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"They got out of the car, ready to throw me in the paddy wagon," recalled Castro, telling a story he's told many times before. "I said, 'Wait a minute, didn't you see the sign, Castro Pony Farm? I happen to be Castro.'"
"They said, 'Are you Judge Castro?'"
"I said, 'Yes, I am.'"
After that, the Border Patrol duo was all apologies. But that sort of cultural assumption has never really stopped, according to Castro, who says he still gets guff when he crosses the border. When he goes through Border Patrol checkpoints, he's asked where he was born, the assumption being that he, a former governor, might be undocumented.
The Bird wondered how Castro had lived through this — and then some — without despising Anglos.
"I never became bitter," Castro stated. "I've always felt American people are fair and square. Once they are convinced you are sincere and honest, eventually they will turn in your favor and support you. But it's not easy."
A THOUSAND TALES
We should all hope we'll be as sharp as Castro in our 90s (assuming we make it that far). Talking to him in person, you'd never guess the ex-guv's a day past 75. And though he walks a little slowly, his mental faculties and recall are remarkable. These days, he says his biggest kick comes from speaking to schoolchildren.
In fact, Castro will be in Phoenix on Thursday, April 9, to dedicate the Raul H. Castro Middle School at 2730 North 79th Avenue. Seems fitting. Castro has an unlimited reservoir of tales to pass on to younger generations, whether they're about his days as an ambassador or his two campaigns for governor — the second one successfully.
It was President Lyndon Baines Johnson who appointed him to be ambassador to El Salvador, then Bolivia, in the 1960s. At first, Johnson wanted Castro to change his last name for political reasons. Castro refused. Johnson appointed him anyway.
While in El Salvador, he had to organize a summit of Latin American leaders that LBJ was to attend. To boost the president's morale, which was suffering because of unrest over the Vietnam War, the State Department wanted Castro to ensure a throng of thousands to greet Johnson when he landed. They gave Castro $6,000 to get the job done. Castro handed over the six grand to a local general, who provided an army of barefoot peasants to cheer LBJ upon his arrival.
Johnson was impressed. "They really like me here, don't they?" he wondered aloud to Castro in the limo ride to the embassy.
Castro loved being an ambassador. Bolivia offered lots of adventure. Revolutionary leader Che Guevara recently had been captured and executed by the Bolivian army. The capital, La Paz, was in a state of unrest. Castro's wife was targeted for assassination. While one of his college-age daughters was visiting, a bomb blew up the back of their residence. The altitude of La Paz was so challenging that diplomats returning to the states would get nosebleeds. And then, there was the president of Bolivia's using Castro as a human shield, inviting Castro to go everywhere with him.
"He assumed that if the American ambassador traveled with him, he would not be assassinated," Castro said. "The last time, he wanted me to go on some helicopter somewhere with him. I didn't. That's when they killed him. He got on the helicopter and [his assassins] blew it up."
Back in the States, after Richard Nixon became president, Castro decided to run for governor in 1970. Everyone wrote him off as the dark horse in his challenge to Governor Jack Williams. Castro lost in a squeaker by 7,406 votes. The ultra-conservative publisher of the Arizona Republic, Eugene Pulliam, had something to do with Castro's loss. The newspaper ran one story declaring that Castro had been killed in Guatemala. Another time, the daily ran a pic of Fidel Castro with the caption "Running for Governor of Arizona."
But Pulliam came 'round in 1974, somewhat, when Castro ran again. He promised Castro fair coverage and no endorsements either way. Castro thinks Pulliam was impressed by his coming from nothing. Castro campaigned the entire state, courting even the voters within the Navajo Nation, whom most politicians wrote off.
"Election Day came, and I was 4,000 votes behind," remembered Castro. "But the Indian vote had not come in. About 4:30 in the morning, the Indian vote came in and swept me through."
But how did something that seems unimaginable now — given the Arizona majority's prejudice against Hispanics — happen in 1974? That is, the election of an Arizona governor who was a naturalized citizen, born in Cananea, Sonora. Partially, it was the times, Castro conceded, that were far more progressive. But he gives himself some credit. Running as a conservative Democrat didn't hurt either.
"You have to be persistent," he said. "I used to go up to Sun City, which is ultra-ultra-conservative, very Republican. And I campaigned rather heavily there. People slammed the door in my face. I'd never quit, I'd go back. And eventually those people became convinced . . . and many of them supported me."
WARTS AND ALL