2010 Undergraduate Commencement Address By Labor Leader Maria Elena Durazo, '75

The following are the prepared remarks of Maria Elena Durazo '75, Executive Secretary-Treasurer for the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, AFL-CIO. Ms Durazo delivered the commencement address for Saint Mary's College 147th Undergraduate Commencement ceremony.

Good morning graduates, parents, relatives, friends, faculty and distinguished leaders of my alma matter, St. Mary's. I would like to thank your president, Brother Ronald Gallagher, Provost Beth Dobkin, the college trustees and regents, the faculty and the graduating seniors for inviting me to deliver today's commencement address. It is a tremendous honor and I am very happy to be here.

Wednesday evening I had the honor of attending the White House state dinner for the President and First Lady of Mexico, Felipe Calderon and Margarita Zavala.

When I told President Obama I was looking forward to returning to my alma matter to give the commencement, he asked me which school. When I said St. Mary's College, his face lit up.

President Obama asked me to deliver a personal message to all of you today. "I want you to tell everyone," he said, "that you were my guest at the state dinner and at the head table. Then I want you to congratulate St. Mary's basketball team, the Gaels, for its tremendous success this year in making it to the NCAA Sweet 16."

The President was genuinely impressed with your big achievement. I was going to congratulate you myself, but I figured you might like to know your exploits were being closely followed by the President of the United States.

First, my heartiest congratulations to the graduates. This is a joyous milestone for all of you, but also for your families, your friends and loved ones-everyone who stood by you all these years and helped get you to this great day in your lives.

As the first member of my family to graduate from college, I appreciate more than you know the struggle it takes and the sacrifices it demands.

I was never supposed to make it to this place on a beautiful suburban campus. I was born and raised not far from here in the Central Valley, but it might as well have been a different world-growing up as one of 11 kids in a migrant farm worker family, toiling in the fields during the 1950s and ‘60s.

Some images are forever seared in my memory: My baby brother, Ricardo, died from a common illness that could easily have been treated if we had been able to afford a doctor in time. They carried his small white casket down the isle of the church, the priest taking up a collection so we could bury him.

My older sisters constantly battled sexual advances from foremen and labor contractors. My dad, who had more daughters than sons, was always vigilant, protecting his girls from abuse.

These were the days before toilets in the fields...

...before clean drinking water...

...before state-guaranteed lunch and work breaks.

There was no workers' compensation or unemployment insurance. It was humiliating not having toilets. You'd go with someone who'd help wrap a shirt around you to protect your privacy. I clearly remember the crop dusters flying low to spray pesticides on the fields either right before we entered-or poisons were sprayed in fields adjacent to where we were picking.

Pesticides drifted with the wind into our rows. Some got sick, but you couldn't complain out of fear of being fired.

We literally worked day to day to buy food. Too often, because we earned so little, there wasn't enough food-particularly for a family with 11 children.

In spring and summer, my parents worked especially hard so the kids could spend some time in school during the fall and winter. My oldest sisters were good students and liked school. But they dropped out to help support the family.

When I applied to college the process of navigating the maze of applications, financial aid and scholarships was like a foreign world for my parents, as much as they wanted to help. I was accepted at several campuses. I picked Saint Mary's.

First, in my family, in my day, girls didn't move out of the house until they got married. My parents had big concerns over safety since I had never been away from home. But they took extraordinary pride in me attending a Catholic institution. St. Mary's personally gave me a comfort level too. I have to admit, I was scared to be on my own after such strict protection in my family.

The day I left for St. Mary's was one of the most emotional days in my life. In our family, my dad was a firm, strict disciplinarian. But he prepared a care package for me to take: home-made tortillas, chorizo, Mexican sweet bread. He packaged it all in a cardboard box secured by twine like the farm workers use.

He walked me out to the car so we could talk privately. "I want to apologize to you," he told me. "I wish I could have done more for you. I wish I could pay for it myself, to do this for you so you would have nothing else on your mind except to study."

I was taken aback, seeing this man who worked so hard 12 and 13 hours a day to raise 11 kids; never abandoning any of us. My father and mother put a lot of faith in this college without knowing much about it. But they knew the Christian Brothers would take care of their daughter--that I would come out a learned and a good person.

I don't know how many of you who are graduating or studying here now come from backgrounds similar to mine. I hope St. Mary's will continue offering young people who enjoy few opportunities and privileges in life the same chance it gave me.

Two things changed-and guided-my life. First, in the 1960s there was Cesar Chavez and the movement he founded to lead my people out of the wilderness of poverty and oppression. For me, Cesar is more than a figure in a textbook or a name on a street sign.

Cesar and his struggle have everything to do with the journey my life took and why I'm where I am today. Second, before I was exposed to the Lasalian traditions through the Christian Brothers here at St. Mary's, there were the social teachings of the Catholic Church that were revealed to me as a young girl at our parish, Our Lady of Mount Carmel, in west Fresno.

The genesis of Cesar's social activism was when his parish priest in east San Jose during the late 1940s taught him about the church's social doctrine, especially Rerum novarum, or "The Condition of Labor," the papal encyclical from Pope Leo [the 13th] in the late 19th Century.

Rerum novarum spoke of promoting human dignity through the just distribution of wealth. It affirmed that workers are entitled to fundamental human rights that follow Natural Law, including the right to a just wage and to organize into unions. Those were revolutionary concepts to Cesar when he was a 22-year old farm worker in the 1940s. They opened my eyes too as a young farm worker during the 1960s.

Since then, almost my entire life has been spent either as a worker or in the labor movement dedicated to empowering the workingmen, - women and -children whose lives I shared. I applied those lessons first right here at St. Mary's. I was among the first African American and Chicano kids recruited from Fresno or East or Southeast L.A. We did what was typical of our generation of college students. We took over the chapel. We fasted. It was over winning remedial and tutorial assistance to keep kids in college, and getting ethnic studies into the curriculum. Of course, this created tension, but through tension I learned that we can and should confront injustices with dignity and respect. The College administration delivered on what we needed.

I build upon the lessons learned here at St. Mary's when I organized and led the hotel and restaurant workers union in Los Angeles. Now I apply those lessons each day as leader of workers in all sectors of the economy. One of the great joys of my life has been seeing meek and compliant men and women turn through self-organization into fearless champions for their families and into active participants in the civic and political affairs of their country and community.

We taught farm workers, housekeepers, cooks, janitors, dishwashers-and now port drivers, sanitation workers, car washers and airport security officers-to courageously stand up for their rights and demand a fair share of what they themselves produce.

We taught mostly immigrant workers to nonviolently march and picket and sometimes get arrested-the same way Cesar taught me when I was a farm worker in the Central Valley. We at the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor continue working to keep L.A. on the cutting edge of the labor movement in America.

A commandment from the Prophet Isaiah in the Old Testament is to "lighten the burden of those who work for you [and to] let the oppressed go free." We in L.A. Labor continue boldly leading the American labor movement in standing up for the rights of immigrant workers. Immigrants, and especially Latinos, are the future of the labor movement across this nation. Nowhere is that more true than in L.A.

Recently, the percentage of unionized workers in America has increased. Nearly 30 percent of that growth came from Latinos in 2008.
Ironically, immigrant bashing creates fertile ground for labor organizing among Latino and other immigrant workers. Currently, car wash workers are being exploited by an entire industry, working 10 to 12 hour days for tips only. Hotel workers are sustaining serious injuries at an alarming rate because of increased quotas to clean more rooms faster. Port truck drivers are driving unregulated and dirty trucks that are polluting our air and their health.

Undocumented workers take jobs most other American workers won't take for wages most other American workers won't accept and under conditions most other American workers won't tolerate. But instead of calling these workers who are so vital to our economy by their names, we call them names: Illegals. Aliens. Lawbreakers.

They produce the greatest bounty of fresh fruits and vegetables the world has ever known-a bounty over which we give thanks each day at our dinner tables. And we call them illegals.

Into their care we entrust the most precious possession we have: the lives of our young children. And we call them aliens.

Into their hands we place our parents and grandparents when they are too feeble and infirm to care for themselves. And we call them lawbreakers.

We pretend immigrants are legal when we need them. We attack them for not being legal when they need us. We deport the immigrants we catch working here. We reward the employers who hire them with bailouts and subsidies. We give tax breaks to those who profit from their work. None of this is right. Or fair. Or very American.

In this era of poisonous immigrant bashing and stepped up workplace raids, many immigrants feel abandoned by government as well as by most social and political institutions.

Two exceptions where I come from have been the Catholic Church and organized labor. When the history of our times in Los Angeles is written, one of the proudest chapters will record how the labor movement and the Cardinal Archbishop of Los Angeles, Roger Mahony, steadfastly championed-time after time-immigrants and workers, and unequivocally stood against fear and prejudice.

Cardinal Mahony walked with janitors on strike. He supported parking lot attendants' request to be represented by a union without resorting to typical employer harassment and intimidation.

For decades, Cardinal Mahony worked with the farm workers-and now officiates at the annual Cesar Chavez Mass at the Cathedral.

No one has more tirelessly championed immigration reform, dating back to opposing California's anti-immigrant Proposition 187 in 1994. L.A. Labor, the rest of the American labor movement-and this labor leader-will not rest until Congress enacts and President Obama signs into law genuine, comprehensive immigration reform, including earned legalization.

The struggle for comprehensive immigration reform is given greater urgency by passage of Arizona's racist and un-American anti-immigrant and anti-Latino law. Would Cesar Chavez be a suspect under that law in the state of his birth and where his grandfather homesteaded a small family farm in the North Gila River Valley near Yuma, Arizona in 1900? You bet he would!

Would I be a suspect? You bet I would! An America that elected the son of an African immigrant to be President can reform itself so every immigrant father has the right to live without fear. An America that has practically ended infant mortality can reform itself so every immigrant mother has the right to take her American-born child to the doctor.

An America that is built and fed with the hands of immigrants can reform itself so those immigrants can raise those same hands to pledge allegiance as citizens of the United States. That's not a dream. That is what we are going to do.

All of us, and I am sure all of you, have dreams for your lives. Making a career. Having a family. Graduating from this college is a milestone along the path of achieving those dreams. But beyond those dreams, most of us also ask ourselves at some point, What kind of a life do we want to have? Ending his first long public fast, of 25 days in 1968, to recommit his movement to nonviolence, Cesar Chavez said "It is my deepest belief that only by giving our lives do we find life."

I think a key to his success was how Cesar viewed and treated others. He used to say his job as an organizer was helping ordinary people do extraordinary things. He made all people in the movement feel their jobs were important. It didn't matter if you were a lawyer in court or cooking in the strike kitchen.

Cesar showed farm workers how to win against great odds, even if they were poor and uneducated. By giving people faith-by helping them believe in themselves-Cesar succeeded in doing what so many others...with much better educations and much more money...tried and failed to do for 100 years: give farm workers a voice.

Even though he never made it past the eighth grade, Cesar got many of his ideas through education. He was incredibly well read and self-educated. But it's important to remember Cesar' vision of education transcended individual ambition and personal desire. He said...

"We cannot seek achievement for ourselves and forget about progress and prosperity for our community...Our ambitions must be broad enough to include the aspirations and needs of others, for their sakes and our own." That's part of what education has to also be about.

As each of us pursues our dreams and walks down our own path it is worth recalling that passage from the Book of the Prophet Micah in the Old Testament: "What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, to love kindness and to walk humbly with your God."

Thank you and once again, congratulations.