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It Takes a Solid Foundation

by IDA L. CASTRO*, Written with Deidre Leipziger

August 16, 2000
Copyright © 2000 THE NEW YORK TIMES. All Rights Reserved.

My parents were born in Puerto Rico. My father comes from a very hard-working, very large family -- all in all, there were 18 brothers and sisters, and they helped maintain the little family farm. He came to New York City in the early 1930's as a stowaway, looking for a better life.

He didn't speak one iota of English, and he had only the shirt on his back. But he figured out how to survive -- became literally a jack-of-all-trades, including a potato picker and assistant chef for the Waldorf-Astoria.

My mother also came here young, in the 30's, to help give a better life to her family back in Puerto Rico. She worked as a seamstress in a number of factories -- she'd learned how to sew before she'd learned how to read and write. After they were married, my parents worked three jobs a day each. They finally set up a bodega together. As they worked hard and saved all they could, they would send for their relatives.

When I was about to be 7, my parents moved us to Puerto Rico. They were grateful for the opportunities in New York but also eager to go back. There was a lot of hostility, lots of indignities and obstacles in New York, and they wanted to give me and my brother an environment in which we were judged by our merit, not by our ethnic background. That was an important foundation for us.

My father has only a second-grade and my mother only a third-grade education, but if you met them you wouldn't believe it. Education in my family was almost an obsession, not just with my parents but with aunts and uncles on both sides.

When I was a child, my father bought my brother and me what he thought was the best encyclopedia in town: the Deluxe Britannica. As my brother and I went to school and our learning increased, my father read it to keep up, volume by volume.

At home we debated all sorts of subjects. My father didn't have much of a childhood and didn't really know how to play with kids. I'd read the newspaper so I could talk to him. We discussed sputnik and the Russians. I thought everybody did that. I found out later on that this was not normal for a 7-year-old.

My favorite TV programs were "Laurel and Hardy" and "Abbott and Costello." My mother would listen to the theme songs playing and run over to turn off the TV. She would make me tell the multiplication tables from 1 to 12, starting with zero -- and I couldn't make a mistake -- before she'd turn the TV back on. After I had that down pat, she'd have me do it in reverse, from 12 to 1.

When my own daughter was growing up, I made her do the multiplication tables, but I didn't torture her.

I'm grateful for the encouragement my parents gave and the example they set. They told me that I could accomplish anything if I put my mind to it. But they also wanted me to be very ladylike. Ultimately, I took the best of both positions. I would do everything I put my mind to and every once in a while would also act ladylike. They were great risk takers and entrepreneurs and never took no for an answer. And that's a hallmark of my career.

As much as my parents encouraged me to dream, as a child I never dreamed I'd be working for the president of the United States and working in this capacity. I thought I'd be a pediatrician until I discovered that when people told me their aches and pains I fainted.


*Ida L. Castro is Chairwoman, Equal Opportunity Commission

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