Chicana/Latina studies scholar jeered at U. Arizona commencement

Via Inside Higher Ed, we learn that Sandra Soto, an Associate Professor of Gender and Women’s Studies and a co-Coordinator of Chicana/Latina Studies at at the University of Arizona, was asked by her dean to deliver the faculty commencement address to the graduating class of 2010 for the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences.  Towards the end of her speech last week, she addressed the punitive anti-immigrant and anti-Ethnic Studies legislation passed recently in Arizona, and was heckled, jeered, and booed, and has been receiving nasty and threatening e-mails ever since.  Reaction in Arizona to her commencement address has been heated.  “On a local television station’s comment board, several viewers suggested that Soto ‘return to El Salvador.’ (She’s actually from Texas, where her family has lived since Texas was Mexico, she said, and she’s not sure why she’s been identified as being from El Salvador.)”

There is a YouTube video of the controversial final 1/3 of her talk here, complete with cries from the audience, “this is America,” “cut your hair,” and “bitch.”  After an official interrupts the jeers (at about 2:30) to ask for “civil discourse,” the crowd quiets down a bit.  At the conclusion of her short address, she was greeted with both enthusiastic cheers and loud boos.  The entirety of her speech, and some final thoughts of mine, are after the jump.

It is my great pleasure and honor to be among the first to congratulate you on completing your studies at the University of Arizona, the flagship institution of our state, and—I can say with utmostconfidence—the university with the most facebook fans in the state. 

Congratulations as well to those family members and friends who have supported and encouraged our students through the process.  Graduates, I applaud you for showing up day after day, semester after semester, for opening your hearts and minds to multiple ways of seeing, representing, and analyzing the world.  For some of you, a Bachelor’s degree has turned out to be not enough schooling and so you are headed off to graduate school, medical school and law school.  A handful of you are here today because you have finally reached the terrific milestone of completing a doctorate.  But most of you are here to celebrate the momentous conclusion of your undergraduate studies. 

If you entered college immediately after finishing high school, you have been a student for at least the last 17 consecutive years.  17 years. Now you will try your hand at making a life outside of the context of classes, teachers, required reading, libraries, flip-flops, office hours, deadlines, and all-nighters.  That you are about to undergo a major and excitinglife transition may not have fully sunk in yet.  I’m guessing that you have been too busy attending to the details and whirlwind of the end of your last semester:  your examinations and essay writing, your celebrating and packing.  But in the upcoming months you are likely to experience a range of emotions from euphoria over what you might perceive as newfound freedom to a great sense of loss as you realize that college life simply cannot be replicated.

When finding yourself nostalgic for this stage of your life, can you remember that though you are no longer a student, you are taking your college experiences with you everywhere you go. Whichever route you take from here, it is absolutely essential that you honor and not take for granted your diplomas.  Too many people in this country will never in their lifetime have the “privilege” to set foot on a research-one campus, much less hang a framed diploma on their wall.  You may not have always appreciated those five-page essay assignments in which you were required to analyze and interpret a social problem or a poem or a political speech.  But I hope that among the dozen or so of those essays you wrote for us, the process of brainstorming, outlining, discussing, writing, and revising at least one or two essays made you feel alive, interested, engaged, heard, smart, maybe even brilliant.  Now that you won’t be receiving grades and regular feedback from professors, it is crucial that you own your knowledge, that you deeply believe in yourselves as thinkers, and that you continue to hone your critical skills by being avid and sharp readers, by discussing social issues with your friends, co-workers, and family.  The United Negro College Fund created a spot-on slogan when 40 years ago they said simply “A Mind is a Terrible Thing to Waste.” 

Take your powers of reasoning, evaluating, analyzing, arguing, critiquing everywhere:

  • from the grocery store to the voting booth;
  • from the next episode of reality TV you watch to the controversial state bills you read;
  • from the way you handle a painful situation in which you suspect you are being treated unfairly, to the way you respond to a situation in which you bear witness to someone else (possibly even a stranger) being treated unfairly…whether because of the color of her skin, the accent he might have, or her country of origin.

One of my favorite classroom experiences is when a student raises her hand to say, “Professor Soto, this discussion reminds me of a book we are reading in one of my other classes.”  In that unique moment, this student is not only fully invested in and driving knowledge production but she wants to share her insights with me and her fellow students, asking us to consider an issue or a problem through a fresh angle, one enabled by innovative and interdisciplinary thinking.

We are counting on you to continue to make and share those inventive connections between issues that might seem separate from one another.  In fact, we are dependent on you—the next generation of leaders, teachers, journalists, and lawyers—you will have to confront and solve such a difficult and challenging set of problems.  I knowthat it will sound cliché for a convocation speaker to state that this particular group of graduates—the class of fill-in-the-blank—is at a crossroads.  However, if the recent past has been any indication of what is to come, you—the CLASS of 2010—will need to muster all of the tools of your education in order to negotiate and help solve a range of social problems and vexing issues that those who came before you have not managed to disentatangle, from immigration reform to our ongoing war, through the economic recession.  We have only to turn on the TV to see one of the wealthiest and most technologically sophisticated corporations in the world unable to stop an oil leak threatening natural and human devastation.

Who would have thought that an environmental disaster of that magnitude would be competing for national headline space with…Arizona? 

The whole nation is watching Arizona right now.

We went so quickly from a fairly typical state situation in which we were concentrating our efforts on how best to dig ourselves out of this economic hole we have been in for the last several years without compromising our public services and our public education to a crisis situation in which our public policy and social relations are incredibly strained, in which racial discord is being provoked not solved by the recent legislation that is horrifying so many of us in and outside of Arizona.  Certainly, we will not all agree on how best to reform immigration.  But it is our civic responsibility to have

  • educated,
  • well-informed,
  • and non-hysterical, debate,
  • and to develop solutions that are fundamentally respectful of human and civil rights.

What we so desperately need—and yes this does put the class of 2010 at a particular crossroads—is for you to bring every critical thinking skill at your disposal, and then some more, to bring all of the substantive knowledge of history, diverse cultures and societies, ethics and politics—bring all of these to the table.

The new Arizona law generally known as SB 1070 is considered the strictest anti-immigrant legislation in the country and is explicitly intended to drive undocumented immigrants out of the state.  One reason it has instigated a boycott is because to a whole lot of people, myself included, it appears to not only invite but require the police to engage in racial profiling.  Before we had a chance to fully get our heads around the implications of either 1070 or of the subsequent boycott, our governor signed HB 2281, which is intended to eliminate any Ethnic Studies classes from public and charter schools in Arizona. 

As I held hands with Middle and High School students who formed a human chain around TUSD headquarters this past Wednesday to protest this law, the children tirelessly chanted:

“Our education is under attack, what do we do? Fight Back.” 

As a professor, someone who has committed her life to teaching, I was moved beyond words to see those children peacefully—in fact, beautifully—asking only for a chance to see themselves reflected in the lessons they are taught, the lectures that they hear, the textbooks that they read.

I was there with those children for two reasons:

First, Chicano studies, the field under attack in this legislation, is my own field of research and teaching. The law suggests that it is knowledge about marginalized histories and cultures that will divide us.  That is, this law tries to shoot the messenger.  As the young students told reporters repeatedly Wednesday, they have a right to learn about all sorts of diverse histories and cultural expressions.  The second reason I stood with those children is because their education, like your education, matters to me. If I have been saying anything to you so far, it is that education has a public value.  That is, your education will not only bring you a bigger paycheck.  It will enable you to be a better fellow citizen, more productive, better able to participate in solving the challenges I and my peers have not been able to conquer. So the ongoing cutbacks in public funding of education, as well as the recent devastating cuts to our own university among others, are deeply worrying to me in that they strike at both the quantity and quality of education that this state provides to its people. I do hope that you will, like the youth I stood with on Wednesday, fight for public education.  Now that you have completed your own education, please remember to leave the door open behind you so that other students may enter.

On behalf of the faculty of the School of Social and Behavioral Sciences, and of the Department of Gender and Women’s Studies, I wish you the very best. 

If you read the entirely of her speech, you see that it’s a nice, standard graduation speech about the achievements of the graduates along with a call for them to use their educations in solving the problems of today and in the future.  Her political remarks are confined to the final paragraphs of the speech, and once again are focused on the work of local students.  It looks to me to be a completely appropriate commencement address by a humanities scholar, and given her research interests, it would have been strange for her not to have addressed SB 1070 and HB 2281 at all.  Compared to some graduation speeches–such as those given by politicians and political activists–it looks pretty tame to me.

Give 'em plenty of rope!

That said, I don’t think that audiences and graduates have to sit in silence if a graduation speaker says something offensive or obnoxious to them.  Grads can stand with their backs to the speaker, and they and the audience can boo vigorously if it wants to.  (The personalized comments and insults like “cut your hair” and “bitch!” just make the audience look bad.  Stay classy, Arizona parents and grandparents!)  Speakers who choose to talk about controversial topics should expect (as Soto expected) some vocalized displeasure and disagreement.  But to threaten Soto after the speech because she voiced ideas with which some in the audience disagreed is absolutely anti-American and a threat to intellectual liberty and freedom of speech.

Meanwhile, La Famille Historiann will stand in solidarity with the boycott on travel to Arizona.  We’d also like to remind our neighbors to the southwest that the U.S. Constitution applies to everyone in the U.S., not just citizens and not just legal immigrants.  And if you don’t like that, I have a question for you Arizonans:  Why do you hate America?

0 thoughts on “Chicana/Latina studies scholar jeered at U. Arizona commencement

  1. God. That’s just appalling. I’m glad you posted this (and it’s a *much* better speech than I expect to hear at my own uni’s commencement this week), but it just makes me want to not be a part of the same country as these xenophobic bigots anymore. Seriously: I am quite literally on the verge of tears right now — whether of sadness or frustration or both, I just don’t know.


  2. Watch the YouTube. The nasty comments are from just a few audience members. She got a lot of applause and cheers, too.

    I think this is an example of how some are unable to de-personalize their reaction to someone saying something they don’t want to hear. I wonder how a white, male historian or philosophy professor would have been received had he delivered the exact same speech. I’m sure there would have been some boos, but probably a lot fewer specific insults and fewer hatemail messages.


  3. Yeah, she would never have gone with the formulaic warmup/opener about “facebook fans” if she even imagined that the talk was going to become a politically-embattled slog against the wind. I don’t think anybody has any business interjecting anything from the mosh-pit into a graduation speech, as if from the floor of the Globe Theater back in your Elizabethan Drama course. If you want to stand in symbolic silence, fine. If you want to offer up a hearty “booooo” at the end, fine). But beyond that, I’d say take Grandma’s advice from the upper stadium seats: shush up, bring the car around, and write those thank you notes for the graduation gifts the first week of summer, not sometime after Labor Day. I graduated in a highly politicized season–Four Dead in O-Hi-O and all that–with a white armband on the black gown, a peace sign on the mortarboard, and a look on my face (if the pictures taken outside afterward don’t lie) that said “angry young man.” The speaker was an idiot Senator who offered boilerplate pablum cynically calculated to condescend to the Aquarius generation. We just heard him out, shuffled out of there, and got on with the familial ritual stuff. [Hold it, you’re saying it was the parents and grandparents who were carrying on like this?!?].

    I’m actually a proponent of going back to the Old School custom of requiring each graduate to translate the Latin on the diploma–right there on stage–and give a 140- character declamation/tweet thereon, also in Latin, or else the diploma auto-defaults to a Certificate of Appreciation!


  4. Indyanna–I assumed that the not-so-sotto-voce comments weren’t from the grads, mostly because they sounded like older voices to me, but of course I don’t know for sure. The person who posted the video doesn’t give any information about where it was shot–from among a crowd of grads or in the audience. So, that was just my guess, but others may disagree or have other theories.


  5. That is horrible. The decline of intelligent and civil discourse in this country, if only on a small-scale and among a (vocal) minority, turns me into a hand-wringing Emily Post-type woman far beyond my years. I think it is prematurely aging me.

    I know it has been said before, but as much as I abhor this type speech, I am grateful to live in a country where it is allowed. I may not agree with what they are saying or the venue in which they chose to say it, but I am glad they have the freedom to say such things. It’s just a pity they would use that freedom to try to stifle the freedom of others.


  6. Grad Student: well, I’d have a hard time sitting on my hands and keeping quiet if the graduation speaker were George W. Bush, or Lynne Cheney, or Phyllis Schlafly. I’m not down on the booers, just on the nasty personal comments audible on the video, and on the threatening and nasty e-mails. (Not on all critical e-mails, however. Presumably a citizen could write a pointed e-mail in protest to the professor without it becoming threatening or insulting.)

    What is “civility,” and to whom is it owed? Presumably, those who agreed with Soto might have booed the Governor were she invited to address the graduating class with a justification for why she signed the two bills in question.


  7. What scares the crap out of me is the vehemence against critical and engaged thinking. Don’t think! Follow! Anyone who tells you to think for yourself based on the facts, and not what we tell you to believe, is the ENEMY!



  8. Standing up and turning your back on the speaker at the end, instead of applauding, is a far better choice than heckling a speaker with whom you disagree. But threatening emails and nasty phone messages and all of that after-the-fact harassment is even more saddening.

    Have we become a society of knee-jerk and petulant pettifoggers? It sure seems like it. So sad when Soto was calling for people to be engaged in a civil and productive manner but the end is just more of the nasty norm.


  9. Janice–I agree that silence and a show of backs to the speaker can make the point more dramatically than booing. I was at a commencement speech by the late William Rehnquist shortly after he was elevated to Chief Justice back in the late 1980s, and that’s what a significant portion of the students and the audience did. But, someone like Rehnquist is someone about whom most people already had made up their minds long before his speech. Someone like Soto, who’s not a public or political figure, is someone who could (and did) unpleasantly surprise a portion of her audience with her remarks.

    I don’t think it’s wrong or unusual for a graduation speaker on the dais to say something that might be upsetting or disagreeable to members of the audience and the new grads. What’s troubling about the Arizona incident (and the harassment of Soto after the fact) is that, as Digger suggests, there’s no tolerance for any viewpoint but the dominant viewpoint whatsoever. The backers of these new laws have won–do they really get to shut down any further discussion or criticism of the laws?

    Like I asked earlier: Why does Arizona hate America?


  10. Wow–you all have to see this: Also via Inside Higher Ed, Gustavo Arellano, the author of a syndicated column “Ask a Mexican,” was asked to deliver the commencement address at UCLA this year. He posted a YouTube recording of an angry voicemail message from the parent of a soon-to-be UCLA grad telling him that he’s done nothing to deserve the honor and has nothing to say.

    Kudos to angry parent Cindy Roberts for having the guts to use her real name when leaving such a snarling nastygram! Gee–how happy are professors and administrators at UCLA that her daughter is graduating and that they therefore won’t have to deal with the mother any longer? This takes “helicopter parenting” to a new high, or should I say a new low? “I am just disGUSted that you have been chosen as commencement speaker. . . . No one wants to listen to you. . . . You have done nothing that these kids can look up to. . . . We’re going to the L.A. Times!” Oy.

    That puts the panic in Hispanic. Who has time to worry about the commencement speakers to this degree, let alone organize petitions against them? I’ll tell you what: my graduating class 20 years ago had Cokie Roberts for a graduation speaker! She was somewhat less of a total embarassment than she has become as a professional Washington gossip and the giver of the most conventional of all Washington “wisdom.” The class of 1989 did better than us: they got Frances FitzGerald, who was very cool. (I got to hear her speech too, fortunately.)


  11. There was a piece in the _Times_ yesterday about super-elite VIP seat marketing for rock concert fans [but does Jon Bon Jovi really rate something at that level?!?] in which you get the usual meaningless perks, but you also get to take your own embossed folding chair home. Maybe ‘rents willing to cough up an extra half-year’s tuition should get their own personal commencement speaker, who would go home and exhort their {My Kid is an Honor Student at Maximus-Rumphula Middle School} little darlings in private!


  12. I’ve known all along that AZ SB 1070 was hateful and hurtful, but what I’d feared was that it somehow reflected the sentiment of many of the people of the state. Unfortunately, it seems that those who agree with fringe or radical politics of the right are the ones driving the car off the cliff at the moment. The only thing that gives me hope is that people of reason cannot fail to see this race-baiting for what it is.

    In the meantime I weep for the profound loss of civility and dignity at this graduation ceremony. Graduation should be a time of celebration and a reflection upon achievements. It seems that the radical right would take away university education from most of us, especially those of us like me who are public school babies with no trust fund upon which to depend. It makes it all that much easier to control those who refuse to think for themselves, who haven’t been taught how to think critically, and those who cannot afford a quality education.


  13. What a weird interest in one Latina’s hair. I guess this is the way that troglodytes process their disagreements with Latinas? Tell them to cut their hair and pluck their eyebrows.

    Buh-buy, “Terry.” How sad is your life that you go trolling around on the internets looking for people to disagree with. Who’s got the time? No one with a job, or a life, I’m guessing.


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