The Latinx community’s destiny has never been more intertwined with the larger destiny of the United States, former U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Julián Castro told a Carolina audience on Sept. 30.
“I’m convinced that the Latinx community can be a tremendous asset for this country going forward,” said Castro, who served in President Barack Obama’s second term. “We’re young, we’re often bilingual, bicultural, spread out in communities throughout this country. We’re hungry, hardworking, striving, entrepreneurial, optimistic. We have values that have made this nation a special place.”
Castro, who was mayor of San Antonio, Texas, before his Cabinet term, gave the keynote address for the 2021 Latinx Heritage Month celebration, presented by the Carolina Latinx Center. Castro spoke about a bright future for the Latinx community, in keeping with the theme for this year’s celebration, “Heels Pa’lante,” which translates to “Heels moving forward.”
“You’re the future and that’s true,” he told the hundreds gathered and masked in the Great Hall of the Frank Porter Graham Student Union. “You’re also the present. In many ways you are who our nation is counting on to make us stronger and more prosperous in the years to come.”
Castro began by acknowledging the difficulties brought by the pandemic: more than 600,000 American deaths, economic recession, rising rents, racial reckoning and threats to our democracy, including the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol and the passing of voter suppression laws in many states.
“The Latinx community has been right in the thick of each of these issues,” Castro said. “Impacted by and impacting all of these … as essential workers, who have woken up in early morning hours to go into the fields and work for 12 or 14 hours to make sure that Americans have food on their tables. As grocery store workers, as meat packing plant workers, food processing workers, as health care workers … as teachers.”
Citing census figures showing the growth of Latinx people as a percentage of the U.S. population, Castro said he was convinced the Latinx community can be “a tremendous asset” to the country going forward.
Castro encouraged Carolina students to honor the past. He told the story of his grandmother, Victoria, who came from Mexico as a young girl to live with relatives in the U.S. because her parents had died. Victoria, who died in 1996, never finished elementary school and worked her whole life as “a maid, a cook and a babysitter,” Castro said. Still, Victoria’s twin grandsons graduated together from Stanford University and Harvard Law School. Castro’s twin, Joaquin, represents Texas in the U.S. House of Representatives.
To meet the challenge he believes is ahead, Castro offered advice, including examples from his own life when he had encountered a challenge. First, be courageous enough to be yourself, he said.
“Be proud of who you are,” he said. “That means including being proud of your heritage, of your language, of your customs, of your family, of everything that makes you who you are. Never give that up. Never compromise with that.”
Also, don’t be afraid to fail. When he first ran for mayor of San Antonio at age 30, he lost in a close runoff to someone who was 70. “It’s true what they say that you do learn more when you lose than when you win,” Castro said. “Losing an election is not like a private loss. Losing an election is like, ah, everybody said they don’t want you.”
But failing forces you to evaluate your motivations for pursuing something, Castro said. “If it’s something that you are passionate about, [if] it means something to you, always find the courage to try again. Don’t write yourself out of opportunities just because you think you might fail. And even if you do, try again. Because chances are that you’ll succeed.”
Estefany Barajas, a second-year student majoring in exercise and sports science, said she found the speech inspiring and was particularly touched by Castro’s acknowledgement of essential workers, including farmworkers.
“My parents are farmworkers, and I also work as a farmworker over the summers,” she said. “I feel like essential workers aren’t seen.” But when Castro listed the many professions who have kept the country going even during the pandemic, “it felt like it was recognizing my ancestors and my parents, so I really appreciated that moment,” she said.