This week on The Trip podcast: Eva Castillo on Presidential politics and immigrant advocacy in New Hampshire in the time of Trump.
So this was it, election day in New Hampshire, the real starting gun of the race is that is now settling in. And if the Democratic primary looks a bit different nationally than it did when New Hampshire’s results started rolling in (Rest in peace, campaign of Mayor Buttigieg), critics of the first-in-the-nation primary usually point to one main factor: race.
The numbers don’t lie: New Hampshire is a very Caucasian state. It is 93% white; that’s like, whiter-than-Wyoming White. Not to be essentialist here, but that not only affects how voters respond to candidates, but also how candidates respond back to voters; the kind of questions they get asked in those famous retail politicking moments, the kind of promises they have to make back.
But as is the case even in Wyoming, New Hampshire is becoming less white by the month, and the Hispanic population is leading that change. This episode we’re going to talk with one of the leaders of that community, a woman who seems sort of hilariously conflicted about living in the Granite State. She’s Venezuela-born Eva Castillo, and she’s got a lot to say about Presidential politics and why she tells immigrants in Manchester that they really need to go down to Elm Street and drink beer with white people.
Here is an edited and condensed transcript from my conversation with Eva.
Nathan Thornburgh: One of the major national complaints about New Hampshire’s role in the primary is that it’s too white to be a representation of this country that is far more diverse than that. Do you agree?
Eva Castillo: No. It is white, if you count percentage. But the Manchester school district has over 80 languages spoken.
Thornburgh: Eighty languages.
Thornburgh: This is a high refugee resettlement area?
Castillo: We are a refugee resettlement area and also people just move here. I don’t know why.
Thornburgh: When did you come here?
Castillo: To live, I came in 1982. I came to the States in 1975 to Michigan to go to college. And then I flew to Manchester to visit my mom’s friend and her son’s best friend, who is now my husband.
Thornburgh: So you just came here and then love wrapped its tentacles around you.
Castillo: I don’t know if it was love, or what.
Thornburgh: Fate, destiny.
Castillo: That’s what it is. Fate.
Thornburgh: New Hampshire is an extraordinarily white state when you look across the breadth of it. Hispanics are somewhere less than four percent, is that right?
Eva Castillo: Yeah. Like 50,000 people. There are 80,000 foreign-born people in the whole state.
Thornburgh: Including Hispanic.
Eva Castillo: Everybody.
I was supposed to go back home after college and take care of my dad’s business, but I found my passion here.
Thornburgh: So it’s a small population, but they need leaders. They need people to stand up for them, and you were one of those people. How did that come to be? How do you come from Venezuela to New Hampshire and then carve a life for yourself standing up for and protecting the rights of this small group?
Castillo: When I moved here when I was in college, I had grown up thinking I was going to come to the States. I admired everything, and watched the civil rights marches on TV. I said, “Oh my God. This is so cool. I want to be there.” And my father had worked in the oil companies with Americans, so he was always so fond of Americans and everything that this country has to offer. So when I moved to Michigan to go to college I realized that all of a sudden I was put in the same boat with people that, had I lived in my country my whole life, I would have had no contact with whatsoever.
Thornburgh: Because you came from an upper-class family in Venezuela.
Castillo: Right. People from different countries that come here are united by one language, but other than that we really don’t have much in common. It would be like making you behave like the people from Australia just because you speak English.
But here, they group you, and they make us behave as one. I went straight, just by crossing a border, from being a member of the privileged minority to being a member of the unprivileged minority. So within two weeks I said, “This stings, but so be it. I’m not going to change it.” I’m always very practical, so I said I’m going to work to make sure that we rise. So I started volunteering in the Latino center in Kalamazoo, Michigan where I was in college. And then when I moved to New Hampshire, I went straight to a Latino center. And I was supposed to go back home after college and take care of my dad’s business, but I found my passion here.
Thornburgh: In your sense was that even as a upper class Venezuelan here temporarily—that if the rights of all Hispanics weren’t protected and that the dignity of that group wasn’t protected en masse, then it wouldn’t apply for anyone. There’s no such thing as being immune from that.
Castillo: That’s right. I’m one of them. And that’s what I tell my peers here that came from similar backgrounds. I say, “You know what, look at yourself in the mirror first of all. Secondly, when you move here, your average American could not care less who your daddy was at home. You’re in the same boat with the people that just crossed the border. So why not assume who you are with pride and be who are instead of trying to pretend that you’re American or Americanizing your name and your everything.” That’s why I use the name Castillo all the time. I don’t use my husband’s name. Because I am who I am. And I told my husband, I can have many husbands. I have one father. So I’m going to honor my father for the rest of my life.
I’m proud who I am. By being a Latino and showing people that I’m educated, that I can speak the language, that I maintain, somewhat, my culture, that I blend in, I’m educating people indirectly too. I’m tearing down the stereotypes, and showing that we all come in all colors and shapes and sizes. Because that was one of the first things that struck me about New Hampshire—the lack of diversity. And then every time I opened my mouth in the ’80s people would say, “Wow. I hear an accent. Where are you from?” And I’d say, “Venezuela.” “Where is Venezuela?” They didn’t even know where Venezuela was on a map. And I said, “South America.” “Oh, but you’re white.” And I used to tell my husband, “And we are the third-world country?” It was so funny.
New Hampshire is a microcosm of the rest of the world. It is just a small taste of what America is like.
Thornburgh: Would they be touching your blonde hair and just saying, “You’re a Venezuelan?”
Castillo: Yes. “But you’re white.” One of the first times we flew to New Hampshire, the kids in my mom’s friend’s house pointed at the bed and said: “The bed. You sleep here.” But we’ve come a long way. Now you hear Spanish all over the place. In the Walmart or the market or the street you hear people speaking Spanish. You see the African women wearing their traditional dresses. You see the Muslim women wearing their scarves or their dresses also. It’s fun. We’ve come a long way. So New Hampshire is a microcosm of the rest of the world. It is just a small taste of what America is like.
Thornburgh: What are the specific challenges about being in New Hampshire for Hispanics? You’re saying it’s less friendly than some other places in the country.
Castillo: It is. And it’s hard to navigate the systems. We have terrible transportation, so you need a car. It’s hard to find a professional job. Whatever you were in your country, you’re a nobody here. Few months ago I went to the Department of Labor to interpret a workers’ compensation hearing. And it was 70-year-old Dominican injured at work selling auto parts. This man had a PhD in Environmental Studies and he was an environmental engineer, and he ran the department in Dominican Republic and then in Germany did the same thing, and here he’s just selling auto parts. And that’s indicative of the lack of opportunities that people have, because there is this idea that we’re uneducated, that we’re weak. So everybody will give you a job to clean toilets or to take care of old people in their homes, because we’re the second oldest state in the country. But nobody will give you a chance to exercise your profession, to be who you are. I know guys that are engineers back in their country. Here they’re nobody. And they tell me, “Math has no language. I may have an accent, but math has no language.”
Thornburgh: Let’s talk about the politics. You and I were talking about the Trump rally that they’re gearing up for today. If there’s one place where a white journalist and Hispanic activist can really come together, it’s in our sense of physical fear at being too close to a Trump event. We were there in 2016 when he had his first pre-primary rally. And it was like blood sport, the way that he was talking about the press.
Castillo: And look at the way he talks about immigrants. I’m known all over the state as an immigrant advocate. So forget it. I’m not going to go anywhere near the rally.
Thornburgh: Has the mood shifted in that way? We talk about the old standing difficulties that an immigrant population might have. Do you feel like this incredible rhetoric and this violent language that’s coming out of the White House the last three years, has it made a material difference in people’s lives here?
Castillo: Definitely. I always say we cannot blame Trump for racism, because racism was there before. But he made it acceptable. So people that were racists didn’t express it because there was no culture to express it. Now they’re emboldened and happy to throw it in your face. And every time you talk about diversity, people react viscerally, badly. Like you’re taking something away from them.
Thornburgh: You have a pin on that says, “I’m pro-immigrant and I vote.” I assume that it’s not just about going out to Elm Street and having a beer among the native New Hampshirites. It’s also getting involved in the electoral politics, which is a great birthright of New Hampshire. How are you talking to them about the primary and what they should be doing in relation to it?
Castillo: I’m carrying it today because after this, I’m going to go to the barbershops and bodegas to tell people, “Hey, tomorrow you’re going to be voting.” I’m about making people take a stand for what they value. I don’t tell them who to vote for. I don’t do party politics, because I’m not about that. I don’t want to manipulate people. And they ask me all the time, “Who should I vote for?” And I say, “No. Take the time to read. You know what’s important to you.” And many times if they don’t know, they usually don’t even know the candidates, unless they are the big like the Obamas.
So I go and I tell them, “Go vote.” It’s important to voice your opinion. If you’re not active politically then you have no right to complain. If you did not put your voice there, how do you expect to be listened to? And how you expect your issues to be out there? What is important to you? But it’s hard. In the primaries, I really don’t think too many people are going to vote, because they don’t understand the point of having a primary. They vote for a president maybe. It’s hard enough to get them to go vote for the mayor. And I tell them that ;Local elections matter even more than presidential elections, because they determine how much money we’re going to get for the school district, how many cops we’re going to have in the street. Everything. So vote for that. It’s really hard to get people engaged.