Commencement conundrum

I have been blessed by the various events that have shaped my academic life here at Portland State University. I will have to say that I have been lucky to meet amazing professors who have encouraged me to find my own voice. Whether it is by playing a clip of Monty Python to start a lecture on theory, sharing a mutual interest on free-style wrestling or mentoring me towards my future as a graduate student, these instructors have made me realize how fortunate students are to have them.

The confidence that I have gained from academia has influenced my stand on matters of race in Oregon and racial social justice in general. And because of that I question the university’s choice of commencement speaker, Rep. Peter DeFazio.

I should first state my understanding of and respect for the congressman’s progressive-oriented voting record. He has been one of the better politicians in Oregon – until now.

When Rep. DeFazio voted yes on HR 4437, he added one more decibel to the deafening roar of racism and hate that the bill encapsulates. The congressman tells the press that he will not vote on the final version of the bill if it includes some of the severe criminal sanctions on undocumented immigrants and those who attempt to aid them. But that is still not enough for many of us, and many organizations that have supported the congressman are not so thrilled about this “explanation.” We hope that the congressman will instead see the experiences of the individual over the abstract wording and legalities of said bill.

I will redirect myself and say that I would not have a problem with Mr. DeFazio speaking if the university did not add “diversity,” “diverse student body” and “diversification,” to every paragraph, communication, catalog and publication. My meeting with the administration made me realize that brown faces look good in the catalog but brown voices should make less than a whisper (unless it is to parrot the above-referenced words). Each suggestion that the group of students brought that day was ignored. That was more of a disappointment than Mr. DeFazio being the speaker for graduation. Or maybe I have the wrong idea of what diversity means.

Mr. DeFazio should not speak to graduates and to a student body that may be personally affected by immigration. As a Central American immigrant, as the daughter of an immigrant family, a family member and friend, I know what it is to live in the shadow of the American experience, as the outsider of an almost impossible vision of economic mobility and as the ostracized “ethnic person.” This bill has united those in the struggle but unfortunately has also created a cloud of blatant racism that we had believed to be extinct. Whether by whispers or internet blog, words of hate have resurfaced and division within communities has begun. That is why students met with school officials to ask them to understand our viewpoint and consider our suggestions. President Bernstine was quick to tell us how we should not remember commencement for the speaker but for the festivity of the event itself. I am still trying to understand how that is an acceptable solution.

How can we have our families celebrate when the community (and the vote of the speaker at said joyous festivity) has deemed them as criminals and as unwanted pieces of humanity? Should we swallow our pride at a celebratory event as well? Undocumented individuals and families (whose circumstances are often linked to free-trade policy) endure their social environment with a quiet strength of heart and spirit, with humility and an admirable optimism. It is not fair to ask those same families who will attend the event to once again “endure,” “ignore” or “deal with it.” If the school will preach diversity, then this is a perfect time to practice it. And that does not mean to disinvite Mr. DeFazio, but to work out a concrete alternative with the students who are concerned and affected by the issue.

Graduation is a very important ritual to first-generation Latino/a students, and it is often a symbolic way to reward our family members who labor hard to see us proudly walk wearing the mortarboard and gown. That is why we cannot just shrug this off while walking up the stage. To do so would be disrespectful to our loved ones. And for many of those Latinos/as who will still walk that day, they do so to honor their families, but do not agree with the hypocrisy.