Latinos on the Rise: Rafael Castellanos, Lawyer Taught by Obama Hopes to Open Doors for Others

Meeting the young and handsome attorney Rafael Castellanos, I find myself easily impressed. 

He grew up being bullied because he was one of a handful of Mexicans in his hometown of Winnemucha, Nevada --population 7,000. He escaped for college to Arizona State University, and ended up graduating summa cum laude. He then went on to study Law at the University of Chicago, Illinois as a Cornerstone Scholar. 

During his first few weeks of school, as an incoming minority Law student, he was invited to a special dinner. That night, he would meet one of his professors. A then 38-year-old State Senator named Barack Obama. Obama would oversee two of Castellanos’ classes --Race and the Law and Constitutional Law-- and he modestly and reluctantly admits, he doesn’t like to name drop, but Obama also advised him on his final Immigration Reform writing project.

“When I first met him I thought he was real skinny. He was also friendly, warm, and very direct. That night, ironically, I mentioned to him that maybe I’d run for office some day. He told me I’d better know how to raise a lot of money,” Castellanos says laughing.

Today Castellanos is 38 years old himself, a Democratic Convention Delegate representing San Diego, California, and practices corporate law as a partner with Solomon Minton Cardinal Doyle & Smith LLP. He says that although he doesn’t practice Immigration law, it’s still a passion and interest for him.  His work has him advising entrepreneurs and local and regional companies, in all transactional aspects of their businesses --with an emphasis on commercial real estate.

By any measure, Latino lawyers are atypical: The latest U.S. census figures show that although Latinos account for 16 percent of the U.S. population, only 4 percent are lawyers.

“I don’t really work with many Latinos, because there are fewer numbers of them who own or run companies. In fact there are very few Latino lawyers in the U.S. and even fewer partners. We need more Latinos in the field of law and not just in Immigration but lawyers who practice a variety of different types of law,” Castellanos says.

Doing his part in the community, Castellanos works as the President of the San Diego La Raza Latino/Latina Bar Association and serves on the board and legal council to MANA—a non-profit National Women’s organization with a mission to assist Latinas by providing them with skills, tools, and support.

“The fact is Latino issues affect us all. We need sensitive leadership, leaders who can bridge the gap between everyone in the community,” Castellanos says.

He says professor Obama imbued him with a pragmatic and no-nonsense approach to law. He found the President to be a man who believed in working within the system and following the letter of the law entirely. “As my professor he challenged me on my policy analysis, asking me if I really believed what I was saying, and what was achievable,” Castellanos recalls.

Of immigration reform today, Castellanos says his views aren’t that different from his Law School thesis. 

“The country needs a common sense market-based system that matches the needs of employees with the needs of employers. The country is founded on working your way up. Folks moving up the ladder, and the people coming to this country are coming here to work the first wrung. We as a society benefit from inexpensive labor and instead of disparaging and criminalizing these people we should be rewarding their desire to move into these jobs and eventually to higher level positions in the future,” he says.

Rebekah Sager is a writer and editor for She can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @rebekah_sager.