Joseph I. Castro is the eighth California State University chancellor. Previously the president of California State University, Fresno, he is the first California native and first Mexican American to be appointed to oversee the 23-campus university system. Before joining the Zócalo Public Square event, “Can Higher Education Be Transformed to Better Serve Society?,” Castro called into the green room to share his favorite poem, how he’s finding ways to relax in the pandemic, and his bittersweet goodbye to Fresno State.
If you were a fruit, what fruit would you be?
A pineapple because I just love Hawaiʻi so much. It is probably one of the few places where I can really relax. I think it has something to do with the distance, as well as just the beauty. My wife and I go and unplug. We have a lot of friends there now. I love to swim, and I'll just spend hours in the ocean snorkeling. It's probably a place where I'll spend much more time after I retire.
Since Hawaiʻi is off the table for the moment due to the pandemic, have you found any new ways to relax amid starting your new job as chancellor of the California State University system?
One of the beautiful things about this new job is I now live in Long Beach. And my son, who is going to be 10 in a few weeks, likes to play football. So we've traded the green lawn of Fresno for a sandy beach, and we've been playing football every single day on the beach. It’s magnificent.
After so many years in NorCal, how does it feel to be a Southern California transplant?
I didn't realize it was going to be this big of a change. Even though Fresno and Long Beach are both major cities, they are very different. I'm feeling the adjustment. I grew up in the Fresno area, so I miss not having all my family around. But we're all enjoying living here—and the ocean and the 75-degree weather today.
As president of Fresno State, you worked closely with friend of Zócalo and former U.S. poet laureate Juan Felipe Herrera. What’s your favorite poem of his?
We honored [Juan Felipe Herrera] with an honorary doctorate one year. And as part of that, he spoke at the Latino commencement. That commencement at Fresno State is the largest of its kind in the country. Imagine mariachis on the stage. Fifteen hundred graduates coming in—almost all of whom are first in their families to go to college and graduate. Grandparents crying in the audience. And he goes up there, and he had no speech. He just wrote his own thing right in front of everybody. It was so amazingly beautiful. The two words that still stick out in my mind—he looked out to the graduates, and of course, you know, they're all Latino. And he goes, “This is a cinnamon tsunami. A cinnamon tsunami!” And then he just played off of that for his whole speech. It was magnificent.
Your mom was a beautician. What did you learn growing up in the beauty salon?
So much. I probably heard things I shouldn't have at that age. It was an amazing experience. Often, I was the only male in the place. And they trusted me. They treated me just like family—and they were a family. The same women would come in every week or every other week. For a lot of the women, it was the only time that they really could let loose. Also, it was the ’70s—so I’m sweeping, I'm doing errands for them—but I'm hearing it all. It just taught me so much about the challenges that they were going through. That plus being raised by my grandparents, and kind of always being around older people, it matured me faster. My mom said, “Oh, you were 40 years old when you were 10, Joe.” So that makes me quite old now, in her mind at least.
If you could meet anyone for a drink—living or dead—who would it be, and why?
My grandparents, for sure. Living, probably the Pope. But, someone who’s passed, it would definitely be the two of them. I had them until 94 for my grandfather and 96 for my grandmother.
What’s something telling about who they were?
For my grandfather, it would be patience, and calmness. I wouldn't be chancellor right now if I didn't have this temperament. The trustees were looking not just for technical skills—but this is the middle of pandemic, and we need to have somebody who's going to remain calm through the storm. And he taught me that. I never saw him lose his temper one time. And then, from my grandmother, it would be discipline. She was, of the two, much more strict. She would say, “You can be outside, but you're going to be in the front yard. Only the green grass. You can't go over there.” And she wouldn't even watch. She would just trust that I wouldn't do it. And I never did.
What is the last thing that inspired you?
I’m almost finished reading President Obama's book, and that has been deeply inspiring to go back and read about his path. It reminds me of just how extraordinary a person he is. So that's one thing. The other is leaving Fresno. It was inspiring to think with everybody there about what we had done together. It’s just a powerful reminder of what can happen when you collaborate with people.