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Remembering Raul Castro, Arizona’s first and only Hispanic governor

To Alfredo Gutierrez, former majority and minority leader of the Arizona State Senate, Gov. Raul H. Castro wasn’t the warmest person to deal with.

In his less than two years in office during the 1970s, Gutierrez said that Castro was very formal in his relationships and had to learn how to deal the Legislature.

But Gutierrez said there’s no denying Castro’s influence, which transcended being Arizona’s first and only Hispanic governor.

“You can’t point to a legislative accomplishment. You can’t point to a major action as his legacy,” Gutierrez said. “It’s the mere fact that he overcame all of the barriers to become the governor of the state of Arizona.”

Castro, who died Friday at age 98, had a rough childhood in the border community of Douglas that included walking miles to school while white kids took the bus and wondering where his next meal would come from. He wandered as a hobo for a time and boxed on the side to make ends meet.

He eventually became a private attorney and prosecutor before winning election as Pima County attorney, beginning a political career that also included stints as U.S. ambassador to El Salvador, Bolivia and Argentina.

Ed Pastor, who recently retired after more than 20 years in Congress and served as an assist to the governor in 1976, said he enjoyed working for Castro.

“He was transparent and he didn’t sugarcoat a lot of his messages,” he said.

James Garcia, a family spokesman who wrote and portrayed Castro in a play about his life, said Castro was denied multiple opportunities because of his race yet became a successful politician.

“I think his true legacy is that he kind of speaks to an old-fashioned idea, which is no matter what gets in your way, you find some way to persevere,” Garcia said.

Born on June 12, 1916, in Cananea, Mexico, Castro was the second-youngest of 12 children. After crossing the border when he was 10, Castro’s family settled in Douglas, where he lived until he attended the Arizona State Teachers College in Flagstaff in 1935. Besides being an excellent student, Castro was the starting quarterback for Douglas High School and a boxer.

At college, Castro was too small to play quarterback, so he quit football and focused on boxing, compiling an undefeated record.

In 1949, Castro opened a law practice in Tucson and remained there until he was hired as a deputy prosecutor for the Pima County Attorney’s Office. He served as county attorney from 1954 to 1958 and then was a Superior Court judge until 1964, when President Lyndon B. Johnson appointed him U.S. ambassador to El Salvador.

Castro was ambassador to Bolivia from 1968 to 1969 and then lost the 1970 governor’s race to Jack Williams.

Four years later, Castro defeated Russ Williams to become Arizona’s 14th governor. He left office in 1977 when President Jimmy Carter appointed him U.S. ambassador to Argentina.

Castro practiced law in Nogales until age 90, Garcia said.

In announcing Castro’s death, Gov. Doug Ducey said in a statement that Arizonans will never forget him.

“He was an honorable public servant, a history-maker, a beloved family man and a strong friend and fighter for Arizona,” Ducey said. “Whether as a county attorney, a Superior Court judge, a United States ambassador or – as we will best remember him – our 14th governor, his life and legacy of service is forever ingrained in our history.”

U.S. Rep. Raul M. Grijalva, D-Tucson, said in a statement that he wants to use Castro’s legacy as motivation to pass immigration reform.

“Castro’s immigrant story is one of the most powerful examples of the American Dream and that the time and effort of dedicated people will bring us ever closer to equality and justice.”

Alfredo Gutierrez said that despite everything facing him, Castro beat the odds.

“It’s unthinkable that someone like him could become governor,” he said.