Monday, May 26, 2008

Keynote Remarks by Michael Nava

As readers of La Bloga know, Michael Nava has excelled as both a writer and lawyer. A Phi Beta Kappa from Colorado College, Nava went on to earn his law degree from Stanford University in 1981. From there, he worked with the Los Angeles City Attorney’s Office, a prestigious private appellate law firm, and then as a research attorney first with the California Court of Appeal and now with the California Supreme Court as a judicial staff attorney for Associate Justice Carlos Moreno. Nava also happens to be the author of nine books.

While studying for the California Bar right out of law school, Nava started writing his first book which began his seven-volume mystery series featuring his openly gay protagonist, Henry Rios. His novels were published to great critical acclaim and include The Little Death, Goldenboy, How Town, The Hidden Law, The Death of Friends, The Burning Plain and Rag and Bone. The novels are discussed in a number of critical and scholarly works including Contemporary Gay Novelists, Emmanuel Nelson, ed. (Greenwood Press, 1993), and Brown Gumshoes: Detective Fiction and the Search for Chicano/a Identity, Ralph Rodriguez, ed. (University of Texas Press, 2005).

Nava recently shared with me the keynote remarks he gave at the Golden Gate University Multicultural Graduation Celebration on May 16, 2008. (Nava is pictured above with Candace Chen, one of the graduating students and one of the organizers of the ceremony.) I was very moved by his speech and he graciously granted my request to reprint it here. His speech is entitled “THE STONE THAT WAS REJECTED.” Enjoy.

Graduates, ladies and gentleman:

I was honored to be asked to be here on this special day to speak to you. I have never spoken at a graduation celebration before — unless you count my high school graduation, which took place before most of our graduates were born — but I understand the traditional role of such speeches is to send the graduates out into the world with assurances of the success that awaits them if they work hard.

I have no doubt that every woman and man in this graduating class has an incredible work ethic — the kind of work ethic that people develop when they know that nothing will be handed to them. It is the work ethic of the farm workers in the fields and the women in the garment district sweat shops. We work hard for what we have because all we have is what we have gained by our physical and intellectual sweat. We work hard because for us there is no safety net. We work hard because there is no other option. I say “we” because I am one of you.

I was raised in a poor, immigrant Mexican family and I learned early on that life is labor for women and men. As a young child I lived with my grandparents and I still remember that my grandfather woke at dawn to get ready for his long shift at the cannery. But, as early as he woke, my grandmother was already up, to cook his breakfast and begin her own long day of household work.

Watching my grandparents, I learned, not the value, but the absolute necessity of hard work. Can I say, then, that my personal successes came because I worked diligently and ceaselessly to get an education? Is my message to you today that hard work will always pay off; that if you strive to improve your life, America will reward your striving with a better life?

I wish that was always true, but we know it isn’t. The farm worker who breaks his back in the fields, the woman sewing herself blind in the sweatshop — will America reward them with a better life in gratitude for their labor? I think we all know the answer to that question. We know, because we have experienced in our own lives and observed in the lives of other, that opportunity in America is not distributed equally and fairly. In America, a person can work hard and lead a life of integrity and a still fall back instead of advancing forward while others are rewarded, not for their work ethic or the content of their character, but because they were born into privilege.

There are millions of Americans who will never achieve the success and security to which their hard work would seem to entitle them because somewhere along the lines they will hit the wall of racism, or homophobia, or sexism, or institutionalized poverty. Moreover, it is likely that their children will also struggle. They will be victims of inferior schools, low expectations, drugs, gang violence and a criminal system that seems to target kids of color. For us, this is not just a sociological observation but a grim reality we have observed, among those we grew up with and sometimes even in our own families.

I say these things to you not to discourage you, but because they highlight your achievement today. Each one of you is the exception to the rule of low expectations. Against difficult odds, you have arrived at this day. And for that, you are heroes!

Your heroism is more than just personal heroism. You represent the finest qualities in the American story. Because, think of it. What is America’s story? What is the story that America tells the world as its moral justification? The story America tells the world is that all people are created equal and that each person possesses the inalienable right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. And who best represents that story? Is it the person born into privilege who passes seamlessly through life enjoying the fruits of his position and prestige? No. The people who best represent the American story are the people who came from nothing and, against the odds, make something of themselves. The story that best expresses America as the land of opportunity is not the story of a George W. Bush, the son of a rich and powerful man; it’s the story of the farm worker who finds a way to get out of the fields and start a small construction business and it’s the story of his daughter, who becomes the first member of her family to graduate from college and from law school. And isn’t that your story?

The story of America is the story of the stone that was rejected. Do you know this saying? It comes from the Christian tradition, in the gospel of Mark where Jesus tells his disciples. “Have you never read the Scripture passage: ‘The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone.’ ” What this translates to in terms of the American story is that the moral greatness of America is that those of us who begin life with every disadvantage, and of whom nothing is expected, can nonetheless become the foundations of American society.

In some way, all of us here are the stones the builders rejected. I know that is true of me. My family was poor, but, because we were not materialistic, our poverty did not feel like deprivation. My family’s values were the values of family and community; of sticking together and staying in the same place. My family valued humility, forbearance and kindness. They were quiet people. They were generous as only the poor can be generous — sharing what little they have because they know first hand what it means to have nothing.

These are beautiful values, but they are not the values of the dominant culture in America. The dominant culture values assertive individualism and personal achievement even if that means stepping over people to get what you want. The dominant culture is aggressive and materialistic, loud and vulgar. Of what use to such a culture is a poor, Mexican-American child from a self-effacing, humble family? The answer is, not much. And yet, here I am, and here you are. The stones that the builders rejected, who have become the cornerstones.

As such, we have a particular moral responsibility in this culture.

First, it is our responsibility to assert that we are fully and completely Americans. Remember that you are not only Americans, you exemplify America’s story. You must uphold the alternative vision of America that welcomes and embraces diversity, instead of fearing and repressing it. Everyone in this country, except for the indigenous people, has been, at one point or another, an outsider, an immigrant. From the point of view of American history, there is no difference between the American child of Vietnamese “boat people” and the descendant of the English “boat people” who arrived on the Mayflower.

Second, even though you know the bitter truth that discrimination is alive and well in America, do not succumb to bitterness. Our task is not simply to identify and denounce inequality, but to create a more equal society. I urge you, in the face of the challenges you are bound to encounter, maintain a positive attitude. If one door of opportunity slams in your face, don’t stand there angrily pounding on it — try another door. I promise you, the right one will open for you.

Third, retain your humanity in the pursuit of your professional or material goals. As I said earlier, the dominant culture in this country is characterized by an aggressive individualism that gives people permission to treat others badly as they try to achieve their goals. In this country, the idea of success is too often expressed by that bumper sticker I used to see in the 1980’s that said, the one with the most toys when he dies wins. We must have a broader, more human notion of success.

My own idea of success is fulfilling work, loving relationships and a connection to the God of my understanding that sustains me in my day-to-day life. My idea of success is not about my job title, the amount of money I make, the size of my house, or how often my name comes up when on Google. That kind of success is an illusion because there will always be a better title, more money, a bigger house, greater fame — if you start that path, you will never be able to call yourself a success. As you devise your own standard of success, I urge you to think deeply about what is the ultimate source of human happiness. I believe that you will find, as I did, that it is not about what you have but what kind of person you are.

Finally, you are also trailblazers and what that means is that you have created a path that others may follow. Help them. Turn back and extend your hands to those who are coming behind you. Give them the benefit of your strength, your hope and your experience. You will find that, as you help others in their struggle, you will have a deeper understanding of your own struggle, a deeper appreciation of your accomplishments and a deeper gratitude toward those who helped you on your way. By helping other people become heroes in their lives, you will come see the heroism of your own.

I send you out with a blessing that comes from St. Therese who reminds us: “The value of life does not depend upon the place we occupy. It depends on how we occupy that place.”

Thank you.

◙ LATINOS IN LOTUSLAND FIESTA: This Saturday, May 31, 5:00 - 8:00 pm, we will have a reception and group event for Latinos in Lotusland (Bilingual Press) at Patricia Correia Gallery, 2525 Michigan Ave., E-2, Santa Monica, CA 90404. Phone: 310-264-1760. About a third of the 34 anthology contributors will be there to discuss their stories and sign books. There will be food and drink and friends and literature and art…what more could you ask for? No need to RSVP but feel free to drop me an e-mail to give me a heads up if you and your posse intend to come.

Also, if you happen to have a pass to BookExpo America, I will be at the Bilingual Press booth all day that Saturday along with the author of Corazón descalzo, Elva Treviño Hart. We’ll be at Booth 2712. BookExpo is a yearly, multi-day industry celebration of publishing but not open to the public unless you have a pass. This year, it will be held at the Los Angeles Convention Center, 1201 S Figueroa St. Los Angeles, CA 90015. For more information on BookExpo America, visit here.

◙ PEN USA is seeking applicants for a Community Access Scholarship sponsored by UCLA Extension Writers’ Program. One winner will be chosen based on writing talent and need and will receive three free full courses at UCLA Extension’s Writers’ Program during the 2008/09 academic year. To apply, please fill out the APPLICATION and submit it with a writing sample (either poetry, fiction, creative non-fiction, or screenplay) of no more than 15 typed pages. All application materials need to be received in PEN’s office by the end of business on June 30, 2008. Please see contact information at the end of this application for questions and submission instructions. For more information, go here.

◙ BOOK EVENT: Generations of Exclusion: Mexican Americans, Assimilation, and Race by UCLA Sociology Professors Edward E. Telles and Vilma Ortiz.

The much-anticipated book Generations of Exclusion is the most comprehensive scholarly analysis yet on the economic, educational, linguistic, social, and political status of Mexican Americans. This groundbreaking study surveys four generations of Mexican Americans in Los Angeles and San Antonio.
WHEN: Thursday, May 29, 3:00 - 5:00 pm

WHERE: UCLA Faculty Center, 480 Charles Young Dr., Los Angeles, CA 90095.

PARKING: Parking is available for $8.00 in Lot 2, located just south of the Faculty Center. Visitors should enter the campus at Hilgard Ave. and Westholme Blvd. and proceed to the parking kiosk. Map and Directions to the UCLA Faculty Center.

MORE INFORMATION: (310) 206-9185 or visit the UCLA Chicano Studies Research Center’s website.

◙ The May – June 2008 issue of Southern Cross Review has just been delivered to your cyber mailbox and can be read here. As usual, there are wonderful literary and political pieces including bilingual fiction with Luisa Valenzuela’s “Tango” and Frank Smith’s “Daddies” (“Papás”). Check it out.

◙ BOOK READING: Las Niñas: A Collection of Childhood Memories (Floricanto Press) by Sarah Rafael García.

Las Niñas is a collection of autobiographical childhood memories of three Mexican-American sisters. It shares the struggles they faced while being raised as the first generation of their family born in America.

WHERE: Liberia Martinez, 1110 N. Main St., Santa Ana, CA 92701, (714) 973-7900.

WHEN: Sunday, June 1, 2008, 2:00 - 6:00 pm.

National Book Critics Circle presents Good Reads!

Texas Writers and Critics featuring Sandra Cisneros, Steven G. Kellman, Elaine Wolff, Rod Davis, Norma Alarcón and Gregg Barrios.

WHERE: Gemini Ink, 513 S. Presa, San Antonio, TX 78205; 210-734-9673; Toll free: 877-734-9673.

WHEN: Friday, May 30 at 7:00 pm.

COST: Free! But limited seating.

OTRO: Drawing of new books and refreshments!

◙ Historian and El Paso native Mario T. García has edited a moving and important book, Gospel of César Chávez: My Faith in Action (Sheed & Ward). I reviewed it in yesterday’s El Paso Times. I noted that García “collects quotations from the late labor leader to help elucidate the undeniable connection between Chávez's religious beliefs and his political activism.” García earned undergraduate and graduate degrees in history from the University of Texas at El Paso, and then a doctorate from the University of California at San Diego. He is a professor of history and Chicano studies at the University of California at Santa Barbara, where he has taught since 1975. He is the author of several books, including two on El Paso history. This is an essential addition for any César Chávez collection.

◙ All done! Let us remember those who have served our country so bravely including my father, Miguel "Mike" Olivas, who was a Marine and fought in the Korean War (he and my mom are nicely retired in Ventura). So, until next Monday, enjoy the intervening posts from my compadres y comadres. ¡Lea un libro!


msedano said...

what an excellent speech. michael nava is one of the most missed voices in chicana chicano fiction. ironically, reading another nava novel is one of the doors slammed to us, so, as the speaker advises, the reader must go look for other doors. i hope nava finds a way to open that door again.

hey, do you have a favorite passage in woman hollering creek you'd like to share? every time i see cisneros' words in a column it reminds me to keep buying her to give as gifts, esp. with graduation season upon us.

see you in santa monica.


Sheryl said...

I appreciate the Nava speech as well. It meant a lot for me to find this today. Thank you!