On May 11, 2011, Metropolitan State College of Denver held its 14th annual Latino Graduation Ceremony at the Tivoli Turnhalle. Viva Colorado publisher and editor Rowena Alegría was honored to provide the keynote address at the ceremony, which is sponsored by Metro's Latina/o Faculty & Staff Association and included dinner, Peruvian dancers and the awarding of the Espíritu de Aztlán Awards. Alegría was proud to accept along with this year's nearly 400 Latino graduates a colorful stole marking her own graduation from Metro 20 years ago, before that particular tradition had begun.
Here are her remarks:
President Jordan, members of the Latino/a Faculty and Staff Association, proud parents and, above all, Metropolitan State College of Denver's Latino and Latina graduates of the Class of 2011. Felicidades! Estoy muy orgullosa de cada uno de ustedes. I am proud of every one of you for what you have accomplished.
And I am honored to be here today, and grateful to all of you for allowing me to be part of your celebration. It was 20 years ago this month that I, too, fulfilled my dream of graduating from college. This very college. And I'll tell you, I for one would never confuse the history, the energy, the color of this place for that other institution of higher learning in that other part of town, no matter what you called it.
Metro may not have all that fancy copper roofing, but we have a proud tradition that is as old as our city, which was born right here in this part of town. It's difficult to imagine now, I know, looking out at the towers of steel and concrete, at the brake lights lined up on Colfax and Speer, and with the light rail trains clanging along, but 150 years ago or so, when my grandparents' grandparents' were young - so not all that long ago in the greater scheme of things - the Queen City of the Plains was nothing but plains. The Arapaho Indians camped at the confluence of the South Platte and Cherry Creek.
Can you imagine teepees where kayakers float past the REI now? They were there. And the Arapaho people welcomed newcomers to this place where the buffalo roamed.
Those newcomers included some brown people from the south who built their homes from bricks made of mud and straw and discovered gold on the South Platte River, about where Overland Park is now, which many of you may know better as Aquagolf.
According to Mr. Colorado, who is also known as local historian extraordinaire Tom Noel, that 1857 gold camp predated both the founding of Auraria and the founding of Denver City. In other words, aside from our Arapaho brothers, we Latinos were here first.
Those first Latinos at the "Mexican Diggings" were not quite given their due, but they didn't go away in spite of laws that prohibited the building of adobe homes in Denver to discourage their staying. In fact, as you probably know, the land that the Auraria Campus was built on was "donated" by a whole neighborhood of Latinos. Some of you may even be descended from those folks who gave up their homes for this campus, yes, anybody?
So why am I giving you a history lesson when you're supposed to be officially finished with studying, especially of history?
Because you're NOT done studying. Or learning. Or growing. I believe that this milestone is only the beginning of what will likely be a long journey toward some destination you cannot even begin to fathom. For one.
For two, this isn't your official graduation ceremony. This is a celebration of your accomplishments and of our culture, our customs, our traditions and our history.
History, as you will continue to learn, tends to come into better focus with time. Hindsight is 20/20, right? So if you don't look back now and again, the trail blazed by those who came before you can be paved over by a highway headed in the wrong direction.
And that's what I'd like to talk to you about today. Your roots.
Although our Hispanic history is not highlighted in enough history books, our ties to the first peoples of this land should be honored, our contributions to the language and place names we now embrace as purely American are indeed that, because one does not have to be Anglo-Saxon to be truly American. The efforts of our hermanos y hermanas still keep food on American tables and our so-called enemies at bay.
Our achievements are real and we should celebrate them as often as we can, even if the larger culture is slow to join us. We want our children to see themselves, or people who look like them, as the heroes of this city, this state, this country. Perhaps even this institution.
And now they can more than ever before. Things are not perfect, with the current anti-immigrant climate affecting the way far too many Latinos are treated, but we have made progress. You are here, right? With a degree in the offing. There are no longer signs outside Colorado restaurants that say No Mexicans and No Dogs. Our Cinco de Mayo celebrations no longer end with tear gas and billy clubs, which they did when I was a teenager. And children are no longer punished for speaking Spanish at school. Not officially anyway.
Still, according to the Colorado Department of Education, only 55.5 percent of Latinos graduate on time. Little more than half for you liberal arts majors. That compares with 80.2 percent of white students. And 82.4 percent of Asian students. The latter are at least as ignored as Latinos in most American history books. Why the difference in achievement?
Some might lead you to believe that Latinos don't value education. Look around you. That's just not true. And a 2009 report from the Pew Hispanic Center supports that. Their survey of more than 2,000 Latinos found that 89 percent of Latinos ages 16-25 said that a college education is important for success in life. And 88 percent of all Latinos ages 16 and older agreed.
So why the gap between the high value Latinos place on education and the graduation rate? Seventy-four percent of those 16-to-25 year olds who cut their education short said they did so because they had to support their family. About half of those who didn't finish school cited poor English skills.
So how do we fix what is really a socio-economic problem?
Some of us have found a way. We worked hard. We overcame fear and prejudice and stereotypes. Some of us blazed the trail in our families to be the first to graduate from high school, or college. Some of us have become police officers and teachers, lawyers and business owners, legislators and, well, newspaper publishers.
In 1991, when I graduated from Metro with a Bachelor's degree in Spanish - magna cum laude with one of the first honors' designations awarded by this institution, which I'm obviously still very proud of - I clung to my childhood dreams. I planned to travel the world, collecting languages and literary prizes for the novels I would write along the way. I vowed I would never marry or have children. And I would surely never spend all my life in Colorado.
By then I already had journalism experience at magazines and newspapers, though I'd taken only one journalism class here at Metro. And let's just say it wasn't my favorite. I accepted an internship at The Denver Post in May of 1991 because I knew I was lucky to have it. I thought it would be fun, even though it was Gene Amole with the Rocky Mountain News whose columns I first clipped and tried to imitate, not understanding as a young child that he didn't do the kind of writing I thought I was destined to do. I thought I was buying time with that internship until I figured out my next step, until I could see my future more clearly.
Well, guess what? That 12-week internship turned into 12 years, plus one marriage, one divorce and two sons, one of whom is now a freshman, and aspiring pilot, right here at Metro.
I swear it was only last week that another three-year-old in the childcare pointed a finger at my boy and called him a Mexican, and my completely sincere child replied: "No I'm not. I'm a Power Ranger."
When I left The Post in 2003, because I was tired of the stress and the long hours, I still had dreams of novel writing, so I took time off to write. For a while, I lived in a hundred-year-old farmhouse 50 miles from the Kansas border, and then walking distance from the Pacific Ocean in Oregon. By then I had a new husband and gave birth to a new child in each of those places. So much for novel writing.
In 2006, I returned to Denver. I wasn't here a month when the editor of The Post asked me to be editor of Viva Colorado, their new Spanish-language weekly. That was nearly five years ago. In September of last year, I was named publisher of Viva Colorado. And last week we relaunched Viva as a bilingual publication. We also launched vivacolorado.com, Facebook and Twitter, too. All in Spanish and English.
After 25 years in journalism, I didn't think I had much more to learn. Boy, was I wrong.
One of my favorite quotes is this, from Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe: Choose well. Your choice is brief and yet endless.
If someone had told me twenty years ago that the decision I admittedly took pretty lightly upon my Metro graduation would determine the direction not only of my career but of my life, I never would have believed them.
Because I figured you might not believe me either, I took a few minutes here to share my story with you. It has a happy ending. I love what I do. Everyday is a new challenge, and I get to make a difference. I am also still working on a novel.
But this address is by no means about me. It's about you. And it's about possibilities.
We stand on the shoulders of our ancestors. I want you to remember that. We may not be able to trace our roots all the way back to a particular place and time centuries ago. But that doesn't matter. Your ancestors were good people. And bad people. They made wise decisions and foolish ones. They ate and slept and procreated. They were probably not as lucky as you, sitting here with the blessing of an education and the promise of a bright future. When those brown people discovered gold along the South Platte, they could never have imagined that there would one day be a different kind of gold mine here in Auraria. And yet they, and the founders of San Luis, the oldest town in Colorado; and Casimiro Barela, the legislator who spent 25 years in the Colorado statehouse, who helped craft our state's constitution and who assured that Colorado legislation was printed in Spanish so that the native Spanish speakers in his county of Las Animas could understand the state's laws; and Rodolfo "Corky" Gonzales, who marched in the streets of Denver and Washington, D.C., for the rights of Latinos, they all left a legacy.
A legacy that has allowed us to not only dream of a better life, but to have the opportunity to achieve it.
Of course there are many factors that determine our success. And many definitions of success. I'm sure many of us in this room know a lot of people who have worked hard their entire lives and still not achieved what many in this country might call "success."
They don't have a big house or a new car. They don't vacation in Paris or Disneyland. They won't be retiring on a yacht or worrying about the rise or fall of estate taxes.
And yet, perhaps those same people are here, too. They took time off of work, dressed in their nice clothes and made their way down here to celebrate with you. To celebrate you. Perhaps they know that without them, you might not be here. Without their love and support, without their example and inspiration, you might not have accomplished all that you have.
Ancestors are not just dust in the earth. They are not pottery shards or cave paintings, or Spanish royals or Indian chiefs. They are our parents and grandparents. They are the elders who showed us - who show us - by example how to eat and how to work, how to treat others and how to look at ourselves, how to love and how to worship. They gave us our big boobs and our skinny legs and our aptitude for language or our ear for music, and, you'll discover far too soon, perhaps, a propensity for gray hair or hypertension or diabetes.
They didn't mean to give you anything but the best of what they had to offer. None of us knows exactly what treasures or tricks we carry in our genes. But we are all accidents of birth. We do not control to whom we are born, or when or where. We don't choose the color of our skin, the straightness of our hair, our nationality or our language. If you are lucky enough to be born or brought into a society as rich as this one, a society that can offer opportunity to its young people, you are lucky indeed. And don't forget it.
Yesterday afternoon, President Barack Obama spoke in El Paso, Texas, advocating for immigration reform. Today, Democrats proposed yet again another version of the Dream Act, which would allow certain young people who were brought to the United States illegally by their parent to continue their education. It would also provide them a path toward citizenship.
In my work at Viva Colorado, I have heard many heart-breaking stories about children such as these, a valedictorian and aspiring engineer who now works as a butcher, a nine-year-old who was born here but to parents who were born in Mexico and when they couldn't find work here anymore, returned there, where their young son was shot and killed by narcotraficantes. Those people did not choose to be born poor or powerless. Any more than we chose to be born into whatever position we did that provided us the opportunity to be here today.
So what does that mean for you, who have already earned your degree and a ticket to the good life? About 40 years from now, when you'll perhaps be verging on retirement, what will be the state of our economy if we have held down millions of young people, prevented them from doing what every other previous generation in the history of this nation has done, until now: do better than their parents did as far as education and accomplishment go?
And what can you do about it anyway? You're just barely graduating from college. You need to get a job or you need to continue your education. You probably have some student loans to pay off. Maybe you're already looking to get married or have children.
This is Metro, so some of you may already have quite a bit of living under your belt. That's one of the beauties of this place. You learn from each other as easily as from professors that may actually even know your name!
But here's the thing. You are the ancestors on whose shoulders your children and grandchildren will stand. What you do as you leave the Auraria campus can have even more effect than the residents of the Mexican Diggings, why? Because you have earned with your degree both power and responsibility.
You can stand up now. You can vote. You can get involved. You can write letters to your lawmakers. Or to the editor. You can create a blog or use Facebook and Twitter to start a peaceful revolution. You can rewrite those textbooks. And you can make choices about your life that will have more meaning than a new car or a house in the suburbs.
You are already making a difference just by being here. The Latino student body at Metro rose from 16 to 16.5 percent from 2010 to 2011. That's nearly 4,000 future politicians and teachers, social workers and nurses, judges and maybe even a few journalists following in your footsteps already.
What trail will you blaze for them? What example will you set? How will you help those who come behind you? Especially those who aren't as lucky as you are. And you are lucky. Don't forget it. Now go out and earn it.
Thank you very much.