Héctor delivered this speech to the 2008 graduating class in the Humanities at Cal State Northridge
We are gathered here today, faculty, parents, siblings and friends to celebrate the accomplishments of men and women who have dedicated a portion of their lives to the study of human thought, human culture and human history.
Together, their fields of study are known as the humanities. Now this is an undeniably brave thing to do, to study a branch of the humanities. Because if you declare your major to be Jewish Studies, or Central American Studies, or Asian American studies, you’ve basically announced to the world that the pursuit of knowledge, for its own sake, is probably more important to you than the pursuit of knowledge as a means to an end for monetary gain.
Few people get rich with, say, a major in Latin American studies. I know this, because I have a degree in Latin American studies.
I can still remember my father’s reaction, some twenty years ago, when I announced to him that I had changed my major at UC Santa Cruz from biology and pre-med to Latin American studies and Sociology. He said to me: “Well, can you still change back?”
My parents, like many working class people, had a utilitarian notion about education. They were Central American immigrants, from Guatemala. Education was supposed to liberate you from poverty. Perhaps some of you here in this room, have parents who see, or who understood education the same way.
Sure, Dad, I said. Todo es posible. Anything is possible. I might still be a doctor.
But I never went back to the lab, never picked up another test tube, and never did get to organic chemistry. I didn’t because that world of ideas and history I immersed myself in was too rich, too beautiful to turn my back on. I started with Guatemalan history, worked my way through Latin American history, and then into Europe and Africa: I learned about coup d’etats in Guatemala and Chile, about the wounds of slavery and reconstruction in the United States, I read Salvadoran poets and Vietnamese history, and the story of the Holocaust, a story every human being should know.
The more I read, the more I studied, the deeper I was in. Twenty years later I’m still reading, and digging myself in deeper. And I can say that, in terms of life experience, I am a very wealthy man, even though I do always seem to be a bit short of cash. And, I can share with you this insight that comes to me more than twenty years after I donned a cap and gown at my own graduation ceremony: today, on the day you receive your degree, your education is really only beginning.
Here at Northridge, you have been introduced to a small section of the great quilt of knowledge we humans have spent a couple of millennia stitching together, ripping apart, and stitching back together again. Having been introduced to the power of knowledge, to power of ideas to liberate and empower, you know there is no going back. You cannot erase the past few years here at Northridge: it is an indelible part of how you are. You are not the same person you were when you first came here.
And now, you are about to take the bold step of putting into practice what you’ve learned. Because, you may not know this yet, or see it clearly, but the degree you receive today is not just a reward for your accomplishments over the past few years at this campus, but also a contract for the future. You have a signed up for a lifetime commitment to continue the traditions of thought and action that were passed on to you during your stay here.
Suffice it to day, books will be written, organizations founded, speeches delivered, articles written, and businesses founded by the people on this lawn in the black caps and gowns. Some of you will make arguments in courts of law, others in the living rooms of potential voters; some of you will have long conversations with the homeless and the needy, some of you will launch bold new enterprises, and some of you will create works of art. Some of you will bring add new meanings to old, necessary concepts such as sisterhood and justice. All of you, collectively, with your imagination and with your idealism, with your work ethic and your stubbornness, will change the world.
In these journeys you undertake you will find yourself remembering the lessons you learned, the books you read, and the professors and fellow students you met during your stay here. To this body of knowledge, you will add the analysis, and the insights that come from your own experiences, from the work you do toward realizing your ambitions, the energy you spend trying to make your vision of what the world should look like come true.
In these tasks you set for yourself, you will have many triumphs and failures. And, in a strange way, you will learn that one failure is worth more to you than a dozen triumphs. Why? Because you always learn more from your failures. Those of you who are most persistent will discover that if you put all your energy and brains into some craft or profession, and if you seek to continue learning more about this craft or profession, you will eventually get very good at this craft or profession. One day, some one will say you have a “talent” at this craft or profession, as if God had handed this skill down to you when you were a baby in your mother’s arms, when in fact, it’s something you’ve built with years of persistence and study. I know this to be true, because that’s a description of my career as a writer, a craft I once knew almost nothing about, and a craft that people now say I’m “talented” at, even though I know my “talent” is something I built with three qualities my Guatemalan mother and father handed down to me: persistence, ambition and, most importantly, hope.
In closing, let me say I wish all of you a steady supply of persistence, ambition and hope over the next several decades. This city, this state, this country needs those qualities from you. And remember that doing something different, something challenging, bringing something new into the world will often earn you as much criticism as praise. Or, just as likely, it will earn you the privilege of being ignored. Do not allow that to deter you. We need your creations, we need your vision, we need your hope. In fact, our collective future is depending on it.
Good luck to you all.