginning for him," Gutierrez said in a 2010 interview. "It was quite an adjustment."
Born June 12, 1916 in Cananea, Mexico, some 50 miles south of Arizona, Castro was the second-youngest in a family with 12 children — 11 boys and one girl. His father was a union leader forced out of Mexico for organizing a strike at the mine in Cananea.
His father died when Castro was 12, and his mother became a midwife to feed the family. She delivered babies for the Mexican families around Douglas in exchange for flower, corn, beans and other staples.
Education was the best way out, Castro determined, and he set out to beat the odds.
When he couldn't get a job as a teacher — schools didn't hire educators of Mexican descent back then — he became a drifter for a while, working as a farm hand and boxing here and there.
He landed a job with the U.S. Consulate in the border city of Agua Prieta, Mexico. After five years, a senior official told him he was doing a great job but had no future in the foreign service — he had a Hispanic name and no Ivy League education. Castro quit and moved to Tucson.
A law school dean at the University of Arizona told Castro he wouldn't be accepted because Castro couldn't afford to quit a job teaching Spanish. Besides, the dean said, Hispanic students didn't do well in law school.
Undeterred, Castro went to the university president, who convinced the dean to give Castro an opportunity to prove himself. He excelled and went on to be elected the first Hispanic county attorney and later the first Hispanic judge in Pima County Superior Court.
He went on to serve as U.S. ambassador to three Latin American countries under three U.S. presidents. Lyndon Johnson sent him to El Salvador, where Castro became known as "Yankee Castro" to differentiate him from the other Raul Castro — the brother of Cuban dictator Fidel Castro.
Johnson later sent him to Bolivia, and he stayed for a short time under Richard Nixon before returning to Arizona and making his first unsuccessful run for governor.
Survivors include his wife, Pat Castro and daughters Mary Pat James and Beth Castro.
James Garcia, a family spokesman, said information on funeral and memorial arrangements will be released in several days.
Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey said Castro "lived a full life of exemplary service to Arizona and its people."
"He was an honorable public servant, a history-maker, a beloved family man and a strong friend and fighter for Arizona," Ducey said in a statement.