The politicians and San Antonio natives have been raising money for hunger relief and distributing food: "We wanted to actually get out there and help"

By Amy Eskind
February 23, 2021 05:25 PM
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The morning after President Donald Trump's second impeachment trial ended in an acquittal, Texas Rep. Joaquin Castro flew home to his family in San Antonio — and into an unfolding crisis.

His home state was becoming the epicenter of days of deadly winter weather that pummeled the country last week.

Unusual freezing temperatures caught San Antonio and much of the rest of Texas off guard and badly unprepared. Roads were already slick and the demand for heat soared, putting pressure on the the state's power grid.

By the night of Feb. 14, hours after he'd arrived home, Castro's house lost electricity intermittently. By the next day, it was gone.

He'd just bought his kids — ages 5 and 7 — bunk beds. But instead of breaking them in, the family piled into one bed to keep warm as the temperature inside dropped to near freezing. Food began to spoil, so he stored meat outside in the several inches of snow that accumulated. The family lived on bread and canned food.

"I thought the impeachment trial was going to be the highlight of my February," the 46-year-old lawmaker tells PEOPLE. "And then I got home and we went straight into a blackout. That was an intense experience, and then this was even more intense."

San Antonio initially saw up to six inches of snow and then more snow later in the week. The freezing temperatures turned much of the precipitation to ice.

And the punishing weather led to widespread failures of the state's power grid.

The Castros were so cold they thought of staying with Julián Castro, Joaquin's identical twin brother and a former San Antonio mayor, U.S. housing secretary and 2020 presidential candidate. Then Julián lost power too. So they stayed with the twins' father one night, and the power finally was restored after more than two days.

Meanwhile their mother lost power for a few hours and had a pipe burst, flooding her garage. The unsalted roads — in a city that usually bakes in the sun — were treacherous. Julián worried about his mother, who is diabetic, but managed to bring her groceries and hot food.

In the midst of these personal challenges — the same faced by numerous Texas residents — the brothers worked to help others, too.

"Compared to a lot of other people, we didn't have it as bad and that made me feel even more so that we needed to step up," Julián says. Fifth-term Congressman Joaquin was hearing from distressed constituents. People already hurting from health and financial setbacks from the COVID-19 pandemic got slammed again by the winter storms, and even families that never needed help before were broadsided by the weather.

"The need was incredible," Joaquin says. His staff put aside legislative tasks. "We're getting calls, I'm getting Facebook messages, Instagram messages, tweets — every way that people can reach out for help, they have during this time," he says.

Julián (left) and Joaquin Castro
| Credit: Paul Morigi/Getty

Rolling blackouts, frozen pipes breaking, flooding and in some cases uninhabitable homes left people in need of food and shelter. There have been dozens of deaths in Texas and elsewhere linked to the weather.

Much of Texas now has its power restored, though millions are either still without clean water or advised to boil it if they have any. Supermarkets offer bare shelves.

"San Antonio is a lower income big city, so you already have a lot of families that are living on the edge," Julián says. Talking several times a day, and with their staffs in regular communication, the brothers planned to volunteer together to hand out food with the local food bank in San Antonio on Saturday, helping fellow Texans who waited in their cars in mile-long lines.

"We wanted to actually get out there and help their effort to deliver food to people," Julián says. He handed out peanut butter, canned beef and pet food.

An added benefit? Seeing his brother.

With Joaquin in Washington, D.C., on weekdays, and in-person events over the past year canceled because of the pandemic, it was a rare opportunity to be together. "It was nice to get to spend a little time with him, for a very worthy cause," Julián says.

The brothers can certainly relate to families needing help. They remember periods of their childhood when food was scarce. "We were on free lunch for a long time, particularly in elementary school," Joaquin says. "When you're that young you don't fully understand what you're going through. We just plowed through it. We would look forward to getting food at school." Joaquin remembers periods when his grandmother lived with the family, and their parents, civil rights activists, were unemployed.

Both he and Julián have memories of the family receiving food boxes. During the 2020 race, Julián made ending hunger one of the tenants of his presidential bid. "The kindness of other people was very helpful," he says. "I always remember that."

The Castro brothers distributing food in Texas amid deadly winter weather there last week.
| Credit: Courtesy the Castro brothers

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Through his progressive political action committee People First Future, Julián initiated a fundraising campaign for Feeding Texas, the hunger-relief charity that supports the state's 21 food banks.

Using Julián's national list of emails from his campaign — and their combined social media reach — he and Joaquin raised nearly half a million dollars in four days.

"You stick out in people's minds because you're identical twins, and whatever you do people think of you as a collective or a unit," Joaquin says. "I think that's helpful."

Julian agrees. "It grabs people's attention. People remember it. It puts an exclamation point on the effort — in a good way," he says. "If doing it together makes it stick in people's heads more and it benefits the organization more, then we're very happy to do it. And that's usually the case when we team up and do something together."

No one was more surprised by their campaign than Feeding Texas CEO Celia Cole.

"It came out of the blue," says a grateful Cole, noting that food insecurity had doubled from the pandemic, and a million Texas families were already food insecure before the winter weather and its fallout.

"Secretary Castro was the first politician to step forward and launch a campaign. We're not used to that,' Cole says. As a nonpartisan organization, "We don't typically partner with politicians on fundraising campaigns," she says.

Joaquin joined Julián's effort, and the donations rolled in. "They're well known and well liked in Texas, and it was very helpful for us to have them call us out and support fundraising on our behalf," Cole says.

Other elected officials have since launched their own campaigns. "The outpouring has been incredible," Cole says.

The Castro brothers
| Credit: Alex Wong/Getty

Still thinking of more ways to help, Joaquin launched a petition to stop energy price-gouging in Texas. With energy demand as high as it was and supply lagging last week, some consumers were seeing energy bills in the thousands.

"It's just outrageous," Joaquin says. "We need to hold people harmless for what ended up being poor planning by state leaders, by the Public Utility Commission and ERCOT." (Electric Reliability Council of Texas operates the power grid for most of the state).

Julián was right there to help promote the petition online. Or as Joaquin puts it: "It's often helpful to have a twin brother who's in the same line of work."

Which isn't to say they don't compete. In high school, they shared a room in their mother's two-bedroom, 900-square-foot home. Even now, Joaquin can rattle off exactly how each brother stood compared to the other. "I was better at tennis, I was better at basketball, we [both] played football. He was a shade better in school. I'm a little more extroverted than he is."

But the truth is they are very much alike. "We have a lot of similarities — the music we like, the food we like, obviously we both have a deep interest in politics," he says.

They went to college together, both double majoring in political science and communications at Stanford. Then they went to Harvard Law School too. "I tell people I can't get rid of my brother," Joaquin jokes.

Both married, and each raising a son and daughter, the Castros live about 15 minutes away from each other in San Antonio.

Many can't tell them apart and Julián thinks it's helpful for people to see them together. "People can see that there are actually two of us," he says. Joaquin now sports a beard, which helps. Julián suggested it offhandedly when he was running for president and teases Joaquin that it makes him look like the Wolfman. But he's going to keep it.

"You would be surprised at how many people still don't know who's who," says Julián. "I guess they don't remember which one has a beard and which one doesn't."