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Julián Castro: Latinos grapple with 'the worst of all worlds' amid coronavirus pandemic

Latinos are on the front lines as farm workers, nurses and restaurant workers—but the crisis has also decimated small business owners.
Julian Castro
Julian Castro in Los Angeles on Oct. 4, 2019.Eric Thayer / Reuters file

Julián Castro, the only Latino to run for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination, said he was right to push a platform that sought to level inequities and economic gaps that are now being exacerbated by coronavirus.

“Before this virus, our campaign recognized the most vulnerable among us; we aimed a spotlight squarely at their needs," Castro told NBC News. "This entire COVID-19 experience has strengthened my conviction that we did the right thing.”

For Latinos, he said, "the community seems to have the worst of all worlds." A large share of Latinos are on the front lines as farm workers, nurses, restaurant and services workers that have continued going into work, while Latino small businesses owners are being hurt.

"We have to climb out of this," he said. Castro said things can't go back to the way they were and the way to reset is to "make fundamental investments in the foundations of upward mobility — health care, education, investment in small business — and fuel economic growth where it counts."

Although Castro is off the campaign trail, he's continued to sound the drum on the issues he outlined in his platform that earned him standing as an advocate for Latino and other communities but didn't catch on with voters.

"That message isn’t always easy for some voters to hear," he said, adding he hopes the coronavirus crisis shows how much the nation's working poor and other communities "need us on their side.”

One of the searing images of the coronavirus crisis has been the thousands of cars that have been lining up in San Antonio, Castro’s hometown, for city food bank distributions — with so many showing up that it outstripped the available supplies.

Just before Thanksgiving, Castro had spoken on the campaign trail about the need to make food insecurity and hunger a national priority. Castro told a personal story then of his mother at times shortening the grocery list to pay monthly bills and a memory of a family friend bringing a box of food to the family from the food bank.

His proposal called for allowing people who receive food stamps to be able to purchase food online with those benefits — something the federal government is now allowing a few states to do, so people using food stamps have the option to pick up curbside groceries and avoid going to the grocery store amid the coronavirus health crisis.

“This has exposed that we are not as strong a country as we thought we were,” Castro said. “We are not as strong economically. So many people are one missed paycheck from financial ruin and turning to a food bank for help.”

Last week, Castro hosted an online chat with renowned chef Jose Andrés where the two discussed food insecurity and the pandemic. Andrés has been cooking and distributing free meals as a “food first responder” during the coronavirus crisis, as he has after disasters such as Hurricane Maria, which hit Puerto Rico in 2017.

“I think this is a moment we can right some of the shortfalls,” Andrés said during the chat.

Castro, who served as secretary of Housing and Urban Development in the Obama administration, was publicly critical of Las Vegas and Clark County officials when they sent homeless people to a parking lot with painted off squares last month. He questioned why they were not using shuttered hotels.

In an interview with City Lab, he enumerated policies such as renters' tax credits and expanding the publicly-subsidized housing voucher program that he said are now more urgent, given the toll coronavirus is taking on renters who are losing jobs and are unable to pay monthly rent.

In an April 20 tweet, Castro didn't hold back when news broke that President Donald Trump planned to suspend immigration in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

“You cut off immigration, you crater our nation’s already weakened economy. It’s that simple @realDonaldTrump. What a dumb move."

Castro, a former mayor of San Antonio, has been equally critical of Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, who he said has tried to appease his right wing base and “still halfway follow the experts’ advice."

Texans are paying for the idea that the only good government is a small and weak government, which Castro said is reflected in the difficulties Texans have had getting unemployment claims processed. Many of those people have been contacting his twin brother, Rep. Joaquin Castro, D-Texas, to ask for help, he said.

On politics, Castro said he is planning to launch an effort to help get young progressives elected in November, similar to a political action committee that raised and gave money to candidates before he jumped into the political race.

Castro, who had first endorsed Elizabeth Warren after he dropped out of the race, has said he would do all he can to help former vice president Joe Biden get elected and tweeted support for him after Warren left the race. His support has not been officially acknowledged yet by Biden’s campaign as with other former presidential candidates.

"We can’t take anything for granted as Democrats. Almost nobody thought Trump was going to win last time," Castro said. "I don’t think he's going to win this time, but you have to run the race as if Trump is ahead and part of that means amping up Latino turnout" in (key) states like Wisconsin and Pennsylvania and swing states such as Arizona and Texas. " I’m happy to do my part in trying to get folks out to vote."

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