U.S. District Judge Gonzalo Curiel, 62, was born in East Chicago, Ind., to parents who immigrated to America from Mexico. He and his three siblings grew up in East Chicago, a place described by older brother Raul as one where they had “Serbian, Greek, Polish, Puerto Rican and African-American” neighbors.
Gonzalo, the youngest of the bunch, went on to Indiana University, where he received his undergraduate (1976) and law degrees (1979). He began his legal career as a prosecutor in Southern California and was appointed to the bench in 2006. He became a federal judge in 2011.
In that capacity, Curiel is the presiding judge in a class action lawsuit filed by former students of Trump University. Donald Trump, playing to his racist base (or the white supremacist id of America), has repeatedly said that Curiel is not fit to oversee the trial because the judge is “Mexican” and Trump intends to build a wall between the U.S. and Mexico. Trump also called Curiel a “hater” and said that the judge should “recuse himself” from the trial.
On Tuesday, after top Republicans ran for the hills to distance themselves from Trump’s vile premise, the presumptive GOP presidential nominee backed down, releasing a statement saying, “I do not feel that one’s heritage makes them incapable of being impartial, but, based on the rulings that I have received in the Trump University civil case, I feel justified in questioning whether I am receiving a fair trial.” He then said he would not comment on the case anymore.
Although Curiel has not spoken out publicly about the s—t show he’s at the center of, his friends, family and others have. And from that, we found some very interesting things about the good judge.
Herewith, five cool things you may not have known about Judge Gonzalo P. Curiel:
1. His father came to this country before Donald Trump’s mother.
Judge Curiel’s brother, Raul, said that their father, Salvador, arrived in Arizona as a laborer in the 1920s. Donald Trump’s mother did not come to the United States until the 1930s, and she became a citizen like Curiel’s mother: by marrying a man who was an American citizen.
2. He’s a member of the “Divine 9.”
Judge Curiel pledged Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity at Indiana University in 1974. Not only is the judge a member of the historically black fraternity, but he also pledged its Alpha chapter and is a charter member of the alumni chapter in Bloomington, Ind. His fraternity brothers have taken to social media in recent days to lend their support, including with the hashtag #NupesAgainstTrump.
3. He rocked an Afro in the ’70s and played guitar in a band.
Growing up, the Curiels lived in an integrated neighborhood called Indiana Harbor, where blacks, whites and Hispanics all mingled and mixed. Judge Curiel may have gotten a taste of musical diversity there and played guitar in a band in the 1970s. His brother Raul said that he was once turned away from a wedding venue because of his Afro.
4. He was targeted by a Tijuana drug cartel in the ’90s.
When Curiel was a prosecutor in Southern California specializing in drug cases, a secretly taped prison conversation revealed that a top lieutenant for the Arellano-Felix Mexican drug cartel received permission to kill him. Curiel reportedly hunkered down for a while on a naval base and had “one or two bodyguards with him” for about a year. The irony? Curiel has already done more to stop the flow of drugs from Mexico into the United States than the man criticizing him.
5. He was appointed to the bench by the “governator,” Ah-nald.
In 2006 the then-Republican governor of California, Arnold Schwarzenegger, appointed Curiel to the state Superior Court. President Barack Obama in November 2011 nominated Curiel for the federal bench, a fact that Trump has mentioned as more evidence of Curiel’s “bias.” But it was actually a Republican governor who started his career as a jurist—one who came out this week on Twitter in support of his appointment, saying that Curiel “was an American hero.”
Curiel’s life is a testament to our highest ideals of diversity. His parents, immigrants from Mexico, saw their son rise to the highest echelons of American civil service as a federal judge.
It would be such poetic justice if a Mexican-American jurist derailed Trump’s chances for a strong showing in the November election. Viva.
Angela Bronner Helm is a writer, editor and professor of journalism at the City College of New York. Follow her on Twitter.