Earning a Lifetime of Excellence
Raul H. Castro: JD
Former Governor of Arizona
Former US Ambassador
1939 BA in Education
In the fall of 1967, Raul Castro, U.S. Ambassador to El Salvador, and President Lyndon Johnson were riding in a limousine through the streets of San Salvador. Castro, who had graduated in 1939 from Arizona State Teacher's College - which had been renamed Northern Arizona University earlier in 1967 - listened intently as the President asked for his help. "Mr. Ambassador," Johnson said, "The time has come for you to move. I am having problems in Bolivia because Che Guevara is there and the country is in turmoil. I need someone down there that speaks the language and has a political background, and I think you would be perfect for it."
It was a tough assignment, but Castro couldn't turn it down: he had built his life, in fact, by taking on nearly every challenge he faced. When he left Flagstaff in 1939 as a star student, he couldn't find a job because he had been born in Mexico - even though he was a U.S. citizen. Nearly a decade later, he talked his way into law school at the University of Arizona, despite facing similar prejudices. A decade after serving his country as Ambassador to Bolivia, he ran for - and was elected - governor of Arizona. Through it all, he says, his time in Flagstaff served him well.
"Everywhere I went, my degree from Arizona State Teacher's College was accepted and well honored," he says. "I became an ambassador to three countries in Latin America, and they reviewed my degree and were pleased with it, so I am very proud of Northern Arizona University. I'm thrilled to be a graduate of that school."
Castro's degree may have been well received. But, after he earned it in 1939, prospective employers didn't always feel the same way about him.
"The time came to start looking for a job, and I was fairly confident," he says. "I had been active on campus. I was captain of the boxing and track teams when I was a student. I figured that any school in Arizona would want my services as a teacher. I tried at several schools and was turned down: they let me know that they did not hire people of Mexican descent to be school teachers."
Undeterred, Castro took to the road for two years, traveling the country and earning money as a boxer and an itinerant farm worker. When he returned to Arizona, he used his bilingual skills to earn a job working in the American Consulate in Douglas, near the border of Mexico. After fighting through obstacles related to his ethnic background, Castro went on to earn a law degree at the University of Arizona and later joined the Foreign Service, where he began a long and distinguished career. According to Castro, his diplomatic work allowed him opportunities to make a significant impact in the countries where he served.
"I feel that I did some good while I was in Latin America," he says. "All those countries were amazed and shocked to find that I was the ambassador despite having been born in Mexico. They said, 'How can it be that you are the American ambassador?' I said, 'It is very simple: I am an American citizen, and in the United States of America once you are a citizen you can do anything. You have every right to run for public office. You are accepted 100 percent."
In fact, Castro put his beliefs to the test by running for governor of Arizona in 1977: the citizens of Arizona affirmed Castro's views by electing him governor. The experience was also a testament to his willingness to fight against long odds.
"When I was running to be governor of Arizona, everybody thought I was crazy," he says. "They said, 'You are running for governor of Arizona: you were born in Mexico. Who is going to vote for you?' Everyone complained, but no one had ever tried before. But I ran for governor and I was elected."
During his governorship, Castro fought to balance the budget during an economic recession and to advance the issue - education - that he had advocated for since his days in Flagstaff. After two years in Phoenix, however, President Jimmy Carter tapped Castro to be Ambassador to Argentina. As ever, it wasn't an easy assignment.
"When I got to Argentina, there was a revolution going on - a civil war," he says. "The Argentine military was killing people, and during the regime of Jimmy Carter - who of course was very heavy on human rights, the official U.S. relationship with Argentina was practically nil. So I had to start forming my own relationships with the government. I finally convinced Argentina that I was very sincere about my work, and that I wanted to help them."
Now in his mid-nineties, Castro remains extremely active. He spends three to four days each week talking to students from impoverished backgrounds about education, encouraging them to battle through the same obstacles he overcame. When he does, he says, he also encourages students to follow another path similar to his own: the one that led him to Flagstaff.
"I am proud of Northern Arizona University, and am always encouraging students to go there for school," he says. "I love it dearly."