One of Those Little Barefooted Mexican Kids

An excerpt from 'State Out of the Union: Arizona and the Final Showdown Over the American Dream'

Raúl Castro clutched at the railing on his back porch and stared across the valley to Mexico. His balcony looked down the final 70-yard stretch on the American gridiron of Nogales, Ariz. Once ambos, or conjoined—now divided by rusted iron bars.

"They just don't understand the border or our history," Castro said. At the age of 95, Castro had experienced nearly a century of his state's history. After he retired from his legal practice in Phoenix, Castro and his wife left affluent Paradise Valley and purchased a historic home on Nogales' hillside border neighborhood. "I've lived along this border all of my life. I even spent time in San Diego and Tijuana. I worked in Mexico in Agua Prieta. I used to walk across the border. I'd go to Juarez, El Paso."

The son of a pearl diver from Baja California, Mexico, Castro was born in the historic mining camp of Cananea, Sonora, in 1916, when his father crossed the Sea of Cortez and found work in Col. William Greene's copper mine. A onetime business partner with newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst, Greene had built a ranching and mining empire in Sonora and Chihuahua that underscored the vast American corporate interests in Mexico's economy during the 30-year dictatorship of Porfirio Díaz. Many historians consider the brutal crackdown on a strike at Greene's mine in 1906, which resulted in the "massacre" of 23 miners, as the opening salvo in the Mexican Revolution. A huge posse of mercenaries, led by the government-funded Arizona Rangers, crossed the border on Greene's orders to suppress the strike.

For Arizona mining barons like Greene, whose Cananea Consolidated Copper Co. headquarters was based in Nogales, the concept of "national interests" and "protecting border security" applied only to the northern route. Americans had a right to plunder Mexico. In his study Southern Arizona and the Mexican Revolution, historian Paul Schlegel showed how the low taxes and concessions granted by the Porfiriato dictatorship to mostly American companies led to the "push-pull" relationship that characterized labor conditions along the border and in Arizona. "Peasants lost their land and were forced to seek employment with foreign firms," which eventually led to large-scale migration to the United States or to urban centers.

Castro's family fell victim to the new rapacious mine operations. As a union leader, his father was targeted by owners as a rabble-rouser and thrown in prison for leading a wildcat strike in Cananea in 1918. Six months later, he was released as part of a special asylum deal that sent Castro and his family across the border to a small community near Douglas, Ariz. In effect, perhaps as a precursor to Greene's misfortune during the Mexican Revolution, the copper baron's repression of miners inadvertently gifted Arizona with one of Mexico's best and brightest native sons.

Castro grew up in Douglas, where a smelter treated the ore from Bisbee's copper mines. His father ensured Castro's international and border-crossing upbringing; he would read aloud from Spanish-language newspapers from Mexico and Texas in the parlor room. He died, though, when Castro was 10, leaving behind his wife and 10 children in the hardscrabble mining region. Castro's mother became a partera, or midwife. His brothers found work in the mines or smelter. Notably studious, Castro was the first child in the family to finish high school, and he earned a football scholarship to the Arizona State Teachers College in Flagstaff.

This was no free ride. Over the next decade, Castro went through a series of achievements and setbacks from racial discrimination that would have derailed most people. As a child, he had walked four miles to school while Anglo children in the same area were picked up by a school bus. During his school breaks, Castro earned half the salary of his Anglo counterparts at the smelter.

Despite a number of honors, Castro couldn't find a teaching job after he graduated from the college in the 1930s. Not that his problem was a secret: "The community would never hire a Mexican American," he told me in his Nogales living room. Forced to hit the road as a migrant worker and bantamweight boxer, Castro roved across the country at the height of the Great Depression.

If anything, he learned that Mexican Americans were not unique in ethnic discrimination. In the ring in Pennsylvania, catcalls to kill his "dago" and "bohunk" rivals stunned the Arizona boxer.

When his younger brother turned down a chance to attend college, citing the futility of the job market, Castro returned home and found a job across the border at the U.S. consulate in Agua Prieta. With impeccable bilingual skills, Castro was hired to handle the protective services for Americans in Mexico. He spent the next five years carving out an impressive niche in borderland diplomacy. His work didn't go unnoticed. His main supervisor praised Castro's level of diplomatic skills and then suggested he look elsewhere for work: No Mexican-born alien would ever have a future in the American Foreign Service.

The experience both devastated and challenged Castro; he headed to Tucson to pursue a law degree at the University of Arizona, only managing to enter the program by talking his way into a job as a Spanish teacher. Unable to read in English, Castro's mother failed to open the letter containing his successful results on the Arizona bar exam, fearing it might be a brush with the law, until he arrived home. Within months, Castro opened his attorney's office in downtown Tucson.

In the 1950s, sitting in a barbershop in the Tucson barrio, Castro overheard customers complaining about racism and discrimination. "What are you going to do about it?" he asked. He criticized their retreat into Mexican-American and immigrant enclaves, and the fear or timidity that prevented them from confronting Anglos in their political games. "I'm going to run for county attorney," he announced, if only to prove that Mexican Americans should be part of the law enforcement field, not its victims. People thought he was nuts. Active in the Red Cross, the YMCA and other civic groups—"I joined everything I could join, including the Tuberculosis Association"—Castro was the first Mexican-American in Arizona to be elected county attorney. Within a few years, he ran and won another historic election as a Superior Court judge.

Hailed by the Latin American press as the "Yanqui" Castro, not to be confused with Fidel's younger brother, he was appointed ambassador to El Salvador and then Bolivia by President Lyndon Johnson. (At one point, incredible as it may seem, the Texan had asked Castro to consider changing his surname. He didn't.)

The most trying episode (as an ambassador) occurred in 1969, when New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller and his wife wired to announce their impending arrival in Bolivia as part of a special 20-country fact-finding mission on Latin American affairs for the Nixon White House. At first, Castro turned them down. Rockefeller's Standard Oil family legacy in Bolivia was nothing less than a match in search of petrol; Castro imagined such a visit would set off violent protests. When Rockefeller insisted on landing, Castro finally relented, setting up a brief press conference at the airport. Within an hour, Rockefeller was gone, but the political clash had long-term repercussions for Castro. He soon received a cable from Nixon "accepting" a resignation he had never tendered. The IRS began an investigation of his tax filings.

For most diplomats, this would have been the end of the road. For Castro, who had overcome unthinkable odds to become an ambassador and an elected official in Arizona, this was simply one more hurdle in his extraordinary mission to prove that Mexican Americans belonged in leadership positions. The dismissal sent him back to Tucson. When Castro stepped off the plane, an arrival party of Democrats had plans for his future.

His international stature placed him in the forefront of other Democratic candidates for governor in 1970. Agreeing to challenge Jack Williams, the conservative radio announcer and longtime Phoenix politician, Castro ran a campaign on a shoestring budget that stressed his law-and-order background and placed an emphasis on environmental and criminal-justice issues. He rejected any doubts that a Mexican immigrant could become governor of Arizona.

"I've been lots of places for a guy who didn't have a chance," he declared. In a speech in Yuma, he referred to his naturalized status as an "asset" for a governor in the borderlands.

The Arizona Republic had other thoughts. The Phoenix newspaper endorsed Williams, and even printed a photo of Cuban leader Fidel Castro with the headline: "Running for Governor of Arizona."

Castro lost the race to Williams by a hair—less than 1 percent, or 7,400 votes.

Thanks to the field work of Cesar Chavez and a failed recall campaign against Williams by the United Farm Workers in 1972, which added more than 150,000 new voters to the state ranks, Castro had the infrastructure to launch a statewide campaign in 1974 against Goldwater-backed businessman Russ Williams (no relation to Jack Williams). Emphasizing his law-enforcement background, Castro did not embrace the Chicano movement but ran as a conservative Democrat in an admittedly conservative state.

With one of the highest turnout rates in the state's history, Castro was elected the first and so far only Mexican-American governor in Arizona on Nov. 5, 1974, once again by a hair. The late-night results from the Navajo Nation pushed Castro over the victory hump by a little more than 4,000 votes.

Such a legacy was foretold, perhaps, by Arizona's first state governor, the progressive Democrat George W.P. Hunt, in the 1920s. For, in 2002, Castro returned to his hometown of Douglas for the renaming of a park in Castro's honor. On the same bandstand platform, Hunt had made an incredibly prescient speech that had always remained in Castro's memory. The rotund and bald politician, dressed impeccably in his white linen suit, pointed to the crowd and announced: "In this great state of ours, anyone can be governor. Why, even one of those little barefooted Mexican kids sitting over there could one day be governor."

The Wall To Nowhere

Nearly a decade later, with the Tea Party in control of his state, Castro took to his back veranda to contemplate his state's regression in view of the border wall. In 2011, as the state's failing schools languished at the bottom of national rankings for funding (rivaling Mississippi for last place) and the Legislature cut an estimated $450 million from the education budget, Arizona's Tea Party-led politicos launched a $50 million online fundraising campaign to build an additional border wall. The price tag seemed a bit low—the George W. Bush and Obama administrations had already invested $1.1 billion on the scrapped high-tech "virtual border fence," and most estimates (including from the nonpartisan Government Accountability Office) typically price a mile of border fence at between $3 million and $6 million. Borrowing a page from 19th-century convict-leasing policies, the state's new border law required state prisoners to build this illusory border wall. Supporters hoped that suppliers from the war in Iraq would chip in surplus materials for free.

To kick off the campaign, Arizona's extremist legislators threw a party with then-state Senate President Russell Pearce as its headline speaker.

"What a media stunt," Castro muttered. For Castro, it should not be a crime to cross the border for vacant jobs. "If people are willing to do jobs Americans won't do, we should come up with some sort of temporary labor permit."

For the state's most-experienced diplomat, the border "problem" was a diplomacy problem. "We have abandoned Latin America," he told one newspaper after the signing of SB 1070. "We spend all our time in the Middle East. We need more diplomacy."

More than four decades ago, Castro had invoked his diplomatic experience and made the same charges against Republican Gov. Jack Williams in their gubernatorial race. "Thirty years ago," Castro told reporters at a news conference in Yuma in the summer of 1970, "I was holding conferences with Mexico on drug control. So the problem is not new to me. Has the governor of Arizona been invited to Mexico for anything?"

Unlike former Arizona governor and current Department of Homeland Security chief Janet Napolitano—and every other governor in the past half-century, for that matter—Gov. Jan Brewer never consulted with Castro. Then again, Brewer's staff didn't even bother to inform her about one of Napolitano's much-publicized visits and policy updates on the Arizona border during the summer of 2011.

In fact, flanked by a detachment of border and immigration commissioners in Brewer's absence, Napolitano issued an update in Nogales, Ariz., on July 7, 2011, on the Obama administration's border-security policy, which included a record number of deportations and the deployment of 21,000 Border Patrol agents and unmanned aerial drones along the U.S.-Mexico border.

Not that Brewer and Castro had failed to meet. A week before Brewer signed SB 1070, she appeared for a photo-op at a Hispanic chamber of commerce awards banquet in Phoenix, where Castro was being honored.

"Some woman approached, put her arms around me, asked for a photo and then introduced herself," Castro recalled. "She signed the bill a week later." Castro told Brewer he considered the new law unjust and wrong. "Immigration is a national problem," he continued. "A federal problem. Can you imagine every state in the union having its own immigration policy?"

In an extensive review of crime data from 1,600 local and federal law-enforcement agencies along the border by a team of USA Today reporters, law-enforcement experts echoed Castro's sentiments. Tucson Police Chief Roberto Villaseñor told the reporters: "Everything looks really good, which is why it's so distressing and frustrating to read about these reports about crime going up everywhere along the border, when I know for a fact that the numbers don't support those allegations." According to a USA Today analysis that week, "rates of violent crime along the U.S.-Mexico border have been falling for years—even before the U.S. security buildup that has included thousands of law-enforcement officers and expansion of a massive fence along the border." The newspaper report concluded:

The murder rate for cities within 50 miles of the border was lower in nearly every year from 1998 to 2009, compared with the respective state average. For example, California had its lowest murder rate during that time period in 2009, when 5.3 people were murdered per 100,000 residents. In cities within 50 miles of the border, the highest murder rate over that time period occurred in 2003, when 4.6 people were murdered per 100,000 residents.

The robbery rate for cities within 50 miles of the border was lower each year compared with the state average. In Texas over that time span, the robbery rate ranged from 145 to 173 per 100,000 people in the state, while the robbery rate throughout Texas' border region never rose above 100 per 100,000.

Kidnapping cases investigated by the FBI along the border are on the decline. The bureau's Southwestern offices identified 62 cartel-related kidnapping cases on U.S. soil that involved cartels or illegal immigrants in 2009. That fell to 25 in 2010 and 10 so far in 2011.

In the spring of 2012, the nonpartisan Pew Hispanic Center released a new report stating that undocumented entries by Mexican immigrants had plunged in the past year. "The historic wave" of Mexican migration, according to center director Paul Taylor, "seemed to have come to a standstill."

"This is the difficulty with Arizona," Castro explained, describing the issues surrounding SB 1070 as cyclical. "When times are good, the economy is good and sound, you won't find a single person who wants to work in the cotton fields or pick fruit. Then the immigrants, even illegals, are welcome. No one squawks. When times are bad, and the economy is in the condition it is today, people don't want them around. They're criminals. I've been through three recessions. I know."

Declaring that SB 1070 was a step backward—"at least 40 years, maybe 70, 80 years"—Castro reminded every reporter that racial profiling by immigration authorities was not a new issue.

"I once had a home in San Diego. One day, my daughter and I returned and were stopped by Border Patrol. 'Hey, where were you born, donde nacío?' I wasn't about to lie. I was born in Mexico, I said. The guard starts questioning me. 'What about that young lady?' She was born in Japan, I said, during the Korean War. He thought we were being smart. In the meantime, someone came by and recognized me. 'Governor, how are you?'"

A similar incident had occurred in Tucson at his horse farm in the 1960s. Working on the front fence in his farm clothes, Castro was stopped by a passing Border Patrol car. The agents asked if he had his work card. Castro said no. When they asked whom he worked for, Castro referred to "the señorita inside." The agents nearly arrested Castro until he showed them the sign by his farm entrance: "Judge Castro."

Such stories would be meaningless to state Sen. Steve Smith, who introduced the bill to build a new wall to keep out undocumented immigrants.

A first-term senator, Smith represented the suburban sprawl zone of Maricopa, where Sarah Palin's daughter, Bristol, had purchased a home. A Midwestern transplant and the director of a talent agency, he had lived in Maricopa for less than 10 years. During the month of the signing of SB 1070, his town had one of the highest foreclosure rates in the country.

Unfair as it may seem, comparing Smith to Castro underscores a demographic shift in Arizona's politics.

"I just loved coming out here because—well, first, it was new," he gushed to a public radio reporter at the kickoff event for the new border wall. "And my wife likes new. I mean, new buildings and new restaurants. I mean, nothing was 60 years old. It was all built in the last seven to eight years. Yet much like Maricopa itself, underneath the newness is a deep affinity for the traditional."

He told the reporter he was "horrified by the phenomenon he refers to as 'Press Two for Spanish.' Don't make me change my country for where you come from. If you don't like this country with you, you wanna bring your language with you, your gang fare with you, stay where you were! Or face the consequences. But don't make me change because you don't want to."

Smith singled out Pearce as his inspiration for entering politics. "When I had this idea of running," he said, "I looked through the whole Legislature and I said, 'Well, who do I identify with? Who do I want to talk to; who do I want advice from?' I asked one person. I asked Russell Pearce."

Looking across the valley into his native Mexico, Castro was speechless, shaking his head at Smith's inane media circus and his new law, which failed to take into account the exorbitant costs or the fact that much of the unfenced border areas crossed federal and private lands.

Within six months, despite a full-press publicity effort by numerous Fox News TV reports, Smith had raised less than $300,000—not quite enough money to build and maintain a fence the size of a few football fields, according to GAO estimates. Smith was undaunted.

"I call this Extreme Home Makeover: Border Edition," he told the Fox Business show Follow the Money. With inmate labor to dig the ditches and trenches, since "we are paying for them anyways," Smith still held out hope of getting the job done.

Excerpted with permission from State Out of the Union: Arizona and the Final Showdown Over the American Dream, by Jeff Biggers. Available from Nation Books, a member of the Perseus Books Group. Copyright 2012.