“Invisible” No Longer
“You’re going to see a lot of diversity in the room,” Cassandra Fradera, A.L.M. ’17, co-president of the Harvard Latinx Student Alliance (HLSA), said on the phone last week. She was explaining what to expect on Tuesday at the third annual HLSA-sponsored Latinx Graduation honoring Latino and Latina graduates from across Harvard. “It’s not just students from all different parts of the University, undergraduate and graduate,” said Fradera, who served on the organizing committee, “but from different parts of the country, from Texas and California and New York and Puerto Rico”—from which her own family hails—“and Latin American countries and South America.” Some students with both Latino and African-American ancestry would also participate in Harvard’s Black Commencement earlier in the day. “So, a lot of different cultures,” Fradera continued. “Some people you’ll see are first-generation college students, or first-generation immigrants; there will be families with a mix of immigration statuses, a mix of socioeconomic statuses. For some students who have parents or aunts or uncles flying in, it might be the first time their family members have traveled out of the place where they’re from. And some people have family who can’t be there.”
Photograph by Stu Rosner
Even so, the feeling in the basement of Northwest Labs Tuesday night—where 121 graduates and some 500 of their family members and friends settled in after an upstairs reception serenaded by the student-run band Mariachi Veritas de Harvard—was of overwhelming oneness. And joy. The College was the most heavily represented school, followed by the Graduate School of Education, the Kennedy School, and the Law School. One lone future dentist represented the School of Dental Medicine. As each graduate filed across the stage to receive a stole (“Clase del 2017”) and a hug from accompanying parents or siblings or spouses (or in one case, a very young daughter whose father knelt down where she could reach him), cheers and applause erupted. (“Filed” is not really the right word, either; the graduates danced and strutted across the stage, to walk-on music they had chosen themselves, like Major League hitters coming up to bat.)
“Partly this ceremony is about visibility,” Fradera had said. “It’s for us to be seen. Sometimes—a lot of times—we’re the only one like us in the classroom; that’s just the reality right now.” Latino students often must explain themselves and their culture to other students, she said; at the Latinx graduation, they could just be who they are and how they are, no explanation necessary.
Photograph by Stu Rosner
The evening’s speeches, which flowed in and out of English, Spanish, and Spanglish, kept returning to the themes of hope and family and gratitude. Speaker after speaker exhorted graduates to remember the part their parents and grandparents and other loved ones had played in their achievements and reminded families that this graduation belonged to them, too. Many of them had broken a path and were pushing their children further along it than they had been able to go. “Latinos in the United States are growing stronger; our dreams are getting bigger,” said Sergio Delgado Moya, associate professor of Romance languages and literatures and one of two emcees. His co-emcee, Time Warner executive Lisa Garcia Quiroz ’83, M.B.A. ’90 (a former elected director of the Harvard Alumni Association), recalled that only about 25 students attended the informal Latinx pre-Commencement celebration the year she graduated from college. “I have to tell you, even in our wildest dreams we couldn’t have imagined a room filled like this with Latino students who were about to take on the world,” she said. Recalling friends and classmates who went on to become “Latino firsts” in politics and business and academia, she said, “But when you’re the first, there’s a certain only-ness, or loneliness.” She urged this year’s graduates to charge together through the doors her generation opened. “You are the change that we all have been waiting for.”
Photograph by Stu Rosner
Keynote speaker María Elena Salinas, a prominent journalist and Univision broadcaster whom The New York Times has called “the voice of Hispanic America,” spoke about the dual inheritance from her parents: a strong work ethic and an equally strong social conscience. A seamstress and a priest-turned-intellectual who “believed in giving more than receiving,” her parents emigrated from Mexico to Los Angeles. They never had much money, she said, but “they taught me to love my country and to love theirs also.” When Salinas grew up, “the empowerment of the Latino community became my mission.” She recalled facing accusations of “advocacy journalism.” “If giving a voice to the voiceless is advocacy journalism, then let it be.”
Photograph by Stu Rosner
Graduate student speaker Isaac G. Lara, M.P.A./J.D. ’17, struck a similar tone, describing his father, who came to this country at 17 from a poor neighborhood in La Paz, Bolivia. “He knew no English, had no money, and he had no plan for what to do in the United States.” His first job was as a busboy in a New York café. Without much education, he regarded universities as “magical places.” He would never get there, but his son did. “Of course I knew my father’s origin story—every immigrant’s child does,” Lara said. “But I’d never really appreciated how much my father had sacrificed in order to get us into college.” He emphasized “the contributions that people like my father have made to our culture, our economy, and to our country.” He urged his fellow graduates to remember, as if they were in danger of forgetting, those contributions from the immigrants in their own family.
That comment hinted at something else that kept coming up: an anxious edge to the all the joy and exuberance of the occasion. More than one speaker acknowledged that the past year had been an especially uneasy one for Americans of Latino descent. No one mentioned Donald Trump by name. They didn’t need to. Toward the end of her address, Salinas said that still, “even at this stage of my life,” she faces racism and sexism. “And you will, too.” Later she added: “Don’t let anyone tell you that you don’t belong here.…Don’t let anyone tell you that you and your family have not contributed to the greatness of our country. Don’t let anyone tell you that your family or your neighbors are criminals, rapists, or drug dealers.”
(Introducing Salinas, Quiroz had told the audience that Salinas had interviewed every American president “since Jimmy Carter.” After the applause died down, there was a beat, and then Quiroz, half-joking, added, “—except this one.” A flutter of goosey laughter followed.)
Lara, too, touched on a similar theme. The 2016 presidential election, he said, had revealed a group of working-class Americans who felt ignored and neglected, people whom Trump has dubbed “forgotten” men and women. Their hardships are real, but “one need not travel to the coal mines of West Virginia to find forgotten people,” Lara said. “Look no further than the immigrants who clean our hotel rooms or pick our strawberries, the immigrants who wash our dishes and cook our food, the immigrants we take for granted day in and day out.” Invisible, much like Lara’s father was when he first arrived from Bolivia, but also indispensable. And perhaps especially at a demanding institution like Harvard, “It is easy to believe,” he added, “that we did all this by ourselves.…All the while seemingly unaware of the invisible people in the background whose sacrifice actually made all this possible.”
The evening’s program ended—just before the graduates gathered for a group photo and everyone headed over to the dessert table for cake—with a poem read in Spanish by Hiram Rios Hernandez, M.P.P. ’17, who chaired the event's organizing committee. “I think for a lot of us it’s been a very difficult year, with a lot of the politics,” Hernandez said. (An interesting year to be a student at the Kennedy School, he allowed, but difficult there as well.) “I want to leave you with these words.” The poem, composed by Uruguyan writer Mario Benedetti, was called “No Te Rindas”: “Don’t Give Up.” In English, the last lines of its opening stanza read: “Accept your shadows / bury your fears / free your burdens / fly again.”