Commencement address (as prepared for delivery) by Dr. Felipe Hinojosa — a Latino civil rights historian from Texas A&M University — at the 125th Goshen College Commencement on Sunday, April 30, 2023.
Hello, hello Goshen College! Y’all look good today!
Members of the faculty, staff, President Stoltzfus, members of the President’s Cabinet, fathers and mothers, madres y padres, abuelitos y abuelitas, and most importantly, the illustrious class of 2023. We are here to honor you—your work, your sacrifice, and the support network that lifted you throughout. Today we celebrate you and your families! Congratulations!!
You did it! And you did it in a big way. Many of you started your studies at Goshen College in 2019, in the months right before the world changed, in the “before times” as your generation likes to say, and in the last four years you wore masks, logged on to zoom classes, and, most impressively, many of you harnessed the power of social media to create networks of mutual aid that cut across borders of age, race, gender, and religion to help get people the groceries, healthcare, and connection so many needed. You did that.
It’s so good to be back on campus, back here where everything connects. I served on the board of directors for 12 years and in that time we did a lot of good work, it was the joy of my professional life, it really was, I enjoyed every minute of it. Dinner at Goshen Brewing, pizza at Venturi, socializing at the Constant Spring. I miss this town! But I do have to say, there are some changes, some new initiatives that I’m thrilled about: A new bowling team? A new mascot? Dash, the black squirrel? I’m only upset that I did not come up with any of these ideas!
And earlier this year, Goshen College was designated a Hispanic Serving Institution (HSI) by the U.S. Department of Education! I’m not going to get into all the details about that, but I’ll simply say that 15 years ago Latinos made up only 2 percent of the student body at Goshen College and today they make up 30 percent! Folks, I don’t have to remind you of how that helps everybody. The food’s better, the music’s better, but more importantly it presents new opportunities and challenges for Goshen College in the years to come.
I have always been inspired by this college, by your brilliance, and by the beauty of this place… I am from South Texas, but the Midwest has always been a special place, not only for me but for countless numbers of agricultural farmworkers who since the middle part of the twentieth century made the trip from the south Texas borderlands, from the Rio Grande Valley in particular. My own family drove from deep South Texas to Traverse City, Michigan to pick cherries and then to Archbold, Ohio, to pick tomatoes. And as the son of a Mennonite pastor, I spent many hours as a kid on this campus, mostly bored out of my mind as dad and mom attended what appeared to be endless church meetings.
I know how rigorous the academics are here at Goshen College, but I also know that the faculty here care deeply about how what you are learning will move you to change the world. So graduates, take these memories with you, take this knowledge with you, and remember that your responsibility now as graduates is to give it away, to share this knowledge, use it to build connections, to start something new, to revolutionize our world. Education is the one thing no one can take away from you, but it is also something you can give away in service to your neighborhood, your communities, and the world.
These are the lessons I learned in college. In the fall semester of a very, very long time ago, I jumped in my Mitsubishi mighty max truck, and drove 30 hours from Brownsville, Texas to Fresno, California. I didn’t know a thing about college, about financial aid, about what classes to take, I was two years out of high school and all I had to show for it was a superior knowledge of the hardware department at Sears. All I knew was that I wanted to be an English major, I wanted to write, and I wanted to teach. It was in college that I first began to really understand what an education was about. I was transformed by the essays of Edward Abbey, by the new and innovative ways that Gloria Anzaldua theorized the borderlands, and the poetry of Nikki Giovanni, which forever changed me and changed how I saw and organized words. I read John Muir, learned about the American wilderness, and learned about how that infamous f-word. the “frontier” shaped race relations and geopolitics in the years after the U.S. war of aggression against Mexico. I learned from each of these writers that hope requires work, imagination, and love. That borders are fictive creations meant to trap people in as much as they keep people out, and that systemic change requires imagination and patience.
In his book, “Freedom Dreams: The Black Radical Imagination,” the historian Robin D.G. Kelley writes: “Without new visions, we don’t know what to build, only what to knock down. We not only end up confused, rudderless, and cynical, but we forget that making a revolution is not a series of clever maneuvers and tactics, but a process that can and must transform us.” As a historian, that quote always takes me back to the moments where we saw some of the most powerful examples of this: a young woman refusing to give up her seat in 1955 that galvanized the civil rights movement; electing a slate of five Mexican American candidates to the city council in a small South Texas town in 1963 where Mexican Americans would never be ignored again; crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge in 1965 where African American demonstrators were met with the violence of billy clubs and tear gas; that televised violence was seen by people across the country, prompting public support for the civil rights activists in Selma and for the voting rights campaign; and young Mexican Americans walking out of schools in Los Angeles in 1968, over 20,000 students walking out of schools, and forever transforming K-12 and higher education for Latinos. Movements that seem random and spontaneous, but actually represented months and years of preparation and organizing.
In Chicago in 1969, amidst a federal campaign to displace poor people—black, brown, and white activists forged a rainbow coalition, a multiethnic, multiracial movement that pushed back against urban renewal, or urban removal as they called it. They organized their own vision for the possibilities of creating mixed income and multi-racial neighborhoods by occupying churches and transforming them into small clinics where people could receive medical care, church kitchens became the backdrop for breakfast programs, and sanctuaries became day-care centers where working mothers could leave their children. This coalition, led by Fred Hampton of the Black Panther Party, joined Puerto Rican, Mexican, and white activists from across the city to form a coalition that proved to be a critical threat to established politics in that city.
I am drawn to this history of coalition building during the civil rights era because it shows us a glimpse of what is possible, and of the visions and dreams of young people that worked to expose how subjugation and oppression become natural, common sensical, and sometimes invisible. These were movements fueled not by false hope, or some pie in the sky utopian dream, but grounded in struggle, and with a deep understanding of reality. I don’t say this, illustrious class of 2023, to provide some vision of history that points us to the successes of the 1960s. There were many failures, pitfalls, wrong moves, the list goes on. This is about centering our collective imagination, about developing new modes of analysis, and new ways of being together, it’s about joining in the struggle.
Class of 2023 I don’t have to remind you of the world you are entering, you know it well: chool shootings, white supremacist violence, environmental catastrophes, a political circus, and political divisions that stem from a small segment of the country that fears the demographic shifts. All have become routine, but let’s not forget that so have the protests. In the midst of this chaos, young people from across the country, and right here in Goshen, have envisioned a new world: community gardens, youth projects, a coalition of Chicanas organzing around the concept of Motherwork, informed by their shared gendered, classed, and racialized experiences as first-generation Latinas from working-class, (im)migrant Latinx families.
On my campus at Texas A&M, the football team joined students to protest the confederate statue on our campus. And I’ll never forget the day that Goshen College students stood outside the doors of our executive board meetings to protest the hiring policy on our LGBTQ family. The immigrant rights marches, the prophetic power of black lives matter, and just a month ago, the walkouts across U.S. high schools, including Uvalde and Nashville where students shouted “books not guns.” The work starts by imagining a better future and moving that into the work we do, our engagements, and our relationships. It means staying bold even as we listen, even as we remain still.
Goshen College grads, the world needs you now more than ever. Do not succumb to this idea that your emotions should be kept at bay, that your knowledge does not matter. Remember your education is the only thing that cannot ever be taken from you, but it IS something you can give away. It is your responsibility to share your experiences and all of the knowledge you have gained in these last four years. Now is not the time for silence, for retreat, for apathy. As you leave here, you carry with you a hope rooted in everyday struggle, rooted in the realities of everyday life. For what more does the Lord ask of you than to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God?
Class of 2023, this is your day, celebrate, rejoice, and go forth with a faith that cannot be shaken!