Opinion: Democrats Make Room for Castro, Will They Make Room for Us?

How could those of us watching last night's historic Democratic Convention speech by Julian Castro, the first DNC keynote by a Latino, not be moved? As many of us watched San Antonio Mayor Castro talk about his grandmother, who taught herself to read and write while raising a family as a live-in cook and babysitter, and his mother, Rosie Castro, who many us know as a longtime Latina activist, we related to the Castros' story.  Indeed, when Mayor Castro said “my mother fought hard for civil rights so that instead of a mop, I could hold this microphone,” we saw ourselves. We heard our stories as never before at a Democratic Convention.

That the Democrats look and sound like the increasingly Latino country we've become is not an issue for them as it is for the overwhelmingly white and mostly anti- immigrant Republican Party. Making room for Castro and his message on stage at the convention is a strong step forward. Yet, the proof is in the pudding – will the Democrats also make room for us, on the policy stage?

The meteoric ascent of Castro, the “rising star” of the Democratic party, raises the question of whether he, Obama and the Democrats will heed to Latino demands for more than just immigration, economic and education policies or will they become a party that looks like us in ethno-racial terms, but continues to ignore our pleas for justice? Thirty-seven year-old Julian Castro's appearance on the Convention stage is nothing less than a test of whether Democrats will change course and move toward a policy program that prioritizes and responds to Latino demands. Failure to do so will result in the loss an historic opportunity and in an accelerated erosion of the Latino base indicated by several polls that say Latinos will largely vote Democrat this election year, but not with the same enthusiasm that we saw in 2008.

Latinos have already traversed the historic line that took us from the days when politicians could simply wear Mariachi hats and yell 'Viva!' to get our vote to the more recent “Si se puede” epoch. In 2012 and beyond, Latinos demand substance over style and ethno-racial solidarity. For a number of reasons, Castro and the Democrats must understand that Latinos are not going to simply respond to the politics of racial symbolism as we did back in previous eras.

Primary among these reasons is that Castro, Obama and the Democrats can no longer count on the Latino vote as the automatic vote  like they counted previously. As indicated by a USA Today/Gallup poll taken just a few months ago, an unprecedented 51% of Latinos identify themselves as independents, compared to 32% who called themselves Democrats and the 11% who identified themselves as Republicans. Such a fluid and dynamic vote means that the future of the Latino vote –and, increasingly, the political future of the country – will require rapid and concrete steps by the Democrats and the Republicans to show real results on issues like jobs, education and, of course, immigration, which still looms very large in the emotional and symbolic realms of Latino politics.

Everyone, even Republicans at the GOP convention, touted their immigrant pride. Yet not until President Obama's eleventh hour-announcement of the Deferred Action program for DREAM Act students, has any of these romantic speeches translated into concrete policies that could bring relief to undocumented immigrants. Many of us hope that Julian Castro's rise reflects an awareness of the need to marry symbols with actions.

Castro and the Democrats' talk of his story as an “American dream story” must avoid the pitfalls of symbolism in the service of bad policy that GOP Senator Marco Rubio fell into, if they are to avoid the same political fate as the telegenic Rubio, who was exposed by what my organization, Presente.org, called a “Teapartino” (i.e. Tea party activist with a Latino face).

Thanks, in no small part, to his mother, Rosie, Castro who comes from a traditional activist background in the Latino community, Julian Castro knows what it means to come from a working-class background and have the cards stacked against you. They know what it means to build political power by working side by side those most impacted by poverty and exclusion.

It is families’ like the Castros that the Democrats need to take leadership from if they are to overcome the 1 million deportations and an unprecedented economic recession that hit Latinos unlike any other community. We hope that Castro's rise, along with Obama's recent moves on Deferred Action, reflect a new Democratic day and a return of the traditions that will bring about real change and lasting solidarity.