Leonel Jabier Castillo, activist, community leader, first Mexican American elected to citywide office in Houston, Texas, and first Hispanic commissioner of the United States Immigration and Naturalization Service, was born on June 9, 1939, in Victoria, Texas. He was the son of Seferino and Anita Castillo. About 1941 his family moved to Galveston where his father worked in the shipyards and became the president of the local dock workers’ union. Leonel Castillo, his brother Seferino Jr., and sisters Anita and Mary grew up hearing about organizing and labor politics from their father. Their mother worked as a nurse’s aide.
Castillo attended Kirwin High School in Galveston, where he was an honors student and All-State football player. While in high school he acquired the nickname “Lone,” short for Leonel. He graduated in 1957 and attended St. Mary’s University in San Antonio, where he majored in English. At St. Mary’s, Castillo was student government president, associate editor of the college newspaper, and the leader of the Young Democrats and the Young Students for Civil Liberty. The latter group picketed the Majestic Theatre in downtown San Antonio over its refusal to accept African American patronage. Castillo paid for his education with a partial scholarship from the Galveston chapter of the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) and an academic scholarship from St. Mary’s. He was also a member of the ROTC, which helped him with his expenses by providing clothes and shoes. While in college Castillo was influenced by Mahatma Ghandi, Martin Luther King, and Zen Buddhism. He graduated cum laude in 1961.
After college Castillo joined the Peace Corps and was sent to the Philippines, where he taught English and math in Murcia, a small rural town on the island of Negros. He remained in the Philippines for four years and eventually was promoted to supervisory positions. While there he met and married Evelyn Chapman, the daughter of an American-born father and a native Filipina. Their daughter Avalyn was born in the Philippines.
In 1965 Castillo and his family moved to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where he studied community organizing in the Graduate School of Social Work at the University of Pittsburg. His field placements were with African American organizations such as Citizens Against Slum Housing (CASH) and the United Negro Protest Committee (UNPC), where he learned about civil rights, tactics, and negotiation, and participated in numerous demonstrations. While at Pittsburgh he and his wife had a son, Efrem.
Upon completing his master’s degree in 1967, Castillo and his family moved to Houston. Within days of his arrival, his sister Mary took him to a meeting of the Political Association of Spanish Speaking Organizations (PASSO). Castillo eventually became the executive secretary of the organization. PASSO was part of broader political coalition that included African Americans, labor, and liberal Democrats that screened and endorsed candidates for office. From these experiences Castillo realized that he had the potential to run for public office. He also worked at Ripley House as a caseworker and later became the director of SER-Jobs for Progress, Inc., followed by a directorship of the Catholic Council on Community Relations.
The issue that brought Leonel Castillo to the attention of the broader Houston public occurred in 1970. The Houston Independent School District had been given a mandate by a federal judge to integrate its schools. Instead of integrating the White students with the Mexican and African American students, the district only integrated the Mexican and African American schools under the guise that Mexican Americans were technically classified as White, thereby leaving the majority Anglo schools out of the plan. The community balked at the arrangement, and it came together under the auspices of the Mexican American Education Council (MAEC). Castillo became the group’s main spokesman and negotiator, and under his leadership the Mexican American community boycotted the public schools. MAEC also set up huelga or “strike” schools for the students to attend while the issue played out in the courts.
In 1971 Castillo resigned from MAEC to seek public office. Observers assumed that he would run for the school board or city council. However, on the last day to file he surprised everyone when he filed to run for Houston city controller. The incumbent, Roy Oaks, had never had an opponent in his twenty-six years as controller and at the time was suffering from the effects of a stroke. Castillo won and thus became the first Mexican American in Houston to win a citywide election. He was elected to the office twice more. In his first term, Castillo modernized the office by installing computers, updating accounting practices, and establishing Houston’s first internal audit division to monitor city departments. Castillo also discovered that high value properties in residential and industrial areas were not being taxed at the appropriate rates and began efforts to correct the situation. He also used his authority whenever possible to increase the number of minorities and women hired by city departments, and he was credited with making the city controller’s office and its functions more transparent.
In 1974 Castillo ran for chairman of the State Democratic Executive Committee and organized his campaign in two weeks. During the convention he was subjected to racial slurs and taunts when he rose to speak. Yet, despite his late entry into the election and the racial animosity he encountered, Castillo garnered forty-two percent of the vote.
In 1977 Castillo resigned as city controller to become commissioner of the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) at the behest of President Jimmy Carter. He was the first Hispanic to hold this post. The move did not prove to be beneficial to his political career, because it alienated many of his Mexican American, liberal, pro-labor, and environmentalist constituents. Further, the agency was in administrative disarray, and Castillo was subjected to conflicting pressures from conservatives who wanted to restrict immigration and from others who sought more lenient treatment. Nevertheless Castillo implemented the pro-human rights policies of the Carter administration, especially when it came to allowing Vietnamese and Cuban refugees into the U.S. He also hired more minorities, pushed for more humane treatment of detained immigrants, and installed the first soccer fields and television sets in detention centers. To see if these directives were properly carried out, he sometimes disguised himself as an immigrant and visited INS offices to see how he would be treated. Castillo was also the first person to use the term ‘undocumented’ to refer to immigrants who had migrated to the U.S. without authorization.
In 1979 Castillo resigned as commissioner and returned to Houston to run for mayor against Jim McConn, the incumbent. He finished third in a field of nine candidates. In 1981 Castillo again ran for city controller, but he failed to unseat the incumbent, Lance Lalor. In 1989 Castillo made one last attempt for city office and ran for an at-large position on the city council. Although he led the field of six candidates, Castillo failed to win more than fifty percent of the vote and lost the run-off election to future congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee. From 1992 to 2006 Castillo served as a liaison between the mayor’s office and the educational institutions in Houston and was an advisor to Houston mayors Bob Lanier, Lee Brown, and Bill White. He was also a field instructor for the National Association of Social Workers and taught courses in social work at the University of Houston and Texas Southern University.
Throughout his career Castillo co-founded a number of civic and educational organizations that continue to serve the city of Houston. Among them are the Houston Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, the Chicano Family Center, and Houston International University, of which he was president. He also served as a board member for numerous other organizations, including the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, the Southwest Voter Registration Education Project, United Way, the Council on Foreign Affairs, and the Texas Medical Center. Leonel received many honors and awards. Among them are an honorary doctor of law degree from St. Mary’s in 1971 and an honorary doctorate in the humanities from Springfield College in Springfield, Massachusetts, in 1981. Two facilities in Houston also bear his name, the Leonel J. Castillo Community Center and the Leonel Castillo Academic Center, which houses the East Early College High School.
Leonel J. Castillo died in Houston on November 4, 2013, at the age of seventy-four.
Leonel Castillo, Interview by José Angel Gutiérrez, June 28, 1996, Tejano Voices Collection, Center for Mexican American Studies, University of Texas at Arlington Libraries. Leonel Castillo Collection, Houston Metropolitan Research Center, Houston Public Library. Tom Curtis, “Will Success Spoil Leonel Castillo,” Texas Monthly, August, 1976. Arnoldo De León, Ethnicity in the Sunbelt: Mexican Americans in Houston (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 2001). Guadalupe San Miguel, Jr., Brown, Not White: School Integration and the Chicano Movement in Houston (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 2001).
Law, Law Enforcement, and Outlaws
Activism and Social Reform
Politics and Government
Texas Post World War II
Upper Gulf Coast
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