• by María “Cuca” Robledo Montecel, Ph.D. • IDRA Newsletter • November-December 2018 •
It is a great honor to be invited to speak at this commencement. Our Lady of the Lake University is a place where I learned much and is a community to which I owe much. Back in 1970, Sister Jane Anne Slater, then a young faculty member in the chemistry department, became my work-study supervisor when I arrived at 411 S.W. 24th Street and moved into Providence Hall. My deepest gratitude and admiration go to Sister Jane Anne Slater as she steps down as the eighth president of Our Lady of the Lake University next month and steps up in August as the first woman Chancellor of the Catholic Archdiocese of San Antonio. Let’s thank her and give her a round of applause.
And good evening, trustees. I had the unique privilege of serving Our Lady of the Lake as a three-term trustee, and I know some of the challenges and the opportunities that come with your service. Thank you.
Greetings also to faculty and staff. Your work and dedication is what makes this university, rooted in Providence, a place to grow, to graduate and to lead.
A todas las familias y amigos de los graduados, felicidades! Sin el amor, el apoyo y quizá algunos empujoncitos por parte de Uds., estos graduados no estarían aquí.
Members of the 2015 Graduating Class of Our Lady of the Lake University, please take a moment now to look behind you and around you to your family and friends and thank them: your mom, your dad, your brothers, your sisters, your primos, your abuelitos, your padrinos – those who are here today and those who are not. Your family and friends hold you up. And held by them, you are lifted to where you will go and to whom you will be. Your family and friends are the energy and the spirit of who you are and who you are becoming – the special levadura, the leavening, that makes you rise and be strong.
“Wherever you find yourself, I urge you to lay claim to a new place in the world, in this world of great motion and intricate connections, because you are needed there – to serve others.”
As you all realize, today’s celebration marks the fact that one chapter of your life – the one with classes, study groups, homework, fun nights, long nights—is now written. This chapter in the story of your life is now part of the larger story of Our Lady of the Lake University, of your family, of your neighborhood, of the great and ongoing story that is being written about our world.
Some of you may know that, today, scientists and scholars in the fields of astronomy, evolutionary biology, history and theology have begun to recognize that the world we inhabit, our universe, is not so much like a machine, as Western thinkers once imagined,
but more like a story.
The world is an always-unfolding narrative, an epic of ever-emerging complexity and creativity, bursting with fantastic characters, profound relationships, surprise twists, and joy as well as tragedy. Ours is a world in motion, a world of intimate connection – a world that is story.
This evening, in your very own way with an ingenuity that is identical to that of no one else, you have contributed one more chapter to that story. And, God willing, there are many chapters still to come, still left for you to write. This future is what I’d like to discuss with you today, and if you’ll allow me, I’ll start by telling you a piece of my own story.
Some of you grew up like me in families or in barrios where not many had the opportunity to go to school, much less to college. My parents, Ismael Robledo Martínez and Paula Benavides Robledo, crossed the Rio Grande into the Texas side of the river and made their lives as immigrants, with little schooling, in a new land, and in a new language. They settled into the northern banks of the Rio Grande on the U.S. side, close enough to Mexico that, on Mexican Independence Day, I could hear the music and the sounds that came from las Fiestas Patrias.
We visited my grandmother, my abuelita Albinita, on the Mexican side of the river every Sunday, and I grew up with rancheras and Mexican polkas and mariachi music and Spanish all around me. Rancheras and polkas and mariachis accompanied us on the radio on our long treks to Fresno and Selma California to pick grapes and peaches.
When my second grade teacher in Fresno decided that my name was Mary instead of María del Refugio and when she said that I was somewhat smart but too shy because I did not talk in class, nobody in my family paid any attention. After all, we were coming back to the borderlands of Texas where everyone knew that my name was not Mary and where being quiet was a sign of respect and not of shyness or lack of smarts.
At 17, I left my home at 307 S. Buena Vista in the barrio of El Chacon in Laredo, Texas. Laredo – or properly speaking Los Dos Laredos as these borderlands were called at the time – was what I knew. This was a time, by the way, before the narco-traffickers destroyed people and communities, and before ICE officials detained women and children seeking refuge. It was a different time, a different sort of place than now. And it was mine.
I came to San Antonio, and I was bewildered. The city seemed huge. Our Lady of the Lake University, where I had enrolled after judging other local universities to be cold and uninviting, became foreign to me. We were not allowed to cross the 24th Street bridge into the real West Side. It was dangerous, we were told. My classes, especially my English classes with Sr. Lora Ann, were harder than anything I had experienced. And the A’s that I was used to were about to become C’s. And most especially, I missed home. I missed my world.
A few weeks into the semester, a group of Mariachis came into the university cafeteria playing their violins and guitars and belting a song. I don’t remember what they played or why they were there, but I do remember this: Every emotion I had in my body welled up suddenly, and I exploded into tears. For a brief moment, I was home again. But the three-hour drive from Laredo to San Antonio seemed like crossing the world at that time, and I felt
so far away, in such a strange place. I felt like I didn’t belong.
Eventually, of course, after time spent working, making friends, and building a sense of myself, I would discover that I did belong at the Lake. But I never stopped belonging to my borderland world, to my home and to my family.
In fact, looking on it now, I would describe my life as standing at the intersection of ever-expanding circles of “being home.” At any one time in the story of my life, I experience belonging in spaces that are known and those that are unknown, in the places where I am told that I belong and in the places where I am told that I do not.
As I have weaved my story by living it, there have been moments when, swept up in the motion and the power of interconnection, I was suddenly stopped in my tracks by a barrier, a category, that was meant to govern my place in the world.
Some person, some institution, or some convention would tell me, “No, Cuca, here you do not belong.” Or perhaps worse, I might be told: “Yes, Cuca, you have distinguished yourself, risen above that other place you come from. Now you belong here, and you cannot belong there.”
When a 17-year-old César Chávez joined the U.S. Navy in 1944, he found that the only job available for a Mexican American sailor was as a deck-hand or painter. He completed his military service, worked in the fields, organized communities and showed the world “Si Se Puede.”
Sonia Sotomayor, the first Latina Supreme Court Justice in U.S. history, was raised in the South Bronx, felt overwhelmed with the demands of Princeton University, claimed her belonging through Puerto Rican groups on campus that were her anchor in what she describes as a “new and different world” and graduated summa cum laude from that Ivy League institution.
Shirley Ann Jackson was born into segregation but went on to become the first African American woman to earn a doctorate at MIT. She stayed at MIT to open doors for others and to work on elementary particle theory. She became the 18th president of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.
Graduates, as some of you already know so painfully well, there will always be those who insist that what you wish to write is impossible or wrong, that you and yours do not belong, that you are “other.” But please do not believe it. Have courage and claim belonging.
Whatever life calls you to do, claim space for yourself and for others, claim new categories, new ways of seeing and being in the world. Always, claim your past, your present and your future. Wherever you land in this beautifully diverse world, I urge you to claim your belonging, even in places where you are told that you don’t belong.
You may be told that you don’t belong because you are a female in a male world, or because you are Latino in a White world, or because you are poor in a rich world, because you are Muslim in a Christian world or vice versa, or because your parents didn’t go to college, or because you are from the West Side or from a colonia, or you have an accent, or your skin is too dark, or you love differently than others, or you don’t have papers.
You may be told that you are meant to work and not to think, or that you are too much of an activist or that you are too passionate or that you are an idealist and should be a realist.
Here’s a handy insight to guide you as you face these charges: whatever they tell you is the reason that you don’t belong is precisely the reason that you must belong.
It is the element of newness and the seed of change that you have to offer in places and spaces that seem foreign. Be this newness and seed of change not only for the sake of saying you accomplished something but in order to bring new possibilities into existence. Here’s one example where change and new possibilities are needed now.
Texas towns used to display signs that read “Dogs and Mexicans Not Allowed.” That these signs are no longer visible does not mean that opportunities are a fact in the lives of most Mexican Americans. Mexican Americans still have the worst access to early childhood education and healthcare and quality neighborhood schools and affordable colleges. Until we change this, that reality affects you and me, your families and mine, and those who will come after us.
Wherever you find yourself, I urge you to lay claim to a new place in the world, in this world of great motion and intricate connections, because you are needed there – to serve others.
So, be successful, live your lives, claim the world, change the narrative, and leave the world better than you found it.
Congratulations 2015 Graduating Class of Our Lady of the Lake University.
Que Dios los cuide y bendiga siempre.
[©2018, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the November-December 2018 IDRA Newsletter by the Intercultural Development Research Association. Permission to reproduce this article is granted provided the article is reprinted in its entirety and proper credit is given to IDRA and the author.]