I was born to an undocumented Mexican mother in San José, Califaztlán. When my mother was pregnant she crossed the U.S-Mexico border ‘sin papeles’, so that I could be born a U.S citizen. After about a year, we returned to Mexicali Baja California with the rest of our family.
When I was seven years old my mom left, or I should say, escaped my dad and a life of domestic violence. She took my one-year-old sister and me to live with my grandmother, mi Nana. Then she crossed over to the U.S. again, this time legally, to find work picking strawberries in Watsonville, CA. I really missed my mom then, but really enjoyed the new freedom. After doing my homework, I would spend the rest of the evening playing soccer in the streets and jumping on the hoods of abandoned cars lining the U.S.-Mexico border. You see, my grandmother’s house was just two blocks away from the line Gloria Anzaldúa called a “1,950 mile-long open wound.” My neighborhood friends envied me because I could cross to el otro lado to eat McDonalds and buy cheap clothes at the flea market. Sometimes my friends and I would sneak across the fence through one of its many holes. As soon as we saw the border patrol come by we would rush back across. I remember bragging to my friends that I wasn’t afraid of la pinche migra because I was a U.S. citizen. I did not know then that la migra sometimes can get trigger happy and shoot at children simply for throwing rocks.
Even though I flunked second grade, mi Nana used to say that I was the smartest child she knew. She would put her hands together and say “que inteligente es mi niño.” Her tone of voice and expression somehow convinced me that I was smart. So I started doing better in school. My uncles would joke about my good grades, and warn me that the Russians would come and kidnap me so I could help them compete with the US.
When I was thirteen years old my mother finally decided it to bring us with her to the U.S. so that we could get an education. At the time she hoped that I would finish high school and maybe get an office job with air conditioning. But I came to UC Berkeley instead. And like many first generation Chicano college student, I felt lost and uprooted on this campus.
I remember, as an undergraduate, entering Doe Library for the first time. And as I descended to the lower levels of the Gardner stacks, I pictured myself as the kid in Journey to the Center of the Earth, my face filled with fear and awe. Doe library became my favorite place on campus. It was quiet, like a cathedral. I remember wanting to show my mom how amazing this place was, and then realizing that my mother could not follow me inside those walls. The university library is not a cathedral but a vault. There are bones and blood inside those walls, histories of rebellion not meant for us to know.
And now, after four years of undergraduate education, and ten years of graduate work, I have a Ph.D. from UC Berkeley. I also have a wife, two beautiful children, three chickens, and a vegetable garden. I have decided to become a scholar in the field of Ethnic Studies, in great part, because of the sense of empowerment and dignity I gained while taking undergraduate Ethnic Studies courses. This is what Ethnic Studies graduates learn. We gain the tools necessary to fight for the well being of our communities, and to push for the radical transformation our society so desperately needs.
And even though the library is still my cathedral and I have made the university my territory, I must remember to see beyond these local walls. See my brown and black brothers and sisters in the streets of Richmond, Oakland, Salinas, Mexico and all of Latin America. And as the fisherman casts his net over the waters, we must now cast our nets across these borderlands. Fish our youth out of the dangerous streets and into the university. So that they too can see beyond the local walls.
I will now like to ask all the children in the audience to stand up. Children, please place your left hand on your heart, and repeat after me. ‘I promise’ ‘that I will study,’ ‘that I will dream a better world,’ ‘and that I too’ ‘will one day’ ‘go to college and graduate.’
Agustin Palacios PhD Graduation Speech From UC Berkeley