Waco native Tony Castro gives a sobering look at what growing up in his hometown and the South of the 1950s was like in his new book, “The Prince of South Waco.” For a young Chicano boy whose first real exposure to Southern culture (and the English language) was kindergarten, Castro paints a picture of a life that’s hard to find in history books.
Castro began writing the book in the 1970s as a followup to his first book, “Chicano Power,” per the request of his editors. He knocked it out but they didn’t like it, and the only manuscript he had burnied up when his car caught fire and blew up in 1977.
“I kept thinking I would get back to that book some day, but quite honestly my heart was never into doing that,” Castro writes in his author’s note. “I’m not sure why. I suspect I was either refusing to be honest about some of the things that happened in my early life or simply didn’t wish to face them.”
Castro alluded that maybe it was a good thing the original manuscript no longer exists. The two stories really bear little resemblance to one another, he said.
“That book was written almost 40 years ago,” he said. “It also wasn’t a love story or, perhaps more accurately, set around a love story.”
Castro’s story takes readers through the journey of what may have been an ideal love story, but because of the times and the segregated ways of the South, became a great source of heartache instead.
Perhaps one of the most fascinating things about the life that led Castro to a career as a writer is that in second grade, he was nearly placed in special education.
“For all their patriotism and avowed Americanism, my parents didn’t teach me English and figured kindergarten at First Baptist had taught me. It didn’t,” Castro said.
It was a student teacher who ultimately suggested Castro be taken to the Baylor Literacy Center after school for tutoring. A tutor would also come to Gurley Elementary to help him during the day.
“She taught me to read English from the back of baseball cards, to Sports Illustrated — where I worked years later — to introducing me to the Waco Public Library, where I spent most of my weekdays during summer as well as weekends and afternoons during school,” he said.
“I devoured anything and everything that had print on it, and I was pen-palling with an AP (Associated Press) reporter in Dallas from the fifth grade on.”
As a 14-year-old at University High, Castro got an internship at The Waco Citizen newspaper, which led to relationships with the Tribune-Herald and the Baylor journalism department. By the end of his senior year, he was a sports writer at the Tribune-Herald.
Castro, a longtime journalist and columnist in Los Angeles, has written two other books about New York Yankee greats — “Mickey Mantle: America’s Prodigal Son” and “Gehrig and The Babe: The Friendship, The Feud,” about teammates Lou Gehrig and Babe Ruth.
All the while, Castro was a normal Chicano teen dealing with the same things any other young boy would — and a few things he’s certain that virtually no one else did.
Castro shared a story of having to help his seamstress mother with some of her jobs at home, which normally consisted of formal dresses for girls his age. His part of the job? Posing as her model, because he was tall and skinny with a build similar to most girls his age.
“My younger sister was still too young and short, and my mother would either shame me by saying that if she didn’t finish a dress, she wouldn’t get paid or by bribing me with a commission off her sale,” Castro writes.
“At times, I had to put on a full show for mothers who came alone to check on their daughters’ dresses. On those days, I would have to try on the dresses with satin high heels.”
Castro tells his stories with a sensational ability to combine the humor of anyone’s coming of age with the hardship of the times and the painful happenings within his own family tree.
Castro said that “in the promotional BS” for “The Prince of South Waco,” there isn’t any mention of things like chasing after revolutionary leader Che Guevara in Cuba, trying to drown himself in the Rio Grande River, being taken care of by two strippers for weeks in Houston when his ex left him for another man, or dealing with the craziness of his family.
“What I have heard over the years is that somehow I had it lucky,” he said. “The Waco you know today is dramatically different from the one I grew up in.”
As told in “The Prince of South Waco,” it was an unlikely friendship in junior high with Dick McCall, son of Baylor University President Abner McCall, whom he met in Little League baseball that became a transcending influence that would change Castro’s life.
Castro writes: “Dick and I also didn’t realize how unique and isolated our friendship was. It never occurred to us, I don’t believe, that we were the only Hispanic and white kids who hung out together every day.
“We didn’t even see the class differences between us, class differences that apparently weighed heavily on the minds of many of the kids at South Junior. With the exception of Dick and a maybe a handful of students who were children of lawyers and other professional people, most of us at South Junior were the sons and daughters of working class parents.
“I was probably too naive or idealistic in believing in the notion of equality that I failed to be class conscious. But for some of my classmates, the differences were profound.”
Castro said no one ever mentioned role models when he was young, and that he never knew of any Latinos who went to college. The only identity he ever knew was the notion drummed into him by his father: “Somos Americanos” (“We are Americans”).
“It made for awkward times,” he said. “I wasn’t white, but in the eyes of other Hispanic kids I wasn’t like them either.”
‘The Prince of South Waco’
Book signing: Castro will be at the Waco-McLennan County Central Library, 1717 Austin Ave., at 7 p.m. Sept. 26 for a book signing and reading.
To purchase: The book, Tony Castro’s fourth, is available on Amazon.com. It is available to read from the Waco-McLennan County Public Library.
Online: PBS will be excerpting the book on its website in September as part of a promotion for its new series, “The Latino Americans.”