Last Collection: Aurora Camacho de Schmidt

This was John Coltrane at the tenor saxophone. He plays "I Want To Talk About You," by Billy Eckstine, with the collaboration of McCoy Tyner at the piano, Jimmy Garrison on the bass, and Elvin Jones on the drums. A good thing Jones is there on the drums, anchoring the music along with Tyner's hammering chords, making sure Coltrane does not take off into outer space, sax and all, where he would still be, forgetful of the earth, spinning obediently around any planet, but still "talking about you..."

I wanted to invite Coltrane to this gathering because his music seems to appear out of nothing, to be sheer creation, unimaginable a moment before, and then so fully present, surprising, and communicative. But we know this music did not come out of nothing. It is the result of a tremendous discipline, a long tradition, and a communal experience. Let me see if I can, in this meditation, compare the flare of the artist with what you have done here and what you will do in the years to come.

Thank you for inviting me to speak to you, in the presence of your families in this last collection. Friends, or Quakers, have practiced not only silent worship, but also "collecting" and "re-collecting" for a few hundred years. In one of those collections, in the 1860s, a college was born, just a few steps from here, in the midst of the Civil War, among abolitionists who also understood the need to educate women and men together. It was a moment of vision and grace. The town, the Quaker Meeting, and therefore the College, all bear the name of Swarthmore, as in Swarthmore Hall, the English home of Margaret Fell, one of the founders of Quakerism who was incarcerated for her beliefs in 1664, and who wrote ceaselessly in prison, including the essay "Women's Speaking Justified," which may come in handy even in the 21st century. This extraordinary legacy is yours. As we recollect, we make ours the generative power of foundational memories. The wonderful energy that is yours today did not come out of nothing.

To recollect is to remember, and to re-member is to create a whole out of fragments. You, as a class, are re-membered, recomposed in this space today. You came into collective existence four years ago in this very site, when historian Pieter Judson welcomed you with a gift. He gave you simple and precious advice: to allow all learning to go against your expectations, to give up the previously normative web of thinking and make room for the surprising and the contradictory; to suspend judgment. He told you that you could "build communities of your own and create ways of thinking outside the norm" and encouraged you to "remain aware, not just of what you are learning, but how you are learning it." Let me comment on these important points.

I want to talk about you. My colleagues and I have witnessed from afar some of the communities you have built in and outside the classroom:

  • In the cities of Philadelphia, Norristown, Chester, Kennett Square, or New Orleans; in Otavalo, Ecuador; Uriman, Venezuela; in Oaxaca, Mexico; in Paraguay, Poland, Ghana, Ireland, Israel, Sudan, and many other parts of the world, with children or adults, you have served others and learned from them.
  • You have contributed to the strength of international student communities in Grenoble, Buenos Aires, Madrid, Tokyo, and many other wonderful cities during your semesters abroad.
  • You have made friends in the process of directing a play, composing music, writing poetry, or choreographing a dance, playing the Taiko drums furiously, studying for finals, tutoring each other in engineering, math, the Lenape, Russian, or Chinese languages, mounting a photographic exhibition, practicing the art of teaching in a real school, organizing a Mariachi band, or seeing the sun rise while you were still reading or writing.
  • Often at Sharples and in dorms you challenged each other in long conversations about theoretical problems that spilled over into your daily life from books and lectures from a variety of courses.
  • You were active in the Black Cultural Center, or in the Intercultural Center, vigilant in advocacy work, making Swarthmore a safe place for difference in ethnicity, race, class, sexual orientation, and physical ability, even as you explored and deconstructed the political history of difference in your courses.
  • There are pictures of you marching and calling for peace, working for the War News Radio, going to Georgia to demand the closing of the infamous School of the Americas, discussing the intricate ways of peace activism with Lang Professor George Lakey in a lovely spring day, outdoors.
  • You have been busy playing sports and listening to your coaches' call of "Go Garnet!" with all your might.
  • You have joined one of the small but extraordinarily rich groups bound by faith in reflection and action — Muslim, Jewish, and Christian, coexisting peacefully in one community as they did in Toledo in the 13th century under King Alphonse the Wise, founder of universities.

All those moments of community have brought you here and comprised the vast experience that defines you as the class of 2009. You represent skills, interests, learning, and abilities that taken together, collected, amount to awesome intelligence. I mean awesome not only as Ryan Howard of the Phillies and Albert Pujols of the Cardinals are awesome, but in the fear and tremble Kierkegaardian sort of way, or in the sense that the Oxford English Dictionary defines as "overwhelming, staggering, remarkable, prodigious." Each of you has a deep reserve of symbolic capital. Your language is finely tuned to speak about many aspects of the reality in which we are immersed.

We know your talent well. We also know that there were many times when the tasks frustrated you, made you feel small, isolated you, or sent you screaming for help. You tasted failure or incomprehension because, let me tell you, you were in the real world all this time. Those painful moments also brought you here. They made you stronger, and they are an integral part of the journey. "Caminante, no hay camino. Se hace camino al andar," says the humble poet from Seville and Soria, Antonio Machado. "Traveler: there is no road. We make the road by walking." Just like Coltrane's solos!

I want to talk about history and you. Please bear with me! Historical events did not flow like a river, parallel to your life in the college, but found their way into your courses, your worries, your conversations and alliances with peers, your activism and advocacy. These occurrences shaped you, and in some cases invited you to become historical actors.

As you were moving into your new dorms, in late August of 2005, Hurricane Katrina struck the southeastern shores of Louisiana, bringing untold devastation and human suffering. President Bush and his cabinet failed to understand the magnitude of the event, and the delay of a state and federal comprehensive response multiplied the pain. The aftermath of this disaster showed the undeniable structural connection between poverty and racial inequality in urban cores, as African Americans in New Orleans suffered a disproportionate amount of damage and received aid in an untimely and limited manner. These events later contributed to the reorganization of the political assumptions of the nation, especially regarding its security, opening the possibility for a radical change of direction at the highest levels of government.

In 2008, you participated in overwhelming numbers in a historical presidential election. Not all of you voted as Democrats, and maybe some of you chose not to vote at all. But most of you saw this moment as a turning point in our public life, a decisive change from fear to hope; from confrontation to dialogue; from the oversimplification of world problems and moral questions, to considerations informed by diverse human experience, science and philosophy; from anti-intellectualism to respect for the integrity of the English language and scholarly knowledge. The Democratic candidate surely made many mistakes and his blind spots were evident and worrisome, but a big window had been opened in the house of absolutism. I stood with some of you in joyful amazement in front of the TV monitor placed outside the Language Resource Center, as your new President Barack Obama took the oath of office. Women and men of the Class of 2009: you, young people, did this.

I share in the "audacious hope" of this election from the edge, since I am not a citizen of this country. But in spite of some fundamental changes in foreign policy, we all know there are many concerns ahead. Your four years at Swarthmore coincide with the third, fourth, fifth, and sixth anniversaries of the formidable U.S.-led military campaign against Iraq, and the end is not in sight. Untold numbers of Iraqis have died, as well as 4,300 U.S. men and women in uniform. The United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees (UNHCR) counts 4.7 million displaced people and international refugees, most of them unprotected. On March 27, President Obama announced the escalation of war in Afghanistan and continued military action in Pakistan, to our extreme disappointment.

If 2007 had seen the mortgage market meltdown, September of 2008, the beginning of your senior year, hit us week by week with the news of bankruptcies in major financial institutions. We soon saw the social impact of those disasters: in 2008 alone, 2.6 million jobs were lost in the United States. Why didn't we know this was coming? The "free" market, meaning unrestrained, is not a force of nature, but the sum total of human decisions. Yet the makers of mega-fortunes received praise and admiration. Now we can see clearly that intelligence that is not ethical is no intelligence at all, unless we think the planners of fraudulent investment funds and other acts of rapacity knew what they were doing. The recession set in, leading to decreased industrial and services productivity and, as you well know, major budget cuts in the public and private sector, including higher education.

Columbia University Professor Andrew Delbanco's recent article "The Universities in Trouble"1 gives us some chilling facts: public funding for state universities has diminished drastically. In 25 years the University of Virginia has gone from receiving 30 percent of its funding from the state to eight percent; in 10 years the University of Wisconsin has gone from 30 to 19. The United States is tenth among all countries in the percentage of college graduates aged 24 to 34; while it is still number one among those aged 55-64. Getting a higher education is becoming a privilege, almost as starkly as it was before World War II. A social pact between government and young people may be coming to an end, unless the people say "No!"

Many colleagues and I want to think that for Swarthmore College, soon to be your Alma Mater, the time of retrenchment will be a chance for reaffirming its commitments to social justice in and outside of itself, and to the role of education in transcending limitations of race, class, gender, and nationality. I know that even as the College engages in the hard work of budget control, its mission will be carried out with the same devotion and intensity as ever, not to be Number One in some popular magazine's vertical tower, but to respond fully to the needs of its students and the world where they will act.

Finally, on April 24, just before your last week of classes, the governmental authorities of Mexico City and the adjoining state of Mexico shut down libraries, concert halls, all schools, colleges, and universities, museums, and any place of public convergence to prevent the spread of a new strain of influenza A virus, H1N1. This time the outcome turned out well, and a pandemic never happened. But the world had the opportunity to rehearse the globalization of disease and practice international cooperation with mostly positive results. The Mexican economy, already under extreme pressure, is staggering under the impact of lost tourism, present and future, and other major losses related to the outbreak.

Forgive me. I came here to talk about you, and this is your world. We recollect, as the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda said, "[no] para llenarnos el corazón con agua salada, sino para caminar conociendo". "Not to fill our hearts with salty water, but so that we can walk knowingly."2

I want to talk about learning and you. How we learn, as Professor Judson told you, can make all the difference. Here is an important perspective I want you to take in: "It is now clear that a managed, self-sufficient, scientific, technological, rationalistic ordering of reality cannot sustain humanness. The brooding underneath must be taken seriously," says Walter Brueggemann, a theologian from Columbia, Georgia.3 The antidote he recommends is reading and looking for meaning in the cracks of the texts: that which resists easy interpretation or refuses to be defined once and for all. But that doesn't make for satisfactory reading. The dominant culture that assaults us all rejects this kind of instability. We are invited instead not to see "the brooding underneath," and to reduce knowledge to a private act, and a finite box of smooth content.

Brueggemann is in effect speaking against the Enlightenment as a completely inadequate basis for organizing human society. He is looking at that "rationalistic ordering of reality" as a crushing vertical arrangement, the basis of the logic of empire and domination, but also the destruction of the earth. It is a system with no self-doubt, and no freedom.

In language and literature we have seen a change that may help us avoid domesticating reality and flattening the text and the earth. The Oxford Series of Hispanic Studies describes this phenomenon as "a displacement of the boundaries of literary studies, an opening out to other forms of expression: cinema, popular culture, and historical documentation." The same statement considers the instability and plurality of cultural identities in Spain and Latin America as a guarantee against reductionism and simplification.4 Similarly, in the last issue of Forum, the publication of the Latin American Studies Association, Columbia University Emerita Professor Jean Franco stresses the point: "The distinction that placed high culture over popular cultures, literary language over dialects, metropolis over province and thus tacitly affirmed class, gender, and racial inequalities has been challenged in many ways, the most striking of which is the continent-wide emergence of literature in indigenous languages . . ."5 Most of you are not in Hispanic Studies, but you can relate to similar events in your fields.

The growth of interdisciplinary programs in the college in the last decade attests to the desire to cross boundaries. In the history of human knowledge, the whole was the original object of study, and the disciplines, represented by our departments, were its fragments. The creation of the university literally pointed to the universe as the object of humanistic and scientific collective exploration.

Knowledge is advanced when the new phenomenon no longer fits the theoretical description of the experiment. Those are luminous and dark moments at once. They both unsettle and promise a gift to the searcher. A liberal arts education did not give you the comfort of easy closures, because within it different disciplines stand in tension with each other, mutually questioning, or inviting reiteration in new contexts: something like the bass and sax in conversation with each other in our jazz fragment. Thus the realm of questions and tentative paradigms becomes more important than the realm of certainties. One of the new collectives of indigenous authors in Mexico, using Nahuatl, the language of the Aztecs, calls this kind of knowledge "Ollintlahtoli," or words in movement.6 It is one more blow to absolute, petrified truths.

What about Brueggemann's statement on the neglected "brooding underneath?" Something is being generated under all that rationally arranged reality, something messy that doesn't fit. I'd like to give you some examples of those overlooked realities that compose the world in which you are called to be historical actors, although not necessarily the providers of quick remedies.

I still want to talk about you, but I also want to tell you who it is that you invited to address you. I am a resident alien, a Mexican citizen, educated in a bilingual Catholic school and a private Jesuit university. For four years I studied philosophy and only philosophy, not a liberal arts menu. Like you, I also studied in a garden setting while living, like most students did, in my parents' home. Our campus was an old colonial hacienda in San Angel, to the south of Mexico City. With eight million inhabitants, Mexico City was small then, beautiful, and safe. I grew up in a house full of children. To this day, I can read and concentrate while the loudest rock band plays in front of me. My parents were born during the Mexican Revolution, and they never missed an opportunity to tell us that modern Mexico was possible because of that costly war. It was a time of optimism, and my family thought education was the answer to all ills.

Life brought me here in 1968 in a way I would not have expected, and my husband Arthur Schmidt and I raised a binational family in Northwest Philadelphia. Part of that family is here today: Alicia and Steve, and their children Antonio and Thalia. I studied Latin American literature at Temple University and on the day I turned the last term paper of doctoral studies, I went to work with the American Friends Service Committee on the political and social issues inherent in Mexico-U.S. relations. More than 10 years later I came to Swarthmore College, hoping to reflect in my teaching and writing the many worlds that life has let me see at close range.

I believe a deep engagement with Spanish and Latin American literature brings us face to face with a region long ignored and misunderstood by the U.S. government. As our great storyteller Gabriel García Márquez accepted the Nobel Prize in 1982, he wondered why the recognition afforded to the world of imagination in Latin American art and culture could not be extended to respect for the processes of social transformation that were taking place in the hemisphere during the 70s and 80s, a time when the last gasps of the Cold War sowed terror in Central America and the Southern Cone.

I have brought to my classes the texts of marginal women: indigenous, peasant, miners' wives, all strong leaders. I have hoped to show you the Indian faces of Latin America, plural, immensely rich in cultural capital, bursting to tell us who they are and who they want to continue being, or as the Zapatistas from Chiapas like to say, "Not the past of Mexico, but its future." I have searched with you for meaning in the way social movements and literature at once come close and establish a distance between each other. We have explored together the literary characters of Latin American dictators and their masculinist social arrangements, propped up by armies and the Church. But we have also engaged in reading and writing poetry in Spanish, the powerful language of Miguel de Cervantes, of Federico García Lorca and Miguel Hernández, of Gabriela Mistral and Jorge Luis Borges, of Nicolás Guillén and Blanca Varela.

The United States will not be able to ignore Latin America for much longer, and it will have to relate to the region in new terms. We know Mr. Obama came back from the recent summit of leaders of the Americas in Trinidad with a gift from President Chávez, The Open Veins of Latin America, by Eduardo Galeano, one of many Uruguayans who suffered a long exile from his country. In this summit, by the way, Cuba was not present, having been expelled from the Organization of American States in 1962 under heavy pressure from the Kennedy administration, and in spite of strong opposition from Mexico.

All this goes to say: you invited me, and I cannot leave without mentioning some of my Latin American worries and hopes.

  • There is a wall covering large segments of the Mexico-U.S. border, partly made with military surplus material and letting would-be crossers know that they are not welcome. But the wall cannot keep people out. Because of it, undocumented immigrant workers must cross the desert and risk dehydration, hypothermia, and the violence of vigilante groups. Hundreds die every year. In 1989 Ronald Reagan, the President of the United States, called upon the Soviet Union to destroy the Berlin Wall: "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!" He did. Do we now need walls for two thousand kilometers? Isn't border crossing violent enough?
  • Large numbers of undocumented women and men are still living in the United States. A large scale deportation is politically costly. But ignoring their needs can be socially suicidal in the long term. They are workers, not criminals. They rebuild their communities in exile, provide a large labor reserve, and probably keep wages down for other entry-level workers. They would rather be home, but their countries can't sustain them. They come searching for survival. Yesterday, at a green grocer's store, a young Ecuadorean woman asked me if I had work for her, and slipped a piece of paper in my hand on which she had scribbled a phone number, fast, so that her employer would not notice. In our studies there is no room for her, just as there is no room for her in the Republic, yet she is here in Delaware County, concrete, real, in need of attention.
  • Tens of thousands of immigrants are indigenous. In California the Mixtec and Zapotec peoples of Oaxaca have strong networks and civic organizations. It is impossible to imagine agriculture without their input. Other than the Navajo language, Zapotec is the indigenous language spoken by more individuals in the United States.

In complete freedom, Coltrane's music pursues its object, which is its own fulfillment. There is no road for him, no blueprint. Then the sound takes over, and commands the musician to follow. He does, and takes the piano along, and then the bass and drums.

You too have done your work and can step forward and act with virtuosity and intelligence. But there is no map for you either. We can't predict the demands you will be facing, the historical actor you will be called to be. All you know is that your eyes are as open as your mind.

Thank you for the special distinction of this invitation. On behalf of all my colleagues I congratulate you and your families, especially your parents, in this great achievement. And I congratulate ourselves in what you have done. You, the last class to be graduated by President Al Bloom, bear the imprint of a vision born in 1992, in his conception of a "New Mandate for American Higher Education." A badge of honor, indeed. You carry forward the work of all the people you leave behind: staff at all levels, faculty, administrators, and your younger peers.

May I give the last word to the Zapatista men and women who are still searching for a new way of conceiving the nation, from the mountains of Chiapas, the southern edge of Mexico?

Dear men and women of the class of 2009: go forward joyfully, work for peace and justice. Y construyan "un mundo en el que quepan muchos mundos". Go build a world that can embrace many worlds.

Thank you.

1 The New York Review of Books, May 14, 2009. 36-39.
2 Pablo Neruda, Canto General, 1950.
3 Wakter Bureggemann, Texts Under Negotiation: The Bible and Postmodern Imagination. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1993. P. 61.
4 Julian Smith, General Editor. "Introduction to the Oxford Hispanic Studies Series." William Rowe, Poets of Contemporary Latin America: History and the Inner Life. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.
5 Jean Franco, "Overcoming Colonialism: Writing in Indigenous Languages." LASA Forum 40:1 (Winter 2009): 24.
6 Natalio Hernández, "Yolnohnotzali Nemilistli/ El camino del diálogo". José Manuel Valenzuela Arce, ed. Renacerá la palabra. Identidades y diálogo intercultural. Tijuana: El Colegio de la Frontera Norte, 2003. p. 150.