Graduation Speech -- Elizabeth Martinez '46

29 May, 2000

Good morning and buenos dias to you all.

Let me first thank president Alfred Bloom and the many people who worked to make this day happen, and to bring me here.

It is truly exciting to be awarded the honorary doctorate. To my personal delight this event has turned into a sort of family reunion. My daughter Tessa is here and also her fiancée David and also her father, Hans Koning.

Talking about my honorary degree, my daughter Tessa said: "You know what you should say when you get the degree? You should just thank people. After all, you must have been one of the first chicanas to graduate from Swarthmore in 1946 — maybe even the first!"

I admit to being especially happy and proud of that fact. My father, who immigrated to the U.S. from Mexico, would be so proud. But I am even more proud of the fact that there were seven more Swarthmore graduates named Martínez in the 1990s!

So let me give a special salute to the latina and latino graduates here today, and all their familias.

I am going to take my daughter's advice and thank people, beginning with my parents. When my father came here from Mexico, he had just seen the last years of the Mexican revolution. He loved to talk about it — about the great leader Emiliano Zapata and all the poor campesinos who fought with him for land. So he gave me the gift of history and the image of Zapata, one of the great revolutionary leaders of las americas.

My mother was strong-minded and a feminist in many ways. She worked as a public high school teacher of Spanish at a time when studying a foreign language meant French or German. Learning Spanish was considered second-rate. For many years, she struggled with the school system, trying to win recognition of the value of knowing Spanish and at the same time making her students come to love the culture as much as she did.

She also had a strong sense of justice and her favorite book was Los de Abajo — a novel about the Mexican revolution. "Los de abajo" in English, "the lower classes, the underdogs."

Many more gifts came later. Growing up in Washington, D.C., I soon learned about racism and the common experience of blacks and latinos. World War II, which started when I was 14, taught me about the fathomless brutality of anti-semitism. The internment of Japanese-Americans in U.S. concentration camps, the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, were unmistakable lessons in the dehumanization of Asian peoples. The great social movements of the 1960s, which I quickly joined, confirmed that people did not have to lie down and let such injustice roll on forever. Women like Ella Baker and Fannie Lou Hamer, men like Corky Gonzales and Cesar Chavez — those are all people who taught that truth, and whom I must thank.

Those were years of great courage and personal sacrifice and real achievement. But we should also recognize that being part of the global human struggle for social justice can bring a sense of personal fulfillment and happiness.

I deeply hope all of you graduates may someday know that kind of happiness.

It is all too clear today that the struggle for social justice and to defend our planet is far from over. But all over this country — and other countries too — young people are on the move with a new passion. Here in the U.S., they are fighting for decent schools, for ethnic studies, for workers rights, against sweatshops, against the criminalization of youth — on many, many fronts, across the whole nation. They are smarter than we were in the 1960s, and the young women are playing leading roles.

So I want to thank these youth above all. For their spirit, energy, and determination. For their refusal to accept injustice and their love of justice. They can carry us all forward.

Thank you, all of you, and adelante siempre!