Graduates, ladies and gentleman:
I was honored to be asked to be here on this special day to speak to you. I have never spoken at a graduation celebration before - unless you count my high school graduation, which took place before most of our graduates were born - but I understand the traditional role of such speeches is to send the graduates out into the world with assurances of the success that awaits them if they work hard.
I have no doubt that every woman and man in this graduating class has an incredible work ethic - the kind of work ethic that people develop when they know that nothing will be handed to them. It is the work ethic of the farm workers in the fields and the women in the garment district sweat shops. We work hard for what we have because all we have is what we have gained by our physical and intellectual sweat. We work hard because for us there is no safety net. We work hard because there is no other option. I say "we" because I am one of you.
I was raised in a poor, immigrant Mexican family and I learned early on that life is labor for women and men. As a young child I lived with my grandparents and I still remember that my grandfather woke at dawn to get ready for his long shift at the cannery. But, as early as he woke, my grandmother was already up, to cook his breakfast and begin her own long day of household work.
Watching my grandparents, I learned, not the value, but the absolute necessity of hard work. Can I say, then, that my personal successes came because I worked diligently and ceaselessly to get an education? Is my message to you today that hard work will always pay off; that if you strive to improve your life, America will reward your striving with a better life?
I wish that was always true, but we know it isn't. The farm worker who breaks his back in the fields, the woman sewing herself blind in the sweatshop - will America reward them with a better life in gratitude for their labor? I think we all know the answer to that question. We know, because we have experienced in our own lives and observed in the lives of other, that opportunity in America is not distributed equally and fairly. In America, a person can work hard and lead a life of integrity and a still fall back instead of advancing forward while others are rewarded, not for their work ethic or the content of their character, but because they were born into privilege.
There are millions of Americans who will never achieve the success and security to which their hard work would seem to entitle them because somewhere along the lines they will hit the wall of racism, or homophobia, or sexism, or institutionalized poverty. Moreover, it is likely that their children will also struggle. They will be victims of inferior schools, low expectations, drugs, gang violence and a criminal system that seems to target kids of color. For us, this is not just a sociological observation but a grim reality we have observed, among those we grew up with and sometimes even in our own families.
I say these things to you not to discourage you, but because they highlight your achievement today. Each one of you is the exception to the rule of low expectations. Against difficult odds, you have arrived at this day. And for that, you are heroes!
Your heroism is more than just personal heroism. You represent the finest qualities in the American story. Because, think of it. What is America's story? What is the story that America tells the world as its moral justification? The story America tells the world is that all people are created equal and that each person possesses the inalienable right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. And who best represents that story? Is it the person born into privilege who passes seamlessly through life enjoying the fruits of his position and prestige? No. The people who best represent the American story are the people who came from nothing and, against the odds, make something of themselves. The story that best expresses America as the land of opportunity is not the story of a George W. Bush, the son of a rich and powerful man; it's the story of the farm worker who finds a way to get out of the fields and start a small construction business and it's the story of his daughter, who becomes the first member of her family to graduate from college and from law school. And isn't that your story?
The story of America is the story of the stone that was rejected. Do you know this saying? It comes from the Christian tradition, in the gospel of Mark where Jesus tells his disciples. 'Have you never read the Scripture passage: 'The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone.' " What this translates to in terms of the American story is that the moral greatness of America is that those of us who begin life with every disadvantage, and of whom nothing is expected, can nonetheless become the foundations of American society.
In some way, all of us here are the stones the builders rejected. I know that is true of me. My family was poor, but, because we were not materialistic, our poverty did not feel like deprivation. My family's values were the values of family and community; of sticking together and staying in the same place. My family valued humility, forbearance and kindness. They were quiet people. They were generous as only the poor can be generous - sharing what little they have because they know first hand what it means to have nothing.
These are beautiful values, but they are not the values of the dominant culture in America. The dominant culture values assertive individualism and personal achievement even if that means stepping over people to get what you want. The dominant culture is aggressive and materialistic, loud and vulgar. Of what use to such a culture is a poor, Mexican-American child from a self-effacing, humble family? The answer is, not much. And yet, here I am, and here you are. The stones that the builders rejected, who have become the cornerstones.
As such, we have a particular moral responsibility in this culture.
First, it is our responsibility to assert that we are fully and completely Americans. Remember that you are not only Americans, you exemplify America's story. You must uphold the alternative vision of America that welcomes and embraces diversity, instead of fearing and repressing it. Everyone in this country, except for the indigenous people, has been, at one point or another, an outsider, an immigrant. From the point of view of American history, there is no difference between the American child of Vietnamese "boat people" and the descendant of the English "boat people" who arrived on the Mayflower.
Second, even though you know the bitter truth that discrimination is alive and well in America, do not succumb to bitterness. Our task is not simply to identify and denounce inequality, but to create a more equal society. I urge you, in the face of the challenges you are bound to encounter, maintain a positive attitude. If one door of opportunity slams in your face, don't stand there angrily pounding on it - try another door. I promise you, the right one will open for you.
Third, retain your humanity in the pursuit of your professional or material goals. As I said earlier, the dominant culture in this country is characterized by an aggressive individualism that gives people permission to treat others badly as they try to achieve their goals. In this country, the idea of success is too often expressed by that bumper sticker I used to see in the 1980's that said, the one with the most toys when he dies wins. We must have a broader, more human notion of success.
My own idea of success is fulfilling work, loving relationships and a connection to the God of my understanding that sustains me in my day-to-day life. My idea of success is not about my job title, the amount of money I make, the size of my house, or how often my name comes up when on Google. That kind of success is an illusion because there will always be a better title, more money, a bigger house, greater fame - if you start that path, you will never be able to call yourself a success. As you devise your own standard of success, I urge you to think deeply about what is the ultimate source of human happiness. I believe that you will find, as I did, that it is not about what you have but what kind of person you are.
Finally, you are also trailblazers and what that means is that you have created a path that others may follow. Help them. Turn back and extend your hands to those who are coming behind you. Give them the benefit of your strength, your hope and your experience. You will find that, as you help others in their struggle, you will have a deeper understanding of your own struggle, a deeper appreciation of your accomplishments and a deeper gratitude toward those who helped you on your way. By helping other people become heroes in their lives, you will come see the heroism of your own.
I send you out with a blessing that comes from St. Therese who reminds us: "The value of life does not depend upon the place we occupy. It depends on how we occupy that place."