It’s safe to say Jesse Castañeda was the only hospital registration and billing supervisor who was a guest at the White House in 2012 — twice — an honor people who know him say is well-deserved.
His first visit to the White House came in 2012 when he attended an event honoring the legacy of farmworker rights advocate Cesar Chavez. A few months later, he was there as then-president of National Immigration Reform Advocates after President Barack Obama signed his Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals executive order, which protects from deportation young people who were brought to the United States illegally as children.
Castañeda has spent two decades in San Jose building a reputation for being so committed to helping disadvantaged people get what they need to survive and thrive that he’s the “go-to guy” in every area of his life.
His passion took root through his patient services work in several departments at Santa Clara Valley Medical Center where for 17 years he has expertly cut red tape for immigrants being admitted as patients. Over the years, his unstoppable passion for helping those who need it most navigate through the critical times in their lives has gone beyond just the workday.
He’s also a passionate activist in multiple community organizations, helping people understand the bewildering immigration system, promoting voter participation, connecting people with Covered California – the state’s subsidized Obamacare plan – feeding the hungry, fighting HIV/AIDS, and battling hate crime.
Castañeda has taken leadership roles in National Immigration Reform Advocates, Second Harvest Food Bank, the anti-crime group Not in Our Town, the Santa Clara County Registrar of Voters and several others.
The San Jose native is the son of Mexican parents who labored in the fields to provide for home and table. That humble background makes him appreciate what he has today: an education, a good job, and a happy, healthy family. He knows that, in contrast to many people he serves, he’s blessed. So he’s happy to help put a smile on the faces of less fortunate people.
More than a paper pusher
Sitting in his small office, which is stacked with papers — among them, Christmas cards from the Obamas and various awards — Castañeda, 51, looks every bit the bureaucrat straight from Central Casting.
He wears a white shirt and nondescript tie and sports a thin mustache. But, he is more than a paper pusher.
In his role as supervising patient business services clerk, he oversees about 30 clerks in Valley Med’s emergency and urgent care department. An average of 400 patients come in every day who must be registered, and his staff must figure out their insurance benefits. Those who don’t have insurance — a significant percentage of them are low-income immigrants — are sent to specialists who can arrange financial help to pay their hospital bills.
It’s a tough job. Working in a busy urban trauma unit, where all manner of human suffering may be encountered at any moment, takes an emotional toll on Castañeda, who takes a 30- or 40-minute walk every day to decompress.
His voice is soft and soothing, his eyes earnest but friendly. “This job has taught me that life is short, and you never know when you’re going to get hit by a car or something,” he says. Sometimes he calls his wife for reassurance that everything is OK at home with her and their two young boys.
But no matter how tough things get at work, he’s always ready to answer someone else’s call for help. It’s in his DNA.
Comforting a forlorn figure
A colleague who has known him for five years, for example, describes reaching out to him one hot afternoon a couple of summers ago to help a man who was unresponsive and sitting on the sidewalk in a wheelchair for hours. His head and body were buried under a blanket. Concerned nurses took notice and let senior health services representative Marlyne Balanzar know.
Recalling the day, Balanzar said she called 911, but help couldn’t come immediately. The hospital security team couldn’t help because the forlorn figure was not on VMC property. Balanzar became more concerned by the minute that the man might be suffering from dehydration, hyperthermia or maybe worse.
Desperate, Balanzar contacted Castañeda.
“The reason I went to Jesse was he always helps,” Balanzar said, describing how she told Castañeda, “You’ve got to do something. We can’t leave him out there. Please, you have to help him.”
When Castañeda arrived, he determined the man was probably homeless — based on the stuff hanging from the wheelchair. But he had to be cautious: Could there be a weapon under that blanket? What would the reaction be if he got close and frightened the person?
Castañeda patiently cajoled the man, using his best bedside manner, and the man eventually reached out from the blanket, holding the end of a frayed cord to show Castañeda. Castañeda pushed him to a shady spot on the medical center grounds, fixed the frayed cord and found an electrical outlet to plug it in. He also convinced the man to take off the blanket, drink some water and eat some fruit.
Touched by Castañeda’s kindness, the man began to cry and pat his pockets looking for something to give to Castañeda to show his gratitude. Castañeda waved him off.
“I’ll give you a hug,’’ he told the man. “I don’t need any money. I’m not paid to do this, but I want to help you.”
A community resource for immigrants
Co-workers say that’s the attitude he carries with him always, whether he’s solving problems for patients at work or for friends or immigrant colleagues who need help with immigration, insurance, health care or other issues.
“Jesse always goes over and beyond to help,” Balanzar said. “He has a lot of knowledge. Even though he’s not here in our department anymore, he’s our go-to guy.”
She said that even when he doesn’t know an answer, he knows where to find it.
She found that out firsthand when Castañeda helped her husband, Ivan, become a U.S. citizen after many years in this country. Ivan Balanzar had tried several times to negotiate the process but kept running into obstacles.
But Castañeda personally walked him through the paperwork process, hooked him up with solid legal advice, and Ivan Balanzar became a citizen on Jan. 22.
“If it wasn’t for Jesse, he would probably still be a permanent resident,” said a grateful Marlyne Balanzar.
Castañeda has done the same for countless others over the years, including patients, and the number of people needing help is growing. This year’s Citizenship Resource Fair, he said, drew nearly five times as many people as a typical year, amid rising anxiety over the immigration policies of President Donald Trump.
“People ask, ‘Where do you get the energy?’” he said. “I don’t drink coffee, I don’t take drugs. I guess it’s I’m just happy to be alive. I’ll rest when I eventually take my last breath.”
By Chuck Carroll