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.
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
their own struggles to become educated people
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
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,
you came to believe in yourself
you came to believe in the power of your brain,
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
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.