Gustavo Arellano’s Weekly, Canto LXV: My Commencement Speech to Riverside City College’s Class of 2019

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Gentle cabrones:

The title says it all, doesn’t it? It’s a lot of words, so get to reading them!

They gave me a cool I.E.-centric gift basket that included everything from olive oil to a shoeshine box!

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When I get invited to do commencement addresses, the school’s dean or provost or principal or president or whatever usually doesn’t request or even suggest a specific topic. They just let me have at it.

But your prez was a welcome exception.

Dr. Anderson kindly asked that I, “focus [my] address on the value of community college, the worth of immigrants and their families, ensuring everyone has a voice, and alleviating poverty.”

Easy peasy, right? All of them are topics near to my heart. Topics that I’ve lived. The first one, especially: I graduated from a community college, and I think those of us who do are the greatest people on Earth.

But I struggled with Dr. Anderson’s request for a while. How do you hit four distinct subjects in the course of one 10-minute speech?

Then, something happened that made writing this speech simple: my mother passed away in late April from ovarian cancer.

I’m at the point of my mourning process where I’m using my mom’s life to try and extrapolate lessons for myself. And I feel that all you graduates can learn something as well from my Mom, to help you in the years and decades to come.

My mother migrated to this country from Mexico in the 1960s when she was nine years old. She immediately went to work in the garlic fields of Gilroy and Hollister up in central California, before my grandparents moved down to Anaheim. She never went past ninth grade, because Mami was forced to drop out of school to help her family.

Not getting an education was something she always regretted, even as she embarked on a well-paying but tiring job as a tomato canner in Fullerton while raising four children. So she instilled in all of us kids the value of an education. Mami took us to libraries during the summer, and pushed us to join tutoring and honors programs.

All along, Mami emphasized that we strive to achieve a better career than her and my father, who was a truck driver. Not because their occupations were somehow bad or ignoble, but because the two of them had to take those hard jobs because of their lack of high school diplomas.

Her words and actions made a deep impression on us kids. All four of us got bachelor’s degrees, and three of us earned master’s. Three of us started in community college. And our example not only made her proud, but inspired Mami.

When she got laid off in 1997, she saw an opportunity. She decided to enroll at Fullerton College and go for a cosmetology degree. And after that? Maybe her own shop.

My mom jumped into the program with gusto. She paid for all the courses, textbooks, fees, equipment and such with money she had saved over the years. She made friends, read her books, and begin to experiment on us with different curls, clippers, and hair colors.

Before long, Mami began to do the hair for women and girls from her ancestral Mexican village for their weddings, quinceañeras, and other special occasions. I always remember her happy and proud of what she was achieving— finally, she was getting the education she always wanted.

And she was doing it at a community college.

This is the part of the story where I’m supposed to tell you she got her degree and lived happily ever after. But it didn’t turn out that way.

When she finished all her course work and got ready to take the state exam to get her license, she discovered she was ineligible. It turned out you needed a high school diploma to get licensed in California. In all her years of studying, no one ever bothered to tell her.

It was a crushing blow, and she never ended up earning the cosmetology degree. Eventually, she stopped doing people‘s hair altogether – I don’t think she ever gave us a reason, but I always assumed it was because the experience was too painful a reminder of what might have been.

I don’t view what happened to my mother as a failure of the community college system — far from it. Administrators tried to do everything possible to help her – it was just a case of a stupid state bureaucracy. Besides, the college experience inspired her to try something else.

Mami threw herself into childcare in the last decade of her life. She got a job with a school district to take care of the kids of immigrants who were learning English. She enjoyed the task, even though it wasn’t exactly what she wanted to do — but Mami was not going to mope in her disappointments. Life still had to be lived.

The lessons my mom can teach all of you are there – indeed, many of you have lived them already. It’s never too late to reinvent yourself, or start a new career. You’re never too old to give it your all. It doesn’t matter if you’re an immigrant or not, undocumented or not, poor or rich – the educational opportunities are there for the taking. But it’s up to you to push yourself and grab them.

And even then, even if you are the best of students with the best intentions, it might not be enough. Yet you have to keep moving forward – for yourself, and from those who love you.

The most important lesson I take from my Mami’s life, however, is to always want to better yourself. My mom didn’t have to go to college, take care of children — us kids could’ve taken care of her and she could’ve lived an relatively easy retirement. But she wanted more.

Just like all of ustedes. Y’all are stepping forward today into something more — a tranfer to a university. A vocation. More training. It’s a great step – but the road is long, so get to it.

The value of community college, immigration, lifting yourself from poverty – did I miss anything? Oh, yeah: Voice. I wish my mother would’ve given this speech instead of me, because it’s her story I shared, not mine. But I am humbled to be able to give voice to her ejemplo — her example.

And I can say with certainty that she’d be proud of all of you today, for doing what she was never able to accomplish, and to remind everyone that today is not enough. Please do me the favor and give voice to the success you’ve achieved today by succeeding in the future, damn what life may throw at you.

Gracias, and God bless.

GRÍTALE A GUTI

This is the feature where I take your questions about ANYTHING. And away we go…

Have you interviewed children of priests? I appreciated your support for survivors of sexual abuse by priests. This is another secret they’ve kept.

I have not. The secrets the Catholic Church hierarchy hide can fit the Vatican…and spill over to the Coliseum.

Got a caliente question? Grítale a Guti here.

**

Enough ranting. This was the semana that was:

IMAGE OF THE WEEK: OLD-SKOOL Mexican textbook from the 1980s, with one of the best subtitles EVER.

LISTENING: “No Reply,” The Beatles. The Fab Four are my all-time favorite group, and Beatles for Sale is their most underrated album — and this yowling weeper one of the few songs I know how to play on the guitar. PS, my drunken Beatles karaoke sessions helped me to woo my wife — EN ZERIO…

READING:Welcome to Garcetti’s L.A.: heaps of trash, hordes of rats and very little leadership”: My colleague Steve Lopez should win a Pulitzer for his ongoing fusillades against Southern California residents, politicians, and ethos and its failure to deal with the shame of our cities.

Gustavo in the News

“Mexican Is Mexican”: How a Historic Heavyweight Boxing Upset Sparked a Debate on Identity”: Latino Rebels quotes one of my tweets in a post about Andy Ruiz, Jr.

COMMUNITY VOICES: BC’s pots and kettles: Racial ‘supremacy’ and censorship”: A Bakersfield-era professor uses a defense of MEChA that I wrote in 2006…to bash MEChA smh.

A Mexican-American Food Writer Says The Notion of Authenticity Is Defined By Tourists”: I appear in my old stomping grounds to tread the well-trodden path of Mexican food.

Mother Jones and Food Tank”: My conversation with Mother Jones food podcast host Maddie Oatman on Chipotle.

Gustavo Stories

On Catalina Island, one of L.A.’s unofficial ‘food deserts’ parties over a humble Vons”: My latest front-pager for the Los Angeles Times tackles the hubbub on Catalina over a…Vons?! KEY QUOTE: “Located on the edge of downtown Avalon, Catalina’s only city, the Vons — not exactly a trendy and hip staple of Southern California’s grocer ecosystem — has become an unlikely phenomenon.”

OC Line: Will the Anaheim Angels become the Long Beach Angels?”: My latest commentary for KCRW talks about baseball in Anacrime.

You made it this far down? Gracias! Follow me on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram while you’re down here. Buy me a Paypal taco here. Venmo: @gustavo-arellano-oc. And don’t forget to forward this newsletter to your compadres y comadres!