Indianápolis, Indiana, 10 de Mayo de 2008

Marian College Commencement

Marian College

President Elsener,

Fellow honorees,

Members of the Graduating Class of 2008,

Proud parents and family members of the Class of 2008,

Distinguished faculty and staff of Marian College,

First things first. Congratulations Class of 2008!

Congratulations are, of course, also due to the parents. As the father of a toddler who only recently learned to walk, I can well imagine how proud and excited you must all feel as you see your daughters and sons here, at college graduation.

I thus feel honored to be allowed to share with all of you this most important moment.

I feel doubly honored today by being awarded an honorary degree. I come from a family of hard scientists, all of them with PhDs, in contrast to my humble Masters degree. Armed with this degree I now hope to be allowed to sit with them at the table, instead of being on their menu!

Graduating Class of 2008,

Today, as you graduate from Marian College, you leave behind the cozy world of undergraduate life; a life where over the past four years the sun has risen everyday over the Mother Theresa Hackelmeier Memorial Library and has set over the Baseball Diamond, home of the Knights. This experience has, no doubt, been made even cozier by the fact that Marian College is a small, tight-knit community.

But although undergraduate life may take place in this small and homely world, the undergraduate experience, as we all know, is one of enormous personal growth, and allows us to acquire something that is essential in life: critical distance. Whether you majored in mathematics or philosophy, business or literature, what you ultimately have been taught to do here is to walk two inches above the ground. For that is what a good liberal arts education offers: the knowledge and analytical skills that allow one to attain an all important distance from one’s society. And two inches is all you need and all you want, for the distance should not be so great that one looses touch with one’s community nor so small that one is blind to alternatives and is thus irrevocably bound to the status quo. It is, in fact, the perfect altitude from which to become an engaged citizen.

Thus, as you leave this institution, I urge you not to loose the skill of walking slightly above the ground that you have acquired here, as it is not only totally cool, but more importantly it is what will keep you young and creative, able to always offer constructive criticism in your work, in your society, in the world.

Tomorrow, as you walk, sorry hover, out of Marian College as graduates, I have no doubt that you will help to make your community and this country a better place, with a brighter future.

And whatever you decide to do, I strongly recommend that of the insurmountable wealth of resources and assets that this great nation has to offer, you take advantage of two things: the geographic location of the United States, and the diversity of the country you live in.

Let me first talk to you about the privileged geographic location of the US. You as Americans happen to live in the only developed country in the world that shares a land border with a developing country, my country, Mexico.

But why is this a privilege and not, as some cable network pundits would have us think, a problem or a burden? For the simple reason that this 2,000 mile-long border providing for one of the most dynamic and rich relationships on the face of the planet.

The United States may have other ties that may be very special, such as the one it has developed with Great Britain. However, what is distinctive and unique about our bilateral relationship is that it operates not only at the very “top” between the two federal governments, but is also one that, day in and day out, manifests itself at every level: on the Main Street of every town and the High Street of every city across the US in societal exchanges, through culture, music and gastronomy, or in the goods we purchase. It is for that very reason that our bilateral relation has and will continue to have a direct, immediate and tangible impact on every aspect of your life, whether you choose to live in Florida or Alaska, Main or California.

But there is another, perhaps more important, reason for why belonging to this neck of the woods is a privilege pregnant with possibilities.

The world today is a far more complicated a place than it used to be. And on this issue I need to be careful, for they say there are three clear signs that you are getting old. First, whatever you eat does not sit well with you; second, regardless of where you sit you always feel a draft; and third, you keep on telling young people that things were simpler when you were their age.

Well, at the risk of sounding old, things truly were much more straightforward several decades ago or even when I sat where you are sitting today and listened to my commencement speaker.

The world today is both smaller and bigger than it used to be. It is smaller as a result of increased globalization in every dimension, both positive and negative: financially, commercially, culturally, or in terms of how entertainment or criminality affects us, and the immediacy and impact these factors have on our daily lives. But it is a bigger world due to the atomization of actors and the emergence of new players at both the domestic and international levels. It is a world that is increasingly united behind the shared ideals of freedom and democracy, yet is ever more divided into the haves and have-nots. It is a world in which old problems persist, but where these have been compounded by new nontraditional threats to world security and growing economic and social asymmetries.

The bilateral relationship between Mexico and the United States mirrors this complexity. If we list the great issues of the day, the challenges faced around the globe and by the international community —transnational organized crime, the elimination of poverty through micro-credits, environmental degradation, energy supply, food crises, migration flows, border management, terrorism, trade disputes, water administration, cultural diversity, to mention but a few— we get a precise list of the challenges and opportunities that Mexico and the United States face on any given day.

But again, why is this a good thing and not a bad one? For the very good reason that together, on the basis of a common understanding of these problems and recognizing a shared responsibility, the US and Mexico, a developed and a developing country, are successfully tackling many of these issues.

Our bilateral relationship is a privileged workshop in which we can together design a new toolbox to deal with problems in a way that will enhance the well-being and security of our two nations and be of great use to different countries everywhere. What makes our problems and solutions interesting and relevant the world over is precisely our asymmetry and complimentarity. The cooperation between two neighboring countries such as Sweden and Norway may well be admirable and enviable, but it is unlikely to be replicable around the world, and it is certainly more boring!

In short, the geographic location of the US, bordering as it does with Mexico, offers endless opportunities not only to our two countries, but also can generate and offer great insight into the challenges faced by countries the world over.

The great potential of our geographic location has not always been obvious to us North Americans, but it is abundantly clear to outside observers. That is why today fortunately, both Mexico and the US have come to realize that, to paraphrase the Beatles, “with a little help from your friends” you can accomplish much, and there is no better friend to have in today’s turbulent world than your neighbor. We have not, of course, gone from distant neighbors to bosom buddies, yet an open and frank dialogue now characterizes our exchanges, and there is increased cooperation across a vast array of topics in what has become a multidimensional relationship with a long-term outlook.

Let me now turn briefly to the second aspect of this great country that you should take advantage of as you leave Marian College: the diversity of the United States.

“Civilizations,” W. H. Auden once said, “should be measured by the degree of diversity attained and the degree of unity retained.” The United States on both counts is clearly a great civilization.

I know this country well. But what has always riveted me to the US and what I have always admired is the diversity of this country and how welcoming and tolerant it is.

A tolerant country that, unlike many other multicultural states past and present, is tolerant not because of the practical demands of governing a diverse people, but precisely from being a country made of and, I would add made great, by the diversity of its people: “E Pluribus Unum,” so says the Great Seal of the United States; “out of many, one.”

And this should come as no surprise as the United States is a country of immigrants. It thrives as a nation because it welcomes newcomers, who, in turn, embrace its values and way of life. And this is what makes this nation a beacon of hope for many who, like me, are the children or grandchildren of strife and conflict: in my case a mother left without a country after the Spanish Civil War and a father whose family fled the genocide perpetrated against Armenians.

Take advantage of this diversity, and do so with your eyes wide open, making sure you truly see everybody there is to see. This of course includes recent migrants, many of them from my country. These people are just the most recent of a series of immigration waves that have made this country what it is today. Some would like to make these people invisible, but as the novelist Ralph Ellison once said of the African-American community in his famous book The Invisible Man, if they are invisible it is simply because people refuse to see them. This cannot and must not stand, for to quote Ellison, “America is woven of many strands. I would recognize them and let it so remain. Our fate is to become one, and yet many. This is not prophecy, but description.”

To better enable you to appreciate this diversity and to nourish it in you, I would offer you a single piece of advice: travel. By “travel” I do not mean go on holiday —by all means do that, specially after today, get a tan, surf, have fun.

But what I really mean is perhaps best captured by what  Octavio Paz, one of Mexico’s greatest poets and a Nobel laureate, wrote and I quote “so that I can be, I must be another; I must leave myself and seek myself among others.” That is precisely what I mean by travel: seek yourselves among others, get to know your neighbors and let them get to know you. Live among them and allow them to live among you, for your heritage and the vitality of your society will only reach its full expression and potential if it transcends borders. Become, in short, travelers and not just tourists, both within your own country and beyond.

Class of 2008,

I remain highly optimistic about the ability of Mexico and the United States to confront the many challenges that we face, and I believe that this will provide a template that could enhance the capacity of the international community to find answers to similar problems faced by countries the world over. Much of my optimism is based on a strength that the US exemplifies better than any other country and that we as Mexicans share: respect for diversity, strength in plurality.

Indeed, my optimism is such that I was recently told that I sounded like an overeager college student on the subject. I have no doubt that the person who said this to me meant it as a put-down. However, I was happy to hear that, several decades after my graduation, I still have the enthusiasm, the vitality, the belief that things can change for the better that are characteristic of college students.

But I am not only optimistic; I am ambitious for this relationship. The challenge at the end of the day is whether Mexico and the US are able and willing to play chess instead of checkers. Can we ensure that we continue being partners to success instead of falling as accomplices to failure? This is the ultimate question we need to address on both sides of the border, and one that your generation, as the most important stakeholders in this partnership, will have to provide an answer to.

I have no doubt that Marian College has equipped you with all the necessary tools for this task.

Beyond that, I hope that all of you will retain the “eagerness” characteristic of college students as you hover two inches off the ground and travel through life.

Thank you and Godspeed, Class of 2008!