June is graduation month, and there was one ceremony that had a particular impact on me: The graduation of Thermal’s Desert Mirage High School Class of 2015.
The ceremony was held at the Indian Wells Tennis Club on a hot evening. The ceremony began with students in pairs holding large wire bowers covered with flowers, to make a path for the senior class to enter. And enter, they did—wearing white robes and caps for the top scholars, with red for the rest of the class. Many graduates had hand-decorated messages on their mortarboards, and robes festooned with bright floral leis or sparkling lights. As they circled the grass court to their assigned seats, families and friends cheered as the graduates struck poses or danced their way along the floral pathway.
It’s well known that I cry easily, and my tears began as I scanned the half-full stadium, full of proud parents, grandparents and other relatives. I particularly focused on the young brothers and sisters who were getting the chance to participate in a rite of passage where children learn what’s important to their families. I could see the pride and excitement as each family stood to shout encouragement as their graduating student walked by, waving and beaming.
This graduation has particular significance for me. I’ve written about Alejandra Franco before—she is a remarkable young woman who demonstrates how second-generation immigrants have embraced the American dream. In this case, Alejandra is the valedictorian of the graduating class, with a GPA of 4.39, and has been accepted to attend USC—apparently the first student from Desert Mirage to have that opportunity.
The vast majority of these graduating seniors are of Hispanic heritage, and in many cases, Spanish is still the primary language spoken at home. While I could not understand all of the conversations taking place around me, the joy and pride exhibited easily transcended language barriers.
Desert Mirage’s principal, Stephen Franklin, welcomed everyone in both English and Spanish. All stood for the presentation of colors. Then the national anthem was sung by senior Alondra Ibarra, as the audience, hands over hearts, stood respectfully. My tears began again as I listened to the a capella voice of this angel. Wow!
Salutatorian Everett Rivera-Meza, with a 4.34 GPA and heading for UCLA, gave his speech in English and Spanish. “Always follow your dreams,” he said. “Don’t let the noise of others drown out your voice. Wherever we go, our roots are strong.”
Then it was Alejandra’s turn. Her valedictorian address offered was entirely in Spanish. “I had a time limit of three minutes, and was originally going to give it in English and Spanish,” she explained, “but I had to choose, and I chose Spanish because I wanted my family, most importantly my parents, to fully understand.”
Alejandra told two stories in her speech. The first was about “connecting the dots and finding our purpose,” where she linked her father’s immigration difficulties some years ago to her passion for getting an education. “Imagine,” she said, “at 12, getting home after a usual day at school like any other—but then your mom tells you that your father has been taken by (Immigration and Customs Enforcement), and you see the desperate look in her eyes is screaming, ‘What are we going to do?’ Then to have your little brothers get home from school and ask why Dad has not arrived from work; having to grip all courage possible to be able to answer with a smile that he is away working. The days pass by, and you witness how Mother is doing the impossible. Being forced to lie to your little brothers and tell them everything is fine, and having to send them to bed with the hopes that father will be back tomorrow. Keeping a straight face at school, but knowing once you get home, you will be confronted by reality. Doing everything possible to be of use, whether it be taking care of my brothers, doing chores around the house … having to wait for everyone to be in bed in order to be able to do homework, staying up late and … not setting aside education, and not failing your parents.
“At 12 years of age, I was trying to understand: Why did my family have to suffer all of this? Perhaps in that moment, I wasn’t able to understand, but now, almost six years later, I connect the dots and realize that all the suffering was rather a blessing. Because of what happened, my father can live at peace, as he was given a second chance, but I also discovered my vocation: I clearly see my purpose is to go to a university, educate myself, and come back to my community to offer services to families like my own.”
Alejandra’s second story was about there being no excuse for not achieving success. “Hemiplegia is total paralysis of half the body that affects the center motors of the brain and its development—that was the path that was chosen for me at birth. ‘She will never walk; she will never be normal; she will not even live past her first birthday.’ I would become no one.
“Nonetheless, life gave me amazing parents who did not consider me a lost cause, even when all the odds were against us. My parents fought to give me the opportunity to live. Having crossed the border with nothing and sacrificing everything, even going days without any food or water, they risked everything to offer us a better tomorrow.
“Even after all the hardships suffered, I understood that there is no such thing as ‘impossible’ or any obstacle that serves as an excuse to not continue striving forward. Not only did I win the battle to keep living, but I also triumphed over death itself when it knocked at my door. And that is why I speak to all of you as living testimony that with the same perseverance and determination as our parents, family members, friends, teachers or whomever guided us through these years of education, we must keep pushing forward with the purpose of demonstrating our full potential, not as Latinos or Raza, but as the wonderful human beings we are, creating the better tomorrow we see engraved in the callused and hardworking hands of our parents. It is our duty to demonstrate to each and every one who is present that they have not come to celebrate us in vain.”
My tears flowed.
This graduating class will be attending nine University of California campuses, 11 Cal State colleges, and schools in New Mexico, Arizona, Texas and New York. Many graduates will be continuing their education at College of the Desert, at technical schools and in the military.
Many, like Alejandra, are the children of immigrants. They should be celebrated as a welcome addition to the American story that they are helping to write. They deserve our support, our admiration and public policies that support their participation—out of the shadows and in full pursuit of the American dream.
Anita Rufus is also known as “The Lovable Liberal,” and her radio show airs Sundays from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. on KNews Radio 94.3 FM. Email her at Anita@LovableLiberal.com. Know Your Neighbors appears every other Wednesday.