In His Own Words: The Life And Legacy Of Former Arizona Gov. Raul Castro

By Nadine Arroyo Rodriguez
Published: Friday, April 10, 2015 - 3:02pm
Updated: Friday, April 10, 2015 - 3:31pm
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(Photo courtesy of Arizona Public Media)
Raul H. Castro in 2014.

Former Arizona Gov. Raul H. Castro died April 10, 2015, at the age of 98.

Castro was the oldest living former United States governor and the first and only Mexican-American to serve as governor of Arizona. He was also U.S. Ambassador to El Salvador, Bolivia and Argentina under two presidents.

In 2008, he sat down for an interview.

Raul Hector Castro was born in Cananea, Sonora, Mexico, in 1916 — a town 30 miles south of Douglas. He was part of a large family with many children, the son of a miner and a mid-wife. When he was 10 years old, the family moved to Pirtleville, Ariz., just northeast of Douglas.

The Castro family endured poverty and much discrimination. Education became Castro's focus.

“One day somebody came and says are you Raul Castro, and I said, yes, I am.  We want to offer you a scholarship, football scholarship. I said, well that’s fine, I’m interested," Castro said. "But I have to discuss it with mother before I leave her alone. Discussed it with mother, she said, by all means son, go to it.”

He played football, ran track and became a star boxer on the college team. In 1939, he graduated from Arizona Teacher’s College, now Northern Arizona University.

“I assumed that when I got my degree people would flock to offer me a job and much to my disdain I found out that no one came around and they told me point blank, when I applied, we don’t hire Mexican-American teachers,” said Castro.

He left Arizona. Castro traveled throughout the country hopping freight trains, working in fields and sleeping outdoors. In 1941, he returned. 

“So, I finally came back to Arizona, and, thank God, I was able to get a job in Mexico in the American Consulate with the State Department and part of my job was getting Americans out of jail who got in trouble,” Castro said.

In 1946, Castro moved to Tucson. He convinced a University of Arizona dean to hire him as a Spanish teacher and help him get into law school. He finished law school in three years and opened a private practice.

In the years that followed he married, ran for office for the first time, winning his bid for Pima County Attorney and then became a Pima County Superior Court Judge. Then in 1964, he received a call -- President Lyndon B. Johnson was considering him for U.S. Ambassador to El Salvador. But first Castro had to change his name.

“The dilemma was that he was running for president and he felt that by using the name Raul Castro it would impinge on his voting situation, with Fidel Castro in Cuba it would hurt him," Castro said. "So he wanted to know if I could change my name. I says no way, Jose. I love my name and I’m gonna keep it.”

He was appointed ambassador without having to change his name.

In 1968, Castro left El Salvador and became U.S. Ambassador to Bolivia. But when Richard Nixon became president, Castro left his post and returned to Arizona. Castro ran for governor twice and won in 1974.

Two years into his term, President Jimmy Carter appointed the Arizona governor ambassador to Argentina.  When Carter lost his reelection bid in 1980, Castro returned home.  He spent his retirement talking with students about education and public service.

Arizona historian Jack August helped Raul Castro write his autobiography. August reflected on a story the former ambassador shared. When he was a young boy, Castro attended a community event at a park in Douglas.

“We heard that the governor was gonna be there, and he told me, 'Jack, I didn’t know what a governor was,'" August said. "But, we went there for the hot dogs and then Gov. Hunt, who looked like a big old walrus, 300 pounds in his white suit, gave a talk. He said this is such a great country, even one of those little Mexican kids could become governor if they wanted to. And he pointed right at Raul Castro, and he never forgot it.”

In his autobiography, Raul Castro concludes his book with words of reflection. One passage reads:

“I was never satisfied with the status quo and always wanted to move ahead, to progress to the next level. If that is ‘ambition,’ then it gave me a good life, and I wish it for everyone.”

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