“Many Backgrounds, Many Stories…One American Spirit” Speech
THE POWER OF MY AMERICAN DREAM
It is a great honor and privilege for me to be here with you today, as we celebrate National Hispanic Heritage Month. The federal government celebrates this month, in the words of our president, to “showcase the impact Hispanics have had on our national life.” President Obama goes on to, and I quote, “to pay tribute to the generations of Hispanic Americans who have positively influenced and enriched our nation and society.”
National Hispanic Heritage Month highlights how as Hispanic Americans, we have contributed to America while simultaneously celebrating our unique backgrounds, heritage and cultures.
This is indeed a reason to celebrate because America is known as the greatest country in the world precisely due to our diversity. Ethnicity is a jewel of that diversity. We live in a time where we cannot deny it, we cannot ignore it - we must embrace and celebrate where we come from and how we come together as one American spirit.
It has taken us a long time to realize that coming together as one spirit begins with who we are as individuals, a collection of unique identities that come together and make up one, united Hispanic community.
I am one member of this large, growing, diverse, wonderful community. And my identity within that community begins with my name. My name is Cristina Perez not Per-ez. When people ask me, that’s what I tell them. I do not have an “American” identity Christina – C-h-r-i-s-t-i-n-a – Per-ez and then a separate Latina version that sounds, looks, and acts differently. You see, I grew up with one foot in each culture so I wouldn’t know how to separate them if I tried! It’s like café con leche – a 50/50 mixture where you don’t know where the coffee ends and the milk begins. I don’t know where I end and begin but I am complete. This is the only way I know how to view my cultural identity. My Latina culture and being an American are one in the same. For example, when I became the first television judge to transition from Hispanic television to American television, that transition came naturally to me because this is how I have lived my entire life. My Latino heritage and American culture are not an either-or proposition – I am Latina, I am American, I am one Cristina with one collective identity that I wear proudly every day. Together it weaves together all the threads of who I am as a product of an immigrant family, Latina, a lawyer, an author, a wife, a mother and a proud American.
Although I was born here, I, like many other Hispanic Americans, come from immigrant parents. If you think about it, every American’s unique story dates back to an immigrant – whether that means going back hundreds of years, several decades or looking to your own parents.
These stories define us as a great country – a melting pot of diversity and cultural opportunity. Each story comes from a different time and place, each with its own set of challenges.
My personal story began with one particular immigrant. Referring to America as, “the land of possibility and potential,” he and his wife arrived from Colombia to the Bronx New York in 1963 to pursue his dream of becoming a surgeon and providing a better life for his family. While pursuing this dream, the man withstood unspeakable discrimination and confronted obstacles, simply because he was an immigrant. While he was an educated man, he did not speak perfect English. As a result, his worth as a human being and a professional was devalued. Rather, he was judged on looks alone and was forced to take any type of employment that would support him and his family - from janitor to factory worker. But he never complained. You see, despite these hard times – he knew that this incredible country would eventually open doors for him and his family. He was right. After 20 years of perseverance, hard work and overcoming many challenges, this man finally accomplished his goal. He became a top surgeon, earning top honors and recognition in the process.
This is the story of one American immigrant and there are millions more similar stories that we all share. But for me, this story is the one that has driven me throughout my life to succeed because this is the story of my father. His strength and passion resonate with me in everything I do. This is what he has left me as his legacy, his American Dream.
I appreciate the opportunities this country has given to me and my family. Though hard work and dedication, my mother and father made a life for our family -- my sister, brother, and I – and with my father’s help, support and example, nine of his brothers and sisters eventually emigrated to the U.S. from Colombia. Our lives were full of challenges, but our family always was full of love and I relied on them and their example. My parents’ sacrifice allowed us the freedom to excel in the U.S., and more importantly, they opened doors that have given me access to better educational opportunities and a better way of life.
And even if this particular story was not about my own family ----- I think I would still find a familiar theme in it – the ability to take pride in and find strength in where we come from.
But where do we come from? There are many diverse backgrounds that make up the landscape of America. So many countries have celebrated their independence. So many different Hispanic and Latin American cultures have converged here in America as a result. This may make us one Hispanic community but our individual backgrounds create a picture that is far from paint by number. There is no right way to color in the lines of who we are as a community. Our diversity of personal stories, backgrounds, ancestries, ethnicities and cultural identities make it impossible. This uniqueness is often mistaken for separateness and there are those who ask: So what unites us? What is our place in the United States of America? The answer is the same for each American, whether a product of recent or long-time immigrants – our love for these United States. We love our country and our country loves us right back. She embraces us across all of our cultures. The Statue of Liberty’s script cannot be rewritten – it is set in stone and has been for hundreds of years. She is designed to welcome each and every one of us – every story, every background, and with every passing generation. It is who Lady Liberty is to accept us each the way we are.
America’s willingness to welcome and recognize each of her citizens and all their contributions helps me to appreciate why we are celebrating this month. I understand why President Obama and the federal government pay tribute to our cultures and contributions. The federal government defines the celebration of National Hispanic Heritage Month as the period from September 15th to October 15th. During this time, we celebrate the histories, cultures and contributions of American citizens whose ancestors came from Spain, Mexico, the Caribbean and Central and South America. But did you know it started as just a weeklong celebration?
President Lyndon Johnson first approved Hispanic Heritage Week and President Reagan later expanded the celebration to a full month.
I respect that our presidents and government continue to recognize the contributions of Hispanic culture in the United States. I think it’s wonderful that it was expanded from one week to one month. And now -- I propose to you that it be expanded into to a yearlong celebration. No, I am not asking President Obama to sign a declaration for ‘National Hispanic Heritage Year.’ Instead, I am asking each one of you as individuals – Why do YOU celebrate it? And I challenge you to decide whether or not that celebration is limited to just one month of the year? Are we only proud of our heritage during this one-month? Because we live it every day -- we breathe it every day -- it’s who we are every day -- so therefore we should be proud of it every day!
When it comes to celebrating your heritage there must be a singular, powerful purpose behind it and that is what will make it a daily event. Heritage is a collection of customs and traditions that are handed down from generation to generation-through families.
These customs and traditions are personal to each family and so must be your motivation to continuously celebrate them. Otherwise, what is the point in going through the motions for just one month of every year?
If you are of a certain religion or faith, do you only find purpose in that religion on religious holidays, or do you carry that personal meaning over into your daily life? This is how we must approach our Hispanic heritage – as a daily celebration. Our heritage, like faith, is a collection of rock solid assets. It is evidence of something greater than ourselves that we cannot touch but must believe in.
This IS a reason to celebrate!!! Yet for some reason we are constantly trying to define who we are and where we came from instead. We’re trying to justify a celebration rather than just embracing it with our hearts. We feel like in order for our identity in this country to be real, we must scream it and force it on the world. We strenuously defend our stories and “right” to be here. We see our cultural identity as something that needs to be meticulously measured and defined down to the smallest detail. We fear that if one detail is left out, it lessens who we are as Americans. We explain and explain, hoping that eventually our right to remain diverse in a land founded on diversity will be neatly justified.
Don’t you think it’s time to stop defining and justifying who we are and just embrace it?
Because the moment you stop trying to define it, you will discover it. You will realize that your cultural identity comes from personal empowerment, not force. Let it come naturally and authentically. Approach the world with the message – once you meet me you will know who I am. Try and identify me as much as you’d like until I open my mouth – because at that point I will show you who I am. My identity will become instantly clear.
For instance… in my life, as a Latina woman who works in law, a profession which at one time was associated mostly with Caucasian men, it would be easy to define my life and my career from the perspective of being a minority woman – an underrepresented statistic on an often intimidating, extremely competitive and very large playing field dominated by colleagues who don’t look anything like me. Yes, that would have been the easy way out. But that is not the way I choose to approach my career or my life.
No matter what kind of personal or professional obstacles I have faced, I have always used my cultural identity and my gender for my benefit. Once I was accepted for who I was without qualification, I was able to balance who I am as a Latina, woman, professional, bicultural American, wife and mother.
The biggest strength and lesson I have learned through balancing my own definition of “it all” -- is to approach every hat I wear in life and every piece of who I am, from the perspective of privilege.
If this is how we all approach our lives, then as a community our message will be – once you meet us you will know who we are, where we come from and our place within this great nation. It is our responsibility as a community to find our own identities within this culture and make it a part of the American backdrop.
To do this, we must embrace the assets we inherited and acquired through the generations before us. We inherited the sacrifice, the high moral standards and commitment to make life better for our children and ourselves. We MUST honor that tradition because this is what our parents and ancestors wanted for us and it is what we should want for our children. We cannot let it die. We cannot lose it. We must make sure our legacy continues. And it starts with passing this message on to our children; telling them the stories of our ancestors with pride and honesty, teaching what is behind them and moving forward. We must make sure our future generations feel as proud as we are of our ancestors. We must convey to them that the heritage of who they are comes from the strength of their cultural identity.
Remember that with everything you do, everything you say and every attitude you project about yourself and your culture, you are setting the standard for future generations of individuals from your culture. You can never forget this responsibility. Together we can, through our awareness, education, and actions, set a course for a future reality where all cultures really are treated as equals.
I often preach that our children need only a few major role models – super heroes in real life. We must BE those super heroes, preserving and fighting for being Americans with a long history and legacy of people just like us, only with different stories and backgrounds. That is what makes our country the best place to live in the world – a “super power” as they call us. As a collective group, we have the ability to hold onto what makes us great and never forget how we got here.
Every generation has its own set of leaders who strive to break down barriers and set the pace for the next generation. Sometimes it’s the well-known public figure who proudly stands up and says, “I am proud of who I am” and then opens doors as fast they can for others to walk through. Sadly, I read that young people today are most frustrated by the lack of positive role models for young Hispanics. Let’s change this now! We must be empowered by this responsibility!
We MUST BE EMPOWERED TO Be the super hero in real life for your children! The stories you share with your children about where they come from will give them hope, inspiration and most importantly, pride.
These stories that come from you, away from the spotlight, behind the closed doors of your home, will teach your kids how important it is to be American while embracing their culture at the same time. The message to our children must be that embracing both parts of your identity is what makes us so unique. The moment you start being embarrassed by who you are and where you come from is the beginning of the deterioration of your cultural identity and who you are. The more we allow the younger generation to embrace who they truly are, the stronger we will be as independent cultural communities and the national community at large. There’s room for everyone here, and the next generations must believe that!
We need to be the leaders to take away from our children this feeling that they must walk on eggshells when it comes to who they are and where they came from. This feeling like they need to segregate into groups because there’s not enough room in the national culture for who they are as Americans and the heritage they celebrate every day.
Protecting them means giving them the liberty to be free to be themselves without alienating anybody, the gift of living and celebrating who they are, without any chains, restrictions, or justifications. They no longer have to define who they are; we’ve done that already. They just have to live as Americans with their heritage and celebrate their version of the American dream every day.
I once asked my father what he felt to be the “American Dream,” he replied: “Simple - the opportunity to work, raise and provide for my family, and my children, obtaining the best education possible.” He added, “What you can do in this country, you cannot do anywhere else in the world.” This is truly makes us a super power in the world.
But as powerful as we are, America is still a young country; others have so much history. What will define us and make us different? What will give us the history and texture that other super powers have?
The power of the American dream will. This power does not lie solely in money and the ability to succeed financially the United States either. The power of the American Dream is the power we have to welcome many backgrounds, many stories and blend them together into one American Spirit. This will be America’s legacy with each one of us contributing.
Hispanic Heritage month is just one opportunity to harness those contributions and collectively redefine our nation’s heritage to include many new American dreams, each defined by its own dreamer.
What is the power of your American dream?
Mine is the power of the legacy I will leave for my daughter. It is a legacy of opportunity, a legacy of faith, a legacy of identity, a legacy of commitment, a legacy of having your voice heard, and a legacy of believing in myself, my future and the futures of my children.
Now is the time to ask yourself, what is the power of my American dream?