January 17, 2014

AMERICA'S SPEAKER:

Mr. Castro Goes to Washington : A BEHIND-THE-SCENES ACCOUNT OF THE BIG VOTES, DASHED HOPES, TOUGH CHOICES, AND REAL ACCOMPLISHMENTS OF A FRESHMAN LAWMAKER'S FIRST YEAR IN CONGRESS. (JOAQUIN CASTRO,  JANUARY 17, 2014, Texas Monthly)

Throughout the year a popular explanation for Republicans' unwillingness to move on immigration was the lack of diversity in their gerrymandered congressional districts. Simply put, most don't have enough Hispanics for the issue to really matter to their reelections. A few of the less tactful Republicans seemed to even go out of their way to express disdain for immigrants. In July Steve King, a tea party Republican from Iowa, compared DREAMers to drug mules with "calves the size of cantaloupes." King's comments sparked blowback, prompting Speaker Boehner to address the issue at a press conference. The speaker deemed King's comments "deeply offensive and wrong" and reassured the public that the comments did not "reflect the values of the American people, or the Republican Party."

The Democratic caricature of the speaker is that he's an overly tan, overly emotional cat-herder who has lost control of his flock, but in person, he comes across as approachable and down-to-earth, and you can see how he earned the trust of his colleagues and became their leader. On a day not too long after Boehner's political body check of Steve King for his immigration comments, the speaker was milling around the aisle walkway in the middle section of the House floor where the Democratic and Republican territories meet. Another Texas Democrat and I were standing a few feet away, and as the speaker passed us we thanked him for denouncing King's offensive comments. He slowed his stride and then paused to turn toward us. "What an [*******]," he said. My thoughts exactly, Mr. Speaker. 

King himself does not represent many Hispanics; his district is nearly 96 percent white. I know that there are many places in America like that, places where the number of people with brown skin makes them easy to miss, where the gardeners disappear between rush hours to the "bad" part of town and the construction workers toil invisibly in the burning sun, hoping the boss will actually pay what he said he would. There are places like that. But there aren't many in Texas. In Texas the faces of immigration are inescapable. 

During the second week of the government shutdown, I went to get a haircut. I was back home for 36 hours, so I drove out on Huebner Road to Rios Golden Cut, a family-owned chain of barbershops I'd been going to since I was a kid (a couple of years ago, the price for a basic cut finally went up from the $4.95 I'd paid for years to $10.95). But it was Sunday, and Rios was closed. So I drove a few blocks toward a strip mall looking for some other place that was open. Set between a Dollar Tree and an alteration shop was a storefront with a plastic sign that read "J Cuts" in black letters. The sign was the kind you might put up for a grand opening or to advertise a limited-time offer--something temporary. But it had clearly been up for a while. The scrawny drawstrings that tethered it to the building were sagged and uneven, giving it a crooked, unprofessional appearance.

The proprietor of the place was Elisabeth Gonzales, originally from Honduras. As she cut my hair, she told me how she'd come to the United States as a 19-year-old almost 25 years ago, crossing the Rio Grande on a raft of inner tubes. She cleaned houses and businesses when she first arrived. Broken promises by employers racked up; one job that promised $100 per week turned into $100 per month. She learned to speak English while training to cut hair and worked for 11 years at Supercuts before taking the leap to open her own salon. I imagined her perfecting the language by struggling to understand the requests from West Side teenagers for fade haircuts with a zero or one clip or from the girls who would come in for perms the Friday before a Saturday quinceaƱera.

As it turned out, that plastic sign was not supposed to be there anymore. Ms. Gonzales had paid a vendor $2,000 for a company sign. He took the money and never put up the sign. Shortly after that a woman selling advertising presented her with a contract for two months of free advertising that eventually led to collection calls and bills totaling $779 per month.

I wondered how she kept the faith, whether those low moments ever led her to question her decision to come here in the first place. I asked whether she'd become a citizen. "Yes, I came here to work, for the American dream."

After the Great Disaster of 2013 ended, I went back to J Cuts for another trim. As I arrived, Ms. Gonzales was finishing up with someone, so she waved at me to come sit down. I glanced across the room and noticed a young blond woman working on the hair of another young blond woman. They spoke in English while I tried to keep up with Ms. Gonzales in Spanish. I asked her if her family had plans to dress up for Halloween, but she said they were Christian and did not celebrate it.  

As the small talk moved to more-serious topics, my Spanish skills were exhausted and I switched to English. She had just about finished with my hair when she asked me about the prospects for immigration reform. The question had come up many times over the past year--at the grocery store, Valero, the airport. Just as I had in so many media interviews, I had always projected optimism. "I believe we'll pass comprehensive immigration reform in 2013," I'd say. And I believed that. But after the shutdown and the we'll-get-to-it-later approach of the Republican majority, I had grown tired of living on the sunny side in the face of obstruction. I was ready to speak my mind.

Before I could unload, this Christian small-business owner spoke her mind. "If they don't pass it," she said, "they won't get our vote." 
Posted by at January 17, 2014 12:21 PM
  
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