A naturalized citizen who served as judge, Arizona governor and ambassador, Castro exemplifies an only-in-the-U.S. success story
In Tucson a few years back, I dined at the upscale Rocky Mountain Oyster Club with robust and engaging former Arizona Gov. Raúl H. Castro.
The happy long-term result was a book, an interpretive memoir that, in a brief 150 pages, conveys Castro’s unique and inspirational life story.
We crafted a tight manuscript, submitted it to Texas Christian University Press in Fort Worth, and the peer reviewers and faculty editorial board voted a “do publish.”
Next month, “Adversity is My Angel: The Life and Career of Raúl H. Castro” will be released, and let’s hope students, scholars and the reading public will take time to learn about this humble and inspirational American citizen, now 93 years old.
Castro’s life and career serve as dual role models, not only for Mexican-Americans, but also for all Americans.
Some of his earliest memories were of his mother sending him into the southern Arizona desert to collect cactus fruit to feed the family.
During his childhood, he experienced racial prejudice, demeaning comments, and heard repeatedly that he would spend his life in the copper mines.
In 1926, for example, the fifth-grader walked four miles to and from school. He watched as the Douglas School system’s bus picked up the Anglo children then passed as his classmates waved. Raúl, at age 10, knew that situation was unjust.
Yet in spite of his disadvantaged background, Castro secured an education and embarked on a remarkable career arc; beginning as a teacher, then a lawyer, then Pima County attorney, Superior Court judge of Pima County, governor of Arizona, and American ambassador to El Salvador, Bolivia and Argentina.
Throughout his professional career, Castro continued to experience instances of social and racial discrimination only to turn these unwelcome incidents into new sources of strength.
Raúl Castro was born in Cananea, Sonora, on June 12, 1916, and moved with his family from Mexico to the Arizona side of the border in 1926.
In 1939, through a combination of grueling physical labor and self-denial, he became an American citizen. Castro struggled, too; riding the rails for a year – he described himself as a “hobo” – and earning a living as an undefeated professional boxer.
But education remained a central and unifying theme in his life. He graduated from Arizona State Teachers College in Flagstaff the same year he gained citizenship (1939).
After realizing no local school boards would hire a “Mexican” with a teaching degree, he found work in the U.S. State Department as a Foreign Service clerk at Agua Prieta on the Arizona-Sonora border.
Extremely bright and assertive, Castro pursued an American dream. He was accepted by the University of Arizona College of Law in 1947 and earned his juris doctorate in 2 1/2 years.
Immediately thereafter, he began practicing law in Tucson.
In 1951, Castro became a deputy Pima County attorney, and in 1954 he was elected county attorney and served in that capacity until 1958.
That year, he was elected Pima County Superior Court judge and earned a reputation as a man of keen mind and deep compassion.
He served on the county bench for six years, and his stature grew.
In 1964, President Lyndon Johnson appointed him as U.S. ambassador to El Salvador, where he served until 1968.
LBJ said he needed Castro in Bolivia, so the president transferred him there.
Castro served in Bolivia until 1969, when President Richard Nixon removed him and placed a Republican appointee in that critical ambassadorial slot.
Castro returned to Arizona to practice international law and enter Democratic Party politics.
In 1970, he ran for governor against incumbent Jack Williams and lost by only 7,000 votes. Four years later, Castro won a spirited campaign for governorship against Russell Williams, a relative of the powerful conservative owner of The Arizona Republic, Eugene Pulliam.
Castro thus became Arizona’s first Hispanic governor. In 1977, however, President Jimmy Carter selected him to be ambassador to Argentina, so he resigned the governorship and went to Buenos Aires, where he served until 1980.
Castro returned to Arizona, practiced law for two decades and recently retired to Nogales.
His life and career suggest the adversity in his humble beginnings only hardened his resolve and strengthened his determination.
This naturalized citizen from Mexico, whose life work borders on astounding, should join the pantheon of American role models of the first order.
Beyond that, his story suggests much about the human spirit, the ability to overcome institutional and personal prejudice, and the hopes inherent in the American dream.
Hail to the chief: Raúl H. Castro
Jack L. August Jr., an award-winning author and historian, is executive director of the Barry Goldwater Center for the Southwest and visiting scholar in legal history at Snell & Wilmer LLP. He is a former Fulbright Scholar, research fellow with the National Endowment for the Humanities and a Pulitzer Prize nominee for “Vision in the Desert: Carl Hayden and Hydropolitics in the American Southwest.”
RAÚL CASTRO: A LIFE OF PUBLIC SERVICE
June 12, 1916: Born in Cananea, Sonora, Mexico
1939: Became naturalized American citizen
1939: Received bachelor’s degree in education from Arizona State Teachers College in Flagstaff
1949: Received law degree from University of Arizona
1949-1954: Practiced law in Tucson
1954-1958: Served as Pima County attorney
1959-1964: Judge in the Pima County Superior Court
1964-1968: Ambassador to El Salvador
1969: Ambassador to Bolivia
1974-1976: Governor of Arizona
1977-1980: Ambassador to Argentina
Source: National Governors Association