Good morning! It’s wonderful to join you for today’s closing ceremony. And I’d like to begin by extending my sincere thanks to George Cushman and Jason Acosta for the privilege of being your Honorary Chair for this year’s Institute. I also thank UCLA, the sponsors, organizers and volunteers who have made the Third Annual Los Angeles Hispanic Youth Institute possible.
I am thrilled to have this opportunity to tell you what an inspiration you are to me and all who know you. Like countless young people today, I know many of you face challenges at home, at school, and in your community. Financial problems, unfair laws and discrimination, which understandably discourage many from reaching their goal, can also be obstacles that stand in the way of your success. Yet in spite of your individual challenges you continue to demonstrate your determination to pursue your education.
The fact you are here today is another example of your resolve to overcome any obstacle that stands in the way of you developing the talents that are inherent in each of you. The road ahead may not always be easy. But no matter how hard it gets you must never give up.
For it wasn’t that long ago a college education for most Latinos, African Americans, and other minorities was thought to be an impossible dream.
With few allies in power and even fewer support systems in place, oppression and discrimination sadly trampled the hopes and aspirations of many.
Support systems like the Hispanic College Fund, Pell Grants and Stafford Loans were nonexistent and whatever opportunities did exist were seldom given to Latinos, African Americans and other minorities.
The doors of opportunity open to us today are only there because our early Latino pioneers and civil rights leaders refused to accept the status quo and fought for positive change.
Names like Cesar Chavez, Ed Roybal, and Dolores Huerta come to mind to name a few from our Latino community and so does the name of our nation’s civil rights hero Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
As a young child from Boyle Heights, and later as a young adult, I saw firsthand many of the battles they fought against great oppression and unveiled contempt for our Latino, African American and minority communities.
Among the most vivid of my memories are those I personally experienced with my father Edward Roybal who was the first Latino elected to the Los Angeles City Council in the 20th Century, and the first Latino from California elected to Congress.
I remember how he was threatened with violence and subjected to acts of disrespect because of his Mexican heritage and the fact that he was from Boyle Heights.
I also remember when my father took our family to the Hollywood Bowl and to upscale hotels in downtown Los Angeles, how we were looked at with eyes of scorn, subjected to racial slurs, and made fun of by those who deliberately spoke in exaggerated Mexican accents.
You see, in those early days Latinos, Blacks and other minorities were mostly “the help” who entered such places only through the back door.
No one would have believed then that one day the city of Los Angeles would elect a Latino Mayor, that Los Angeles County would have a Latina on the LA Board of Supervisors, and that California would have a Latino Speaker of the Assembly and four Latinas —Loretta and Linda Sanchez, Grace Napolitano, and me, a Latina from Boyle Heights serving in the United States Congress.
And no one would have ever believed that in 2011 an African American would be President of the United States.
It would have been understandable if my father or any of our country’s early pioneer trailblazers had looked the other way and given up.
It is fortunate for us they persevered in the face of great adversity and today we are the beneficiaries of their courage and sacrifice.
One of their greatest contributions to us is the chance to get a college education.
While it is true today’s economy and other circumstances make it harder to go to college, it is nevertheless an opportunity you simply cannot afford to waste, no matter how hard it gets or how long it takes you to graduate from college.
You are fortunate to have many teachers, counselors, principals, and advocates supporting you.
You also have many members of Congress like me who are working to protect student loan programs and Pell Grants which help make college a reality for more than 9 million low-and-middle income students across the country.
Equally as important is the ongoing fight by the Congressional Hispanic Caucus to pass the DREAM Act for which I am a proud original co-sponsor.
The federal DREAM Act, which Congressman Berman and I introduced in May, addresses the obstacles undocumented students face when trying to earn a college degree and their efforts to remain legally in our country with a path to citizenship.
The DREAM Act requires that students who meet certain conditions be granted “conditional legal permanent resident” status for six years.
During those six years DREAM Act students would be required to graduate from a two-year college, study for at least two years towards a bachelor’s degree, or serve two years in the military.
DREAM Act students, who meet these requirements, will have their conditional status converted to legal permanent resident status, making them eligible to live and work in the United States, and eligible to become citizens in the future.
For those of you who are DREAM Act students, I can assure you I, the members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus and our Congressional allies will not stop fighting until the DREAM Act passes and is signed into law.
We will not give up and you must not give up.
No matter what seemingly insurmountable barriers you face, such as treading new and unknown waters as the first in your family to attend college, or as a first-generation American or an undocumented student, just like those before us, you must never let go of your hopes and aspirations even when they seem an impossible dream.
Continue to work hard and never let anyone convince you of the myth that you lack talent and have no value. Believe in yourself, believe in your brilliance and don’t confuse your lack of experience or your lack of opportunity with lack of intelligence. Remember true success is following your passion and doing what you love most.
At the end of your journey success may look different for each of you, but it will nonetheless be success. And wherever your success takes you, never forget where you came from, and always give back to your community. Like those who opened the doors of opportunity for others, widen those doors and open new ones for the next generation of students who follow you.
I thank you again for inspiring me and for the privilege of being with you today. I will leave for Washington confident that our community and our nation will be a better place because you are in it.
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