The Bird winged his way down to Nogales the other day to meet with Arizona's only Mexican-born governor, Raul Castro. Sand Land newbies, who know the Grand Canyon State as a reservoir of hatred and discrimination toward anyone brown, may figure this finch finally has gone Froot Loopy. But, you heard The Bird right: Arizona once had a naturalized U.S. citizen as its chief executive, one with the same name as Fidel Castro's brother!
Of course, Castro was and is a Democrat. And when he was elected in 1974, it was the ultimate triumph over a lifetime of experiencing racism and discrimination firsthand, not to mention the black hole of poverty Castro had to pull himself out of as one of 12 children born to Mexican immigrants. His papa worked in a copper smelter in Douglas and died before Castro turned 13. His mom was a midwife and had to raise her brood on her own after that.
You can read all about Castro's struggle in his soon-to-be-published memoir Adversity is My Angel: the Life and Career of Raul Castro, which Castro co-wrote with history professor Jack August. But after perusing an advance copy, The Bird had to meet the soon-to-be-93-year-old in the flesh. See, the sort of anti-Mexican bigotry Castro experienced calls to mind much of what brown folk in Arizona have to endure now. Though during his childhood, with segregation in full force, the prejudice was even more blatant, more in your face.
On the porch of his historic home overlooking hilly Nogales and the border with Mexico, Castro recalled one particularly outrageous incident that occurred when he was quarterback of the football team at Douglas High School. Many team members belonged to an organization that met at the local YMCA, and after the meeting, they all decided to take a swim in the YMCA pool. But when he got to the door, his way was barred by the director of the facility.
"'Castro, you can't go in,'" the ex-governor remembered the man saying.
"'Why not?' I asked."
"'Mexican kids can only go swimming here on Saturday afternoons,'" he said the man told him. "That meant that when the water was dirty, when pool was to be cleaned, that's when Mexican kids could swim. Everyone else could swim the rest of the week."
In his mind, it was another obstacle to overcome. Years later, after he graduated from law school at the University of Arizona, he ended up on the YMCA's board of directors, where he said he was able to get the rules changed. For Castro, it was a lesson: The way to knock down the roadblocks of discrimination is to become part of the establishment.
"In order to [do that], you must be a participant. You must be active. You must be a leader," explained Castro, who went on to become Pima County Attorney, a Superior Court judge, then ambassador to El Salvador and Bolivia before running for governor. "How do you become a leader? You don't become a leader by just doing nothing."
The YMCA incident was hardly the first or the last instance of prejudice Castro endured. As a child, grade schools were segregated by race, and he watched white kids getting bused to their schools while he and his Mexican classmates had to walk four miles to theirs. In middle school, he shared classes with Anglos for the first time. On the playground at recess, Mexican and Anglo kids divided up against each other, playing a game they called "race against race," slugging it out and hurling rocks at each other.
Despite an educational system that generally discouraged Hispanic children from advancing, Castro graduated from high school and dodged a dead-end career in the copper smelter to attend Arizona State Teachers College in Flagstaff, now Northern Arizona University. After matriculating, he discovered no one wanted to hire a teacher of Mexican descent. He drifted, traveling the country by rail as a hobo and boxing for money.
Eventually, he returned to Arizona and went to law school. After he had served as Pima County Attorney, he ran for the Superior Court seat. One of his colleagues, future Democratic Congressman Morris 'Mo' Udall wanted to run for that judgeship, but Castro refused to pull out of the race, so it was Udall who decided not to run.
But being a judge was no guarantee against what we now call racial profiling. One Saturday, as Judge Castro was painting the fence on his small Tucson ranch, where he kept a horse farm, the U.S. Border Patrol rolled up. Castro was dressed in old Levi's and a sombrero, doing the chores his wife had asked him to do. Three guesses where this story is going.
"There were two of them," Castro recalled, with a smile in his voice. "They spoke to me in Spanish, 'Do you have a card [proving he was in the country legally]?' I said [in Spanish], 'No, I don't have a card.'"
"Who do you work for?" they asked him, again in Spanish.
"For the señora," he replied, indicating his house, because that's where he'd gotten his list of honey-dos.
"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
But Castro's tenure as governor didn't live up to the promise of his career and his campaign. In fact, it only lasted two years. In 1977, Castro took up newly elected President Jimmy Carter on his offer to be ambassador to Argentina. Naturally, that was a move that pissed off many supporters.
"Here's what I felt, and I'm sure Janet Napolitano felt the same way," remarked Castro. "I felt so many Hispanic-Americans voted for me and wanted me to finish out the term. They felt I let them down by leaving, by going to Argentina."
He countered that as an ambassador, he represented the entire country, which outranked being the governor of a state.
But what this raven wanted to know was whether Castro's leaving had more to do with the 1976 murder of Arizona Republic reporter Don Bolles, and with Castro's ties to the guy who ordered the hit, wealthy liquor distributor and rancher Kemper Marley.
Marley and his family donated $25,000 to Castro's 1974 campaign. Later, on what he says was the advice of several high-powered politicos, including Senator Barry Goldwater, Castro appointed Marley to the Arizona Racing Commission. Castro claims he barely knew the guy, but that 25 grand probably didn't hurt Marley's chances of getting that racing commission spot.
According to Michael Wendland's book The Arizona Project, which documents the efforts of the team of reporters who descended on Arizona in the wake of the Bolles slaying, it was Bolles who exposed the Marley-Castro link, which ultimately forced Marley's resignation from the racing commission. The book suggests it was because of Bolles' merciless exposure of Marley's shenanigans in this and other matters that Marley had his associates plot Bolles' murder, blowing up his white 1976 Datsun with Bolles in it at the Clarendon House hotel. Marley was never arrested or charged in the case. He died in 1990 at age 83.
The scandal scorched the governor politically, though he was never implicated in the Bolles assassination. He insists that this raging scandal and the subsequent investigation of the murder by the press and ultimately by then-Attorney General Bruce Babbitt (whom Castro assigned to the case) had nothing to do with his accepting President Carter's offer of a gig in Buenos Aires.
"I knew Don Bolles well," Castro said. "He was in my office every day of the week."
And in his book, Castro writes, "It was a very stressful time that was even worse because Bolles had been a friend and we were profoundly saddened by his death."
But Castro's co-author, Jack August, believes the constant barrage of criticism and inquiry Castro was receiving from the local and national press did lead him out the door.
"I think the emotional toll had him saying, 'Just screw this stuff,'" observed August. "In my heart of hearts, I don't think he was culpable of anything . . . He just didn't like the pressure he was under . . . So I think he said, 'I can go to Plan B.'"
But the fact Castro's not wanting to admit to what August has observed of him implicates the former governor at least in the human emotion of denial.
Should Castro's life story, his battle against racism and poverty be forgotten because of the Marley-Bolles affair? No, but neither can Castro's involvement with Marley be ignored. Particularly when this connection is surely what moved him to chuck it all, and head to South America.