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Remarks by Keynote Speaker Héctor Tobar

Hector Tobar, Pulitzer Prize Winning Journalist and Author

Commencement Address

Héctor Tobar, Pulitzer Prize Winning Journalist and Author

School of Social Sciences, Humanities and Arts
Sunday, May 14, 2017

 

Chancellor Leland, Dean Robbins, Provost Peterson

faculty of the School of Social Sciences, Humanities and Arts:

Thank you for the invitation to speak here.

Parents, loved-ones, significant others, relatives, and friends, welcome.

 

And you,

the distinguished graduates

of the University of California, Merced, Class of 2017...

 

Congratulations, felicitations and salutations!

You have reached an important milestone

in a long and beautiful and unfinished journey.

Your education began many years ago---with crayons.

With pencils you sharpened the way your preschool teacher taught you.

With lines you drew, and yellow suns, and purple circles,

and with people who read books to you,

and the sound of their grown-up, patient voices.

 

You learned to make letters,

and then to read words, and write them,

and you opened the stiff cardboard covers of your first books

and their funny rhymes that taught you how letters make sounds,

 

And you were praised and corrected,

and the people who loved you saw the future

in your bright and perfect faces

and in your curiosity.

Those people who loved you saw you

learn and master many things.

And when they watched you

they remembered

their own struggles to become educated people

they remembered:

grandmothers who never learned to read and write

villages and towns and fields where there was too much work to do,

where school and study was a luxury

they remembered their own classrooms and their own regrets

the things they’d wished they’d done but never did

and they wanted to protect you

from all hurt, from all need

so that you could grow and blossom.

 

And maybe you once heard one of these grown-ups

whisper

with a sense of wonder and awe

“What a brain on that one!”

“She’s so smart!”

¡Tan inteligente, ese muchachito!

or the equivalent phrases

in Korean, Mandarin, Vietnamese, Armenian, Hmong,

Tagalog, Arabic and Farsi. And all the languages of California.

This child is going places, they’d say.

And even if they never said it,

somehow, someway

you came to believe in yourself

you came to believe in the power of your brain,

your intellect.

You solved math problems, and you crafted sentences

and essays and arguments

and your belief in your own brain power

finally brought you here

to the University of California

to the very top of the public education pyramid

in the largest of the 50 states of the United States of America.

 

And here, you did

many bold and brave things.

You studied, you chose a major.

Many of you watched the sunrise and/or the sunset

over nearby Yosemite.

Perhaps you entered an altered state or two

and you talked with friends

and you learned things from them you’d never learn in a book.

And if you didn’t enter an altered state,

maybe you helped out a friend

who entered one of these altered states

and was really freaked out.

Or maybe you helped a friend,

who was sad and confused and faraway from home.

And maybe you fell in love here

and maybe you fell out of love, and it hurt,

but in some ways

the hurt was like a song that was beautiful

and that made you stronger.

 

But more than anything

you came here to do,

what you needed to do.

What you urgently needed to do.

To be educated, to earn a degree

to arm yourself

with ideas and theories and concepts and history.

You got A’s, and other grades that were not so good,

and when things were hard

when they seemed impossible, even,

you kept on going.

Sometimes, on this personal quest, you felt very alone

and at others you understood

that you were part of something bigger.

You knew you were becoming part of a community--

the community of thinking people.

 

While you were enrolled here,

you watched, you listened, you read

as our country became a more divided nation.

And some of you felt hurt,

because you heard a message of hate

directed at you and the people you love.

Hate directed at people from the south

people of the land of the sun

where the corn grows tall,

where the descendants of the Maya and the Aztecs

labor and thrive and hope for something better.

And you felt rage at those who called us

criminals and rapists and drug dealers

And you vowed to make yourself smarter,

to make yourself more powerful

to prove that your people, our people

are as honest and human and smart

as anyone.

 

While you were here,

you watched the ground turn dry, as the Earth turned hotter

and you watched the land die,

and then it came back to life again

with a season of rain,

and blooming wildflowers

just in time for your graduation.

And now it’s your job,

to go out into the world

and to be the rain.

 

In Spanish we say, Cada quien pone su gotita de agua.

Each person adds a drop of water to the glass.

 

Together you will be the rain,

You will be the water

that makes a crop of unity and justice

rise from the dying earth.

You will help a few people, and perhaps many,

you will create beautiful things, and discover new truths

and launch new organizations, and families

and shape minds and start businesses.

And when you fail, you will pick yourselves up

and you will learn something that many of you already know—

that failure is the greatest teacher of all.

 

When you do these things,

it will be with the same brain, the same desire

that brought you here.

You are now, and will forever be

the same person who was loved and admired

by the elders who once carried you and fed you

and who read books to you.

We elders have placed our hopes in you

and we’re sorry we’ve left you

so many things to fix, so many messes to clean up.

 

But today, as you prepare to go out into the thirsty world,

know that you will always carry with you

the things you studied and learned here.

You are a stronger person thanks to Merced

thanks to the campus built in this valley,

thanks to its instructors and professors

and the seeds they planted in your minds here,

the ideals of democracy, and equality and resistance,

that come from Jefferson and Zapata,

from Simone de Beauvoir and bell hooks, and so many others

 

You are stronger because you came to this fertile valley,

to walk in the footsteps

of the mexicanos and Chicanos

who built a union with a black eagle as their symbol

the African-American pioneers and former slaves who built Allensworth

a town of free black men and women, run by free black men and women,

and the Chinese workers who built the Central Pacific,

the railroad that connected this valley to the rest of the United States,

and the Oklahomans and Guatemalans

who crossed deserts to get this valley and pick its crops.

With their labor and their courage,

all those people made history, here, in this valley.

And with your hard work,

you too made history.

You are the Class of 2017 of the University of California at Merced,

and you are warriors and survivors and creators

and you Dreamers.

And from this day forward you will continue to make history,

because history is always made

by those who dream.