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Interview with: Leonel Castillo
Interviewed by: Kerry Wince
Date: September 29, 2006
KW: This is Kerry Wince (sp?). We, this afternoon, September 29, 2006, are conducting an interview with Leonel J. Castillo at 3320 South Macgregor Way, Mr. Castillo's home. How are you this morning?
LJC: I am feeling fine.
KW: Would you begin this interview by just telling me when and where you were born?
LJC: I was born in Victoria, Texas. That is on Highway 59 going towards Porter.
KW: In what year?
KW: Where were you educated?
LJC: I went to University of St. Mary's, St. Mary's University from 1957 until 1961. And then, I went to the University of Pittsburg from 1965 to 1967.
KW: What did you major in as an undergraduate?
LJC: I majored in English. Hard to believe I majored in English.
KW: At University of Pittsburg?
LJC: No, at St. Mary's.
KW: I understand but when you went to the university and got your masters?
LJC: Social work. Community organization.
KW: English and social work.
LJC: Community organization. I was the first one in Texas in the whole state ______ community organizer.
KW: Like Saul Alinsky?
LJC: Yes, he was ________.
KW: Tell me who he was.
LJC: Saul Alinsky was a great organizer from Chicago.
KW: Saul Alinsky?
KW: See, they are going to take me out so if you say Saul Alinsky, we know . . .
LJC: Oh, yes. He was there as a lecturer at the university. He said very bad things about social workers.
KW: When you graduated, when you got your master's degree, what did you do then?
LJC: I came to Houston. I worked for Ripley House, a neighborhood center association, and helped to organize the neighborhood on the east end. I enjoyed that for a couple of years. And then, I worked some other jobs ________.
KW: When you were organizing in the east end, do you want to tell me a little bit about that - what you were trying to accomplish?
LJC: Sure. We had the first school issues and a lot of politics. A lot of work _____ people involving politics. At that point, the city had 3 ABCs -- Anglos, blacks, Chicanos, and there were very few Chicanos, _____% Chicanos and the blacks were larger. Blacks were minority to the majority, Anglos. ________ ABC.
KW: What were the school issues you were most concerned with in the east end?
LJC: We had a very big issue about integration. The integration at that point was mixed blacks and Hispanics and they called it integration.
KW: And how did you address this issue?
LJC: ____________. We opposed the school district and I was the head of that group.
KW: Do you want to tell me more about that, when you opposed them?
LJC: We had pickets and demonstrations around the school called the ______ school. ______ means strike school. And we ______ boycott school.
KW: Did you play any official capacity with the _______ school?
LJC: I was everything.
KW: How long did the school meet?
LJC: Only a few weeks. ____________.
KW: And what went on in the school.
LJC: The school curriculum. Now, we call it ______ school and volunteers ______ run the whole thing.
KW: Did any teachers come and work in the school?
LJC: _______ we had a complete program. A complete program. That was on the north side and east end. Very, very busy.
KW: And would you say that your protest accomplished anything?
LJC: Not much but it was good to show we had an identity, the first identity for Hispanics in Houston. That was very hard. At that point, for example, there was desegregation. It was all black and white and we broadened the fight from black and white to black and white _________.
KW: We are going to ask the same question again. What did you accomplish in your boycott of the schools?
LJC: We helped the schools and the community understand there were at least 3 groups, at least 3. Up until then, it had been just 2 -- blacks and whites. Now, there was another group, and more groups coming. That was a big step forward, but the schools did not change much.
KW: How did the community change because of this?
LJC: Oh, a lot of people started ________. The first leaders in the group, the first big Hispanic leaders were from that group and one of them ______ I remember ______ Reyes, and one of them became a city council member, Ben Reyes, my brother, and other folks had other jobs, important jobs throughout HISD. One of them was an HISD administrator _______.
KW: And you were the head of the whole movement or the head of the strike school?
LJC: Yes, the head of the whole movement.
KW: What year did this take place in?
LJC: That was in 1969.
KW: And you came to this city in . . .
LJC: In 1967.
KW: So, 2 years, you became the head of the community, head of the movement?
LJC: One thing: I worked a lot on community organization in Pittsburgh. I worked on ______ and for a while, I even served _______ Martin Luther King. For a few weeks, I was head of the _______ and I was associated with the group of the United Negro ________. I learned about _______. I learned about peace. I learned about demonstrations in Pittsburgh. So, I am marching in show for black rights up there. That is why I came to Houston. It was very conservative. It was amazing.
KW: And when you came to Houston, how did you sort of make these contacts that brought you that position so quickly?
LJC: Well, my sister was active already, my sister, Mary. She was active already in the community and her other friends had joined her ________ and I joined them, ______ them. And I joined the black groups, too.
KW: Which black groups did you join?
LJC: __________________ and other groups there. I joined all of them.
KW: Back to your daytime job, I presume you were still holding your job.
KW: O.K., you started out in human development?
KW: And then, what did you do next?
LJC: I went from there to a group called ________ job training center. I was the first ________ in the whole country.
KW: That was a federal program?
LJC: Yes, and it is still going.
KW: And you were, what, the head for the . . .
LJC: It was the first program ________ in the country.
KW: The first program, and the program was in the city or Houston or what?
LJC: It was here, mostly in the downtown area, _______.
KW: And what did you do in that . . .
LJC: We would find jobs for people and job training. We did job training.
KW: Then, at one point, you were director of the Catholic Council Community?
LJC: I had a job _______, too. I would _______ after _______. I worked at the diocese. I worked for them on human rights issues.
KW: And when you were working with the diocese, what specific issues or incidents were you involved in?
LJC: Social justice issues, again, on human rights concerns, working with Bishop Markowsky, and I worked for a guy who became bishop, Patrick _______. I worked with him. ________ to be a bishop _______ Bishop McCarty, John McCarty became bishop in Austin.
KW: Can you give me an example of some of the problems or issues that you guys were involved with at that time?
LJC: I was very good at writing proposals and raising money for them. ________ the people would call the bishop asking for money and he would put me to write the proposals for the money. And so, I would prepare funding requests for all over. ______ Mississippi.
KW: O.K., this was the period roughly from 1969. You came to Houston in 1967, is that right, to the early 1970s?
KW: What was happening in the community at this time?
LJC: There was a big fight at TSU. _______ TSU was opening up and there were big fights at the law school. There was no money for the school. So, we had ______ over there.
KW: Were you in the law school?
LJC: No. I went to law school for a very short time. _____________.
KW: And who were you working with in these protests at TSU?
LJC: The students at TSU and the professors, a guy named Gene _______. Gene had been at Pittsburgh. And also, in the Peace Corps ______ before that.
KW: Had he been with you in the Peace Corps in the Philippines?
LJC: No, in Pittsburgh.
KW: O.K. Any other things besides the TSU law school that you were involved with at that time?
LJC: _______ demonstrations, ______ strikes we learned from Pittsburgh, the technique we learned from Pittsburgh, where somebody _______ a technique called mow-mow. ____________ and the rest of them, very nice. Like good cop/bad cop approach. We used that a lot then.
KW: What accomplishments did you have?
LJC: __________ important jobs, and the first blacks were named for _______ and the first Hispanic __________. It went very well.
KW: When did you start thinking about electoral politics?
LJC: I always have been in politics ________. I was about 17 and my father was working for the campaign for Senator Gonzalez ___________ for governor. And he campaigned _______ in a car, drove all the way down, drove the whole state. He slept in the car. I was very impressed for that.
KW: You were 17 then, right?
LJC: Yes, my father _________.
KW: And so, what was your next involvement in . . .
LJC: Well, I worked on the Kennedy campaign, too, in San Antonio. I worked on that, too. Then, I went off to the Peace Corps for 2 years in the Philippines.
KW: Where were you in the Philippines?
LJC: I was in a place called _______ in the central part of the Philippines. I started off in ______, western ________. Then, later on, I went to east _______. My wife is from the Philippines.
KW: What did you do in the Peace Corps?
LJC: I taught elementary school at first and then became administrator.
KW: And then you came back and went to graduate school?
LJC: Yes, at Pittsburgh.
KW: Were you involved in politics in Pittsburg?
LJC: Not too much. In Pittsburgh, it was all protests and demonstrations.
KW: Did Pittsburgh have much of a Hispanic community?
LJC: None. I was the only one. They did not know what I was. They thought maybe something strange.
KW: And so, you got involved in politics yourself when you came back to Houston?
LJC: Oh, yes.
KW: What was the first thing that you did in politics? I mean, how did you get involved?
LJC: Well, I was secretary for the _______ kept the notes ________, why, I don't know. ______ all the time.
KW: When did it first cross your mind to run for office?
LJC: Well, I was thinking of running for office but I did not know what to run for, so I found a job called a controller. I wondered what it was. I checked it out. ______. I will just check on it. And nobody knew who he was or what he did. And he had been there 25 years. Had no _______. It turned out I had a chance ________ very strong. He has been there 25 years. So, I figured I had to run against him.
KW: Tell me about your campaign.
LJC: I had $14,000 in my garage and we hand made signs, everything hand made. We had no television ________. So, we spent $14,000 to run the whole campaign. I was trained to __________.
KW: How did you attract voters?
LJC: Well, I was very good then at talking. I spoke a lot. ________ tell good jokes. ______. I went all over and I spoke on issues of human justice and social justice. I would speak to different ethnic groups ______ national groups. So, I would speak about the Philippines and about _______ and about the blacks and about other groups, too. They were _______.
KW: How did your opponent campaign against you?
LJC: He was worse than me. He was an old guy who had been very sick. He was like me - he had a stroke. He could barely speak, he could barely move. He was very strong but he had no physical strength left and so he could not campaign much.
KW: Was it a clean campaign or did it get . . .
LJC: At that point, yes, it was, but he was just sick ________. So, I got very lucky. I got a partner who could not speak and he got hurt on television very badly. ______ channel 13 and it was on channel 11. They ran an interview with him but he could not speak. He had trouble with his voice so he could not answer them.
KW: Did they do an interview with you?
LJC: Yes. I could speak then.
KW: Do you remember much about that interview?
LJC: No, not much.
KW: You do not remember what point you tried to make in that interview?
LJC: _________ a lot of things that were foolish ________ my door would be always open if I won. And I said, my phone would always be open for the public. So, I put my phone number ______ and I got phone calls for 25 years after that. Now, you do not do that.
KW: So, do you remember what the vote was?
LJC: Yes, I won by a little bit. I think 55%, something like that.
KW: What were your thoughts on election day when you discovered you had won?
LJC: Well, I thought, what do you do now? ________. As a matter of fact, I wrecked my car that day. It was a very exciting year in the country at the time. We had a very, very exciting time because no one knew what was happening ______ changes happening. Other changes were taking place at the same time. And that was part of the whole thing - big change. At that point, I was the only elected Hispanic _______ automatically the highest ranking ______ in the country. But I did not know anything.
KW: Did you get much national publicity?
LJC: No, I got none.
KW: Because nobody knows what a controller does?
KW: Well, when you won the election locally, what was the reaction in the Hispanic community?
LJC: A lot of folks were very happy but they had already __________.
KW: What was the reaction among the staff in the controller's office when you arrived?
LJC: Oh, they were wondering who am I, what am I like, am I crazy? So, I got there and met all of them. It went O.K. It went very good. They were very kind.
KW: How did you learn the job?
LJC: I learned the old way - you sit there, you take every voucher and you go through each one, one by one. So, I got vouchers _______ and I would look through one by one. __________ your philosophy so it was not about how you balanced the books, it was more about how you balanced your thoughts. It was about you put money for this idea and for that idea _____________ preserve an oath. _______.
KW: And how did the political positions that you had when you entered the office, how did they mesh with what you were doing?
LJC: It worked out very well. It was a very good background for that because it is really about philosophy, philosophy ________ and you believe in that. ______________. So, my belief in human rights went through _____________ the first black police officer to a high level sergeant position, sergeant because the mayor could not hire a black because _________ the City Council and the mayor _________ promote their black. And so, he got real mad. ___________ the whole city budget ______ hire a black.
KW: How did you get along with the mayor?
LJC: The first mayor, Louie Welch, we fought all the time. We fought always. He became my friend. But he is a very ______ good speaker but he hates me, hated my views and ideas. He is a big time Republican. I am a big time Democrat. And we always argued about that. It may sound crazy _____ hatred but we were friends. And we had a lot of problems. Every time we had a problem, we went and had coffee together. ______ controllers don't have coffee with mayors.
KW: Do you think you were instrumental in making the controller's position a major political power in the city?
LJC: Oh, yes. _______. The controller was just for the mayor, whatever the mayor wanted.
KW: Not anymore.
LJC: Now, it is different. Now, it is independent. I learned ______ I read about that in New York City and also Philadelphia where they have controller offices also. _______. I had the chance to run for controller of _______ Jesse James. He had been there a long time.
KW: How about City Council? How did you get along with City Council?
LJC: Mostly friends. But they had a different agenda. Their agenda was to spend the money. The agenda of the City Council and the mayor was to spend money ____________.
KW: Let's talk about the mayor again, Mayor Welch. Screwy Louie, right?
LJC: Yes, but Louie was a very interesting person. He was very smart on some things. He and I had big fights but we were good friends.
KW: What did you fight about?
LJC: About the budget, about blacks, about women, and so on. Hiring the first woman. Hiring the first blacks.
KW: So, you fought about hiring blacks?
KW: And what was his argument?
LJC: That it would not work out. _______. After he left, Mayor Hofheinz ________ Hofheinz went further and hired the first female in the fire department and the first one in the Peace Corps. But he was very supportive.
KW: And did you serve for a third mayor?
LJC: No, those were the only two.
KW: That you served with, not for. What do you think you accomplished as city controller?
LJC: Well, that opened the door to a lot of people and since then, their ______ have been very different. And I opened the city to a lot of ideas about diversity, about ethnic groups, about holding the philosophy firm and that was important for the first blacks, the first Hispanics, the first females and the first everything. We had nothing like that before then.
KW: How do you think city government has changed since those days?
LJC: Now, it has changed so much. Now, we are like old ______. I put the first computers there. I put the first computer in City Hall. ______ that they were very heavy, so _____ a computer, had to spend lots of money. And then, you had to bring engineers in to make the floor stronger to hold the computers that were so heavy. ________ because the first computers had to be cooled down ______. All that cost a lot of money. It would not work here. It would not work too well.
KW: Did you have any resistance on the part of the mayor and the Council for bringing computers in?
LJC: They thought it was crazy. I was crazy. It was a fun thing. I brought the first electric car. I had an electric car. I plugged it into City Hall. _________. I plugged the electric car in, at the City Hall parking lot. ___________.
KW: In 1977, you were appointed director of the INS, is that correct?
KW: How did that come about?
LJC: Well, I worked on the campaign. I had been the _______.
KW: Tell us which campaign.
LJC: I worked on the presidential campaign. I worked on other campaigns. I have been a member of ______ Democratic party. And so, I ran for chairman and later got ______ treasurer, ________. And then, ________.
KW: Were you surprised?
LJC: Yes, I was very surprised because it was very clear _______ it was very good in one way but very bad for us on some other things, ideas, but very good as far as ______ but very bad as far as politics ________ and if you run for commissioner, if you win for commissioner, ______ because you are letting too many folks in this country without papers and that is true.
KW: So, when you were in the INS, what were the major issues you had to deal with?
LJC: Well, we had _______ and so, ________ human rights. But Jimmy Carter ______ believed in human rights for the country, for the world. And so, my job was to rescue people _______ and the South China Sea. I brought them to the U.S. And also Cuba, to bring people out ________ some people who come to this country who cannot return to Cuba ____________ Jimmy Carter said ________ do what is right. Only do what is right. Don't care whether _______. He was a very great man.
KW: How much contact did you have with him?
LJC: Oh, about every week ______ I would see someone there. But they were very different, ______ very different. Jimmy Carter should have been a bishop or something like that and not a politician, because a politician . . . you see what Ronald Reagan did ________. And we had people in Singapore also and the boat was sinking. _________ had sunk totally. ________________.
KW: You served as INS director for how long?
LJC: For almost 2 years.
KW: Why did you leave?
LJC: It was really not right. ________. And Congress did not do anything. ___________. The only one who was fair was Jimmy Carter. He was fair. The only one. _________. So, I was caught in the middle of _______. I could not get an apology cleared for them. They still cannot do it. ______.
KW: But you were there when the issue of undocumented immigrants was first really becoming a national issue.
LJC: Yes. _______ use the word. I used the word the first time ________.
KW: See, I did not know that.
LJC: Yes, I ______ on national TV. _______. No one called him that. ________ better now.
KW: Well, how do you think the situation has changed from the 1970s when you were there until now?
LJC: Well, we became more harsh in our thinking on ________ and CNN and other groups have taken _______ attitude towards them. I have become more open about it, an open border idea ______ for lack of real border control. And I am sporting the idea of a new Statue of Liberty beyond . . . out on each coast going in the wrong direction. _________ is from France, 1880 and ______ Europeans __________ other than Europe. So, we had to think differently about war.
KW: And that was the approach that you took in the 1970s?
KW: But that has not happened?
LJC: No. __________. We built the first soccer fields and _______ centers. I put the first soccer fields over there. I think Congress gave me a lecture about why are you putting the soccer fields out there? They did not want that. They did not want any TV, no television, nothing. They were very anti -- some of them.
KW: Is there anything else you want to talk about with the INS?
KW: Not really. I think this is what people are interested in.
LJC: Yes, you are right.
KW: Maybe what we will do is ask about how you saw immigration policy affecting Houston at that time.
LJC: That is good.
KW: And then, we will come back and talk about when you left and what the circumstances were, and come back to the University. When you were in the INS office, in what ways did what you do have an impact on the community here back home in Houston?
LJC: Oh, we had a lot of issues. One was using local police to help immigration. __________. But some police wanted to use your local police to help INS and we would not allow it, they were against it. They are now working still on the _______ and we had fights from a lot of people, surprising people. For example, we had some from the farm workers who wanted to keep _______ also. They wanted to help also. ___________. And some of those friends, some of them worked for _______, they wanted to __________ help deporting them and help with __________. And there was a big fight about that, too. ____________ and let them be police. __________. The Ku Klux Klan. They wanted to try that, too. ________ local police ________ and in Houston, when I first went overseas, ________ 96 languages in HISD _______. [end of side 1]
KW: What would you say your greatest challenge was with the INS?
LJC: To stay true to the idea of human rights. That was and still is . . .
KW: And what was your greatest accomplishment?
LJC: Oh, we practiced some human rights measures ____________ prisons throughout the country and _________ other parts of the world and we created the first anti-Nazi war criminal ___________. We let some of them come from Russia, from Germany, had them come work for us for years. ________.
KW: What was the event or occasion that made you decide to leave the INS?
LJC: Well, there was no one thing. It was an accumulation of things. It was going nowhere. _________. And they would not let the _________. They would not let him decide, either for or against. ____________. They were fighting about everything. _________. There were some of these great conflicts _______.
KW: You came back in 1979?
KW: How had the city changed in those 2 years that you were gone, or had it?
LJC: It changed a whole lot. The Council was bigger. _____________ and more complicated.
KW: And so, what did you do when you came back?
LJC: I was a volunteer. ________. I was also building a _____ school called Houston International. I was creating ______ University.
KW: You were the president?
LJC: Yes, I was it.
KW: Were you paid or were you volunteer?
LJC: Paid. I got paid ________.
KW: Now, let me ask you a question - Houston International University has always been referred to in the early days as Hispanic International.
LJC: Yes, it was. It has changed names.
KW: When you became president or before?
LJC: When I became president.
KW: Tell me about that school.
LJC: Well, we were ________. At that time, you could not get into universities very well _______ new ideas of really, what we now call computer learning. We were trying to do it without computers. We had the same idea though of building a school and a curriculum without a library but access to libraries and, really, libraries as opposed to computers. __________. But our idea then was to reach more students with less money, with less cost.
KW: How many students did you have?
LJC: At that point, we were probably 200 or so _________.
KW: And did it ever get much larger?
KW: And you served as president for what, about 10 years?
KW: Is the institution still operating?
LJC: Yes, _________.
KW: I had read that the institution had shut down. That didn't happen?
LJC: No, sir.
KW: Now, did it get its accreditation with Sachs?
LJC: No, sir, it got _______ provision for a while but they ran out of money. And so, _______.
KW: And was Sachs supportive or were they an obstacle?
LJC: No, it was crazy. ____________ the library's books _____________ computer work. ________ there weren't any computers. _________ so many thousand books with hard covers.
KW: Do you think the state was targeting you or were you just implementing a _______?
KW: Your students, did they transfer to other schools as they went along?
LJC: Some went all the way through. A few ______ very well. And now, it is learning English and how to use computers and learning citizenship to pass the naturalization exam. Now, it is very different. ________. Now, it is supposedly low income students who are doing well, doing better.
KW: Well, looking back on your time with that institution, what do you think worked the best, or worked well?
LJC: Well, I think the idea . . . we tried all these new ideas. I was trying new ideas and we were willing to try new ideas _______ was open for new ideas. That was very important ______ a school that is open for ideas _______.
KW: And what do you think did not work well?
KW: Were you since able to use financial aid at your institution?
LJC: Yes, _____ a little bit.
KW: Why did you step down as president?
LJC: Well, I had been there too long _______ and so on.
KW: And after you left HIU, what did you do next?
LJC: I went to work for Mayor Lanier. I helped Mayor Lanier. I was the education liaison for Mayor Bob Lanier. I went to all the schools for him to represent the City for him. And I worked for Mayor Lanier and I went to work for Mayor Brown. And for that short term for mayor, Mayor White.
KW: Can you talk about some of the things that you felt you accomplished during that period?
LJC: Well, I spoke at all these schools, I went to all these schools and I attended all these functions. I enjoyed a variety of presents in all different places, and I helped the city to become sensitive to all these different groups coming in _____ 96 languages. I had them build the first soccer field _________ parks and so on. So, I _____ a lot of ideas.
KW: When you came back in 1979 from Washington, did you think about getting back involved in electoral policy?
LJC: Yes, I tried that but it did not work.
KW: But you ran for . . .
LJC: I ran for controller again.
LJC: Lance _______.
KW: Oh, yes.
KW: Did you think about any other offices besides controller?
LJC: Yes, I thought of _______. I thought about City Council. Same set of problems. But different problems. ___________.
KW: How has the city changed, and particularly how has the Hispanic community changed between 196 when you got here and the late 1990s?
LJC: Well, now they speak more Spanish and more Spanish is spoken in general. And now, you have better Spanish and I have larger numbers, much larger numbers. And also, _______ is very important overall. And so, it is very different. _______ the good things and the bad things of the overall community. But it is very different now. Now, we argue about things very differently now. See, in 1967, ________ and now it is all over. ______ bigger numbers and everything, bigger numbers of ______ activity and parades and all sorts of functions as well. And the conversations are very different. The marches are different.
KW: Do you think it is easier or more difficult for a young Hispanic to get into politics?
LJC: Oh, it is easy now. Easier. Not easy but easier than then. There are more puzzles now. ________.
KW: In 1967 when you came here, you came here as an activist, a community activist. If you were coming in to Houston in 2007, the spring, would you still follow the same road or would the road be ______?
LJC: I would be angry at ________. I would be more angrier at the president and Congress and so many things _______.
KW: How would you be smarter?
LJC: _________ put pressure on people. Now, _____ the old-fashioned _______ technique was good then but not now. ________.
KW: You said that you first became interested in politics basically watching your father campaigning. Tell us a little bit more about your childhood and what sorts of things like that had an impact on your later life?
LJC: Well, my father was active in a group they called ________. I was very interested in that. I was interested in watching him work. ________ the right to go to school. And my uncle and my father helped __________. And so, I learned from all of them _________ the first rights for blacks also, different rights. I also had the first ______ military when World War II came back _______ they were all very active in winning rights for veterans. And so, I would be supporting them now. I am still supporting them. So, I would be very active now if I could. If I could, I would be more energetic now.
KW: So, basically, you are saying that your politics came from what your family and your family's friends were involved in?
KW: How about when you graduated from high school, was going to college or not going to college an issue?
LJC: No. ____________ and they invited me so I went. That is all. I did not know anything else. I had no idea what college was or anything. So, I went there.
KW: But you did well.
LJC: I did well. It worked out all right. _________.
KW: Is there anything else you want to add?
LJC: ________. Now, looking back at my life about how much is good and how much was bad, how much was smart, how much of it was not so smart, but I think on the whole, I was on the right path of building a better idea, a better country, a better world, and broadening the world area _______. Probably be smarter now if I could. _______.
KW: Thank you very much.
LJC: Thank you.