[This article first appeared in the Orange County Register on April 7, 2015.]
On March 31, our nation observed Cesar Chavez Day. Every year around this date, much is said about how the United Farm Workers movement, co-founded by Chavez and Dolores Huerta, advanced civil rights. At Cal State Fullerton, their legacy is palpable in the thousands of students who, in reaching higher, prove that “sí, se puede.”
This connection is especially evident during our university’s annual Chicano/Latino and Native American Recognition Ceremony, where last year I not only had the privilege of meeting Huerta, but also of presenting the following toast to the graduating students. These sentiments take on new resonance as we approach the culmination of another academic year’s challenges and triumphs, with “sí, se puede” ringing in our ears.
It has been a long journey.
You all worked hard just to get started on this journey.
You kept working hard to stay on track, to persist.
You calculated, wrote, read, discussed, listened, remembered, applied, practiced, improved and interrogated your way through courses, projects, labs and activities.
You spent countless days and nights getting better at your chosen fields.
Many of you did so while also caring for sick babies or elderly grandparents, while working 30 or more hours to support yourself and others, while failing to find much needed work for lack of documents, while struggling to keep yourselves or others on track.
And here you are, successful and victorious.
The great Mexican writer Octavio Paz once said that spaces do not lie; you can always find in them traces of history.
And so here, in California, regardless of who we are or what our ancestry is, we move every day across spaces bearing the subtle and not so subtle traces of peoples with whom we share a long, complicated, often tragic history.
We have buildings, pathways, names, documents, artifacts, poems, sayings and foods that are proof of that shared history.
We also have faces, last names and life trajectories that bear evidence to our shared past.
And at some point in your personal life trajectory, you did us the great honor of bringing yourself and your biography to Cal State Fullerton.
I’ve always found something powerful, even magical, happens when an individual and a university come together.
Being in a university gives us the tools, the place, the resources, to put our biographies in the context of the larger narratives of history, society and culture – and something new and beautiful is born from that intersection.
Writer Eduardo Galeano from Uruguay and sociologist Paulo Freire from Brazil have both often remarked on the two-way nature of educational processes.
Working to get educated, struggling to get educated, students always end up educating others as well: Those privileged enough to teach them, those close enough to call them family, those aware enough to keep track of the country’s ability to nurture its young minds and prepare them for an exciting, but certainly more complex, future.
Not only your future, or your family’s future, but also our collective future.
There are those, hopefully by now very few, who believe democracy is best when people are alike.
Octavio Paz, of course, knew better.
True democracies, he said, are pluralities, consisting of diverse groups, be they defined by class or by race or by whatever.
True democracies, he added, are participatory, with all these different sectors enjoying access to the political process, to the shaping of the collective future; and true democracies are, therefore, necessarily predicated on the ability of a country to educate its people.
Galeano would probably add, “and the ability of the country to learn from its people.”
And so I thank you, dear students, in the name of Cal State Fullerton, for letting us teach you and for teaching us in return, for the better democracy that is sure to come from your increased participation, for the better future that we are certain you will have a role in building.
I want to express the joy, the pride we feel not just for you and your families, but with you and your families.
Let us then toast together, celebrating today and the future, a toast full of Titan Pride.