OAKLAND -- San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro, assuming the fresh face of democracy after delivering the keynote address at the 2012 Democratic National Convention, brought the power, the vision and the victory to Oakland on Saturday night.
In a Barbara Lee and Elihu Harris Lecture Series appearance, the 38-year-old Castro joined the evening's presenters with a call to educational arms and a ringing endorsement of individual achievements by "the generation that stooped over and stood up to perfect our union."
"I'm humbled by the people who have come before me," Castro began, after an extended ovation and robust "Good evening!" greetings from the approximately 500 people in the ballroom of the Oakland Marriott City Center.
Although humbled by the legacy of the Martin Luther King Jr. Freedom Center's namesake and human rights leaders like him, Castro is a bold, masterful politician. His flair -- painting expansive, inspiring horizons that powered the audience to its feet in uproarious applause or hushed them, spellbound, into rapt attention -- finds backbone in old-fashioned hard work.
Like a duck on water, he appears to glide; but underneath the surface, Castro has paddled furiously to propel his city and what it symbolizes into national prominence. Outlining four nuts-and-bolts initiatives for rejuvenating the "infrastructure of opportunity" in America, he invoked the legacy of United States presidents.
"FDR (created opportunity) in launching the G.I. Bill so vets could get a college education," he said. "Kennedy invested in science research. Johnson ushered in Medicare and the (Fair) Housing (Act). And Obama made it happen: health care to all Americans."
Interspersed in the accounts of world leaders, Castro showed gentle, wistful humor and vulnerable humanity through personal stories.
"My grandmother came here as a 6-year-old orphan from Mexico. She worked as a maid, cook and baby sitter so my mom could get a good education," he said.
Castro and his identical twin brother, Joaquin, a Texas congressman, were raised by their single mother, a woman who always carried a red purse to symbolize (and protest) women's pay inequity.
"We grew up participating in democracy and I hated it," he laughed. "What 11-, 12-, 13-year-old boy would like being dragged off to three-hour meetings where people talked about things he couldn't understand?"
Attending Stanford as an undergraduate, Castro saw the diversity and determination of his peers in a new light.
"It made me think about how we could further the blessings of our country to (everyone). And for all the times I heard my mother curse the ignorance of an opinion in the newspaper, it made me wonder: How do we move forward ... together?"
His quartet of answers revolved around education.
"Number one, we must start early," he said, describing how San Antonians "taxed themselves" by voting for a ballot initiative (pre-K 4 SA) that will provide 22,000 4-year odds with high quality, full-day, pre-K education.
"The way to get ahead," he said, "is to never get behind in the first place."
Focusing on finishing college was his second directive. Too much energy goes into getting in, he suggested, and not on what counts: graduation rates. A "cafe college" he and his administration created provides free SAT and ACT prep courses and college admission and completion counseling to anyone who wants it.
Closing the skills gap between what employers want and what workers offer is helping his city to become a "brainpower community." In a counterintuitive moment, Castro suggested not every high school graduate should aim for prestigious schools like the ones he attended. In his home state, the Alamo Area Aerospace Academy provides high school interns with supercharged, hands-on training aimed at employment.
"In the past, vocational jobs kept people down, but today, in our global economy, community and technical colleges are more important than ever," he said.
Addressing the "yawning gap" in wealth distribution, Castro said literacy must include financial know-how. San Antonio has instituted "financial empowerment centers" to teach citizens how to find a home -- and keep it -- and to support small business owners and entrepreneurs.
Encouraging victory over historical limitations, Castro said, "My grandmother never owned a home, or a car. How many best-selling books, Fortune 500 companies and cures for disease would have been possible if she and her generation had not had the wind in front of them?"
In opening comments, Congresswoman Barbara Lee, D-Oakland, said she was proud that the community she represents will never tolerate prejudice and that America's future is "secure, due to the brilliance and passion of our young people."
Oakland Mayor Jean Quan called Castro "the face of the 70 percent Latinos who re-elected Barack Obama and the face of America. Not because his skin is brown, but (because) we are the new dreamers."
Castro, speaking with pauses and emphasis not unlike Obama's oratoricalstyle, said, "If we can put aside extremism, and honor those who helped make America great, we will make the 21st century an American century of moving forward that we can all be proud of."