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Julián Castro Wants To Be The First Latinx President — But Will Relating To Spanish-Speakers Be Enough?

Relatively unknown in a crowded Democratic field, the former Obama Cabinet member has work to do

By José Alonso Muñoz

When Democratic presidential candidate Julián Castro officially announced his bid for the 2020 nomination earlier this year, it felt historic. He held his January 12 address in San Antonio, the city he grew up in and presided over as mayor from 2009 to 2014; there, he spoke about his grandmother, who came to the U.S. from Mexico in the 1920s as a seven-year-old orphan. While most of his speech was delivered in English, Castro specifically announced his intention to run in Spanish, and punctuated the entire address with Selena Quintanilla’s “Baila Esta Cumbia.”

As a Mexican-American who has struggled to balance the feeling of needing to assimilate with holding a sense of pride for my heritage, it was especially meaningful for me to see a presidential hopeful who has an accent in his name. For most of my young life, I would drop the accent and tilde in my name to seem less different from my mostly white peers. I’ve slowly come closer to accepting and acknowledging that part of me, but representation from a presidential candidate whose campaign logo prominently displays the accent in his own name only helps.

I surely won’t be the only person to connect with Castro in such a way; for many Latinx people, seeing an American politician — much less one who is running for president — who looks like them, pronounces their name like them, and speaks Spanish like them can still feel like a rarity, though overall, the number of Latinx people running for and being elected into office is finally trending upwards. According to the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials Educational Fund, the 2018 midterm elections saw 42 of Latinx politicians elected to the Senate and House of Representatives, which is the highest number ever.

No one demographic is a monolith, but it seems we hear about the elusive Latinx voters — a voting group that can shift toward either party — during every election cycle. While 69 percent of Latinx voters voted for Democrats in the 2018 midterm elections, the share of Latinx voters who align with Democrats over Republicans has declined in recent years, according to a 2018 Pew Hispanic Poll. According to the same report, the Latinx voting bloc was more split than others in the 2018 midterms as 90 percent of Black voters and 77 percent of Asian voters voted for Democrats.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Latinx people make up 18 percent of the U.S. population, and Latinx voters are one of the most quickly expanding voting blocs. They're also getting younger: U.S.-born Latinx people account for the largest growth in the overall Latinx electorate, with an estimated 3 million turning 18 between the 2016 and 2018 elections. And, like Castro, over 36 million people in the U.S. identify as Mexican-American. Nationally, Mexican-Americans make up 58 percent of that eligible voting Latinx population.

If elected, Castro would be not only the first Mexican-American, but also the first Latino to serve as U.S. president. It would be unprecedented. He wouldn't be alone in the attempt, however; while no Latinx people have ever secured a major party's nomination, Republican Senators Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz both unsuccessfully ran for their party's nomination in 2016, and former New Mexico governor Bill Richardson lobbied for the Democratic nomination in 2008. The Hill also notes that other Latinx politicians may enter the race.

Although Castro’s name came up as a potential running mate for Hillary Clinton in 2016, he has less experience nationally than candidates like U.S. Senators Elizabeth Warren and Kamala Harris. In 2001, he was elected to San Antonio’s City Council; the then-26-year-old became the youngest council member in the city’s history. He followed this up with an unsuccessful bid for mayor of San Antonio in 2005. He ultimately opened his own law firm before running for mayor again in 2009, where he went on to serve three terms. And while Castro served in President Obama’s cabinet as Secretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, he—unlike his twin brother Joaquin—has never served in an elected political office higher than city mayor. Castro’s experience won’t make him a standout, nor will his name recognition in a large field of other nominees — especially considering a recent CNN poll found that 49 percent of its respondents had never heard of Castro, compared to 46 percent for former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz, 36 percent for Harris, and 23 percent for Warren.

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Julián Castro announces his run for presidency in San Antonio, Texas

Although Castro is a second-generation U.S. citizen, as a Mexican-American from a border state, he has the potential to be seen as a leader on immigration — a topic that figures to make a considerable impact during the 2020 election. He seems to have already taken notice of this, telling MSNBC, “I represent the antidote to Donald Trump.”

President Donald Trump began his 2016 presidential campaign by attacking Mexican immigrants in a racist tirade, labeling them rapists and criminals. In his ensuing presidency, Trump has only continued to scapegoat immigrants, and his prejudice has led to the longest government shutdown in U.S. history, a fiasco stemming from his demands for money to fund a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border. Castro’s identity as a Mexican-American politician is likely to connect specifically with Mexican-American voters at a time when there is heightened discussion of immigration enforcement.

But while Castro opposes Trump’s plan for a border wall and supports a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, he lands more moderately on the growing call to abolish U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE), telling Bustle, “we need to change the culture of ICE.” This is at a time when politicians like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, are actively calling to “abolish ICE.” New York state Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, another presidential candidate, has also said that “we should get rid of ICE,” an agency which she went on to call a “deportation force.”

It’s not hard to see how Castro’s more moderate call for a “culture change” leaves potential for the status quo to prevail. According to Pew Research Center, 55 percent of Latinx people, regardless of immigration status, “say they worry ‘a lot’ or ‘some’ that they, a family member or a close friend could be deported, up from 47 percent who said the same in 2017.” Castro’s relatively moderate solution may not ease those concerns, and will be put to the test during the looming Democratic debates. According to a Latino Decisions survey of Latinx voters in 70 battleground congressional districts, when asked what they considered the most important issues facing your community for politicians to address, immigration reform ranked right behind the desire for an improved economy and income inequality.

That same poll also revealed Latinx voters’ significant concerns about education, another platform Castro hopes to stand out on. During his announcement speech in San Antonio, he shared his hope to make universal pre-K a reality, which would mimic a program he successfully championed during his tenure as mayor of San Antonio. In that same speech, he vowed to make “the first two years of college, a certification program, or an apprenticeship, accessible and affordable.” This idea, similar to his call to “change the culture of ICE,” leans more moderate in comparison to more progressive ideas, like Bernie Sanders’ push for tuition-free college at all public colleges and universities.

Since his announcement, Castro has leaned in to his relatability to Latinx voters. He told CNN’s Van Jones his running for president has “special meaning for the Latino community.” In that same interview when asked how he’d be “Trump’s nightmare” Castro went on to say, “I’m gonna win Florida, I’m gonna win Texas, and I’m gonna win Arizona.” Castro seems to be making reference to these states as Latinx voters make up 20 percent, 30 percent, and 23 percent of eligible voters respectively. However, according to CNN exit polling, in 2016 Hillary Clinton won 62 percent of the Latinx vote in Florida, 61 percent of the Latinx vote in Texas, and 61 percent of the Latinx vote in Arizona, although Donald Trump won the overall vote in each of these states by 4 percent, 2 percent, and 9 percent, respectively.

And identity politics aren’t fertile ground for Castro alone: In a diverse field of Democratic presidential candidates, candidates are likely to engage the constituents who feel they are seeing reflections of themselves. But Castro seems to land squarely in the middle on key issues like education and immigration; of late, Democrats who have stood loud and outspoken in their policy beliefs and vocal opposition to Trump, like Maxine Waters, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and Beto O'Rourke, have found success exciting the Democratic base. Given that ideological pressure coming from some other mainstream politicians, it’ll be important for Castro to be more unequivocal in providing a staunch rebuttal of Trump and his ideologies.

Over the course of the next few months, Castro will likely have to expand and evolve on some of his ideals to in order to build and maintain his audience. The question remains: Will Castro — and his stories of his grandmother, Selena rally playlists, accent in his name and all — be able to use that heritage to secure the Democratic nomination for president?