San Antonio's Rosy Promoter

San Antonio's Rosy Promoter

By Ruben Navarrette - September 8, 2010

SAN ANTONIO -- Julian Castro has a good story to tell. And I'm anxious to listen -- even if it isn't the one I came to hear.

I wanted to ask the mayor of San Antonio about the challenges of being one of the country's most prominent local Latino officials at a time when the immigration debate is flaring and many Americans can't decide whether having as many as 60 million Latinos in the United States is something to be celebrated or feared.

Castro has to put up with hate mail from complete strangers who feel threatened by the browning of America, annoying questions from both supporters and detractors about why his Spanish isn't better, and the Obama-like paradox of being alternately criticized for being too ethnic and not ethnic enough.

There are also high expectations. Castro, 35, has "a very good chance of becoming the first Hispanic president of the United States," Texas-based Republican strategist Mark McKinnon recently told The New York Times Magazine.

For a Latino columnist, any of this would already be -- as they say in the Lone Star State -- enough to say grace over. But, during an interview in his office, Castro had other things on his mind. He wanted to talk about "the story of the city" where he and his twin brother, Joaquin, a state legislator also on his way up, were born and raised.

For those who look at the Castro boys and see a pair of national leaders in the making, something as simple as a birth date can cause a buzz. Yankee Doodle Dandy was born on the Fourth of July. But, right out of central casting, the Castro twins were born on Sept. 16, or Mexican Independence Day.

It's enough to give panic attacks to those nativists who fret that Mexican-Americans are Mexican first, and that their loyalties point south.

The elected official who has been dubbed "the Post-Hispanic Hispanic Politician" doesn't feel as if he has to choose and insists that he is Mexican (BEG ITAL)and(END ITAL) American.

"The agenda of Hispanics is the agenda of America," he told me, "and that of all immigrants -- to work hard, to provide opportunities for their children, and to have a brighter future."

San Antonio's future looks bright. Along with Houston and Dallas, economists consider the city almost recession-proof.

"There's an optimism here that surpasses what you see in most communities," Castro said. "We've had years of leadership that tried to mend fences and calm tempers, and that has made the political dynamic much better. It's not like in some of the Rust Belt cities where there is unease and worry."

Currently the nation's seventh largest city, San Antonio could soon supplant Philadelphia and claim the No. 6 slot.

No. 5 is Phoenix. It also has a story to tell, one more rooted in fear than optimism. So much of what fuels the immigration wars -- in Arizona and elsewhere -- isn't a concern for law and order but a fear by the powers-that-be that Hispanics are taking over and will eventually take control.

Just like in San Antonio. This is, as Castro notes, the largest U.S. city (at about 1.4 million) that is also majority-Hispanic (61 percent). And, according to him, the bulk of those Hispanics -- more than 90 percent -- are U.S.-born.

The fact that the vast majority of Hispanics who live in San Antonio are U.S. citizens means these people aren't just residents but potential voters. It helps explain why the city has such a long tradition of electing Latino leaders -- one that includes sending Henry B. Gonzales to Congress in 1961 and then re-electing him 17 times. Or why Hispanics hold a majority of the seats on the City Council.

But every coin has two sides. Hispanics outnumber whites in San Antonio by a margin of 2-to-1. But the white minority can still raise a ruckus when it thinks the Latino majority is throwing its weight around and focusing too much on ethnic differences. So Castro and other Latino leaders admit they have to walk a fine line. There's always a concern that they are not representing everybody, and only looking out for Hispanics.

As for focusing on ethnic differences, whites in Texas did that for generations with poll taxes, signs in restaurants that read "no dogs or Mexicans allowed," separate schools and segregated movie theaters.

This ugly history isn't worth repeating. But, if you don't want to miss the irony, it's worth remembering.

Copyright 2010, Washington Post Writers Group

Ruben Navarrette

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