posted May 8, 2011

Text of 2011 Commencement Address

Hope College Commencement
Sunday, May 8, 2011
Holland Municipal Stadium

By Dr. J.A. Montaño
Associate Professor of English, Hope College

Here is the beginning. So President Bultman walks into my office and says, "Can I have a word with you?" And I start thinking, "Oh man, what did I do?" or better yet, "What do they have me on?" The next thought is who can I pin it on? The good TA (Elizabeth) or the lazy TA (Carl)?

Actually, the visit was to ask me to do this address. And I am thinking, what am I going to say. I am not the touchy-feely kind of speaker. I usually have bad news: racial reconciliation is hard, literature is hard, life is hard, the bread at Phelps is hard.

So I thought and thought, then I started talking to students. And they said, just get up there and tell stories, maybe a few of jokes.

Okay, so here is the real beginning. I have two stories. One about my father, one about me, then I hope to tie it all together. Now would be the time to place your bets on whether I can pull it together or not.

It is ironic that my father has become one of the main characters in my stories, mostly because this was not always the case and for a long time I insisted it not be. If we flash to a long time ago, when I was young and it seemed the world was still yet settling into its present form, my father would tell me stories, at almost every opportunity but more prevalent on long road trips. He told stories of the time of heroes, or at least it seemed to me, of young men who would throw caution to the wind and risk everything in a common dare that began first by taking a step across a national border, walking several days into that new nation, finding employment in the agricultural fields, and the rest an almost Beowulfian string of dreams having to do with fame and fortune as well as their shadows, which are courage and determination. If you can imagine, picture a 1970's pickup truck, in a Chevy light green, one with the old fashion radio where you had to pull out the button to set the station and one with a crack on the windshield, long changed to a greenish tint from the omnipresent and stark sun, and one with the little side window that just had to be opened and closed in between the story pauses as my father would shift from a story full of sadness and misery to a light-hearted one, filled still with sadness but where you laugh with incredulity at the many manifestations of human ingenuity, and its opposites. His stories never went from here to there; they were more of a sibylline dream, voices and stories vying for time and attention as if magic would happen, life engendered in the simple act of telling the story so that those long dead would once again taste the sweetness of air and more important so that those long dead moments would once again taste the sweet air of youth, when life was only about finding fame and fortune, with courage and determination tested if not forged.

The truth is I never knew why my father would tell me these stories, of walking from one horizon to the other, in a land strewn with cacti and yucca, with ever present danger of falls and slips on rocks and boulders as they made their way up one side of the mountain to climb down the other, with their only reward being a blue sky filled with sun by day and stars by night, that is to say a sky of such wonder that those who were rewarded in such would wonder for years if their memories were real or dreams and if they were dreams why they had all dreamed the same dream and if real how incomprehensible it was to move under such a sky and more important to move under such a sky from abject poverty to men of success through only hard work and will power and hope.

The truth is I never knew why my father would tell me these stories, why he told me in the way he told me, of the labyrinthine plots that seemed to have too many dead ends and deaths, of the word choices he would make, sometimes using a word over and over and each time changing only a bit with context, or of his long, long sentences that seemed to roll over and over much like a tumbleweed in the desert that goes as long as there is wind from one horizon to the other collecting things along the way and will finally stop, much like the period at the end of the sentence.

The truth is that for much too long I made sure these stories died. And the answer to that truth is found in my second story.

In a perfect world, I would tell you about the time I stole Richard Frost's couch or about the stein that saved my life or I would rail about paying your dues, about how not knowing where you will be in a score's time is the best of worlds, about how you are living in the time of many and big dreams. This is not a perfect world, so here we go.

Never trust a story of success if it has success in it. More important never trust anyone who tells you to be true to yourself, who dares you to be you, unless they have walked that long and twisted road strewn with failure and its shadow, anger. Flash back to 2003 and its short thereafter, and you will find me, and the me is very different than the me you see now - that me is dressed in the professorial male uniform, khaki pants (Dockers for the poorer members and LL Bean or Land's End for the gentrified), a light blue Oxford shirt (Polo preferred), and black loafers with tassels. In many ways the outside was a true representation of the inside. I was trying to fit in.

The problem was that I was failing miserably at the endeavor. The problem was that all the "acting the part" was slowly killing me. The problem was that I was quickly making everyone around me miserable, and that showed in the classroom. In those days I could not even fill a Cultural Heritage class. I had an English class with only seven students in it. I stunk, badly and in many ways. I keep one of the books from that class close to me, a reminder of how dark those days were and a ready reminder of how close I came to not remaining at Hope and from that how I would have been happy with that ending.

What changed it all? I had a daughter, who was growing up, finding her place in the world and finding that her father was a professor, had a PhD, was called doctor. She was well on her way to knowing only a part of me and the least of me. So I told her the stories that needed being told. A story about how I used to work in the agricultural fields as a child and because of that how I would walk from one horizon to the other and because of that how I came to understand the glory of God because even though the work was hard, I was walking under the blue sky and because of that how I bought a camera so I could show the world that there was a reward for those who toiled - it was not a big reward, only the blue sky and the red earth and a few clouds that slowly moved across both. A story while we were sitting in a restaurant that had an advertising for the Terlingua Chili Festival and I mentioned to her that they did not have a chili festival there on the days we were hiding out from the law and so the story was about how it came to pass that we were found out one day and we were deported that same day because we were illegal aliens before they deported us, as well as after, which meant that I was an illegal alien for most of my childhood and that I was deported in 1976 as our country was celebrating its bicentennial and as such meant that I had a really good story to tell at a restaurant. A story about how my first day of school was a real bummer because my name was changed from Jesus to Jesse, which as John Cox always reminds me they took me from the New Testament to the Old, but how it came to pass that I did not mind that much because we were living in Pecos, Texas, and we lived in a run down home, that the farm workers are allowed to borrow, that had a tin roof that was musical when it rained and a concrete floor that was heaven in the heat of the summer and most important that had a really old screen door that led to the backyard where we raised chickens and a small garden and where there also was a clothesline and what boy could ever wish for more than helping raise chickens and a garden and playing on the t-bar to the clothesline even if his name was changed.

Okay. Breath. Last chance to make a wager.

If you guessed that this speech is about remembering where you came from, stories of dad and mom, then you are right. If you guessed that this speech is about being yourself, even when that goes against the current, then you are right. The question, though, is why are they together?

Well, here is the bad news. Or the hard news. You know those stories you look forward to, the familial histories and the personal histories? You know that special food you look forward to when you go home? You know that family tradition that brings the family together? Mark this day, because now it falls upon you to carry them forward. From this day on, it is your duty, your responsibility at times and your privilege at others and your burden at still other times, to carry them to the next generation. Whether it is making fufu (Jide), mummu (Geoff), sweet potato pancakes (Val), banket (Tyler), kluskies (Alexis), peanut butter cookies (Danielle), oatmeal chocolate chip cookies (Laura), butternut squash soup (Holbrooke), zucchini bread (Thomas), puppy chow (Ashley), and perhaps washing it down with Hummers (Ben Hertel), it is your job now. Whether it is making your mom's beer-broiled beef brisquet (M.Igell) or your father's cheesecake (Aja) or your grandmother's fried rice for Thanksgiving (Laura) or making tree shaped cookies (Erin) or cutting down a tree for Christmas (BP) or playing Bingo and waiting for B4 to come up (Elizabeth) or shooting peas out of your nose (Robert G) or drinking grandpa's Super Bowl half-time warm-up (Andrew), all those things will now be up to you.

For a long time I thought a story was just a way to chronicle our lives, that food was just sustenance. What I did not know was that if you distilled my father's stories to their essence they are simply about the American Dream. What I did not know was that my stories that I so closely guarded are at their essence about the power of the imagination in the making of a good and true human being. What I did not know was that stories come in many forms, some are made of words and some are made of photographic images, and many others are made of music or paint and canvas and yet others are made of food and many more are made of the little things we do and therefore if you distill the stories about food they are simply about the love and if you distill our traditions you find that they are simply about something called family and therefore what I came to know was that if stories are about the founding dreams of our nation and about finding out how to become a better human being and about love and about family then what else could there possibly be under this blue sky and therefore stories must be all we have to hold us together and therefore if that is the case, stories need to be told.

For a long time I thought that a story was just a way to pass the time along, little did I know that stories were the best vehicle for passing along the best of ourselves, that is our inheritance, all that stuff that comes from the farthest reaches of time when the world was still settling. Mark this day. Your task is just beginning. Many tests are yet to come, many days await you, how you fulfill your mission will say all about you that needs ever be said. I have faith in you, your professors who sit beside you know this to be true: you came to Hope because education is important, because degrees are important, and because there is something much more to be said about what education and what degrees mean: that how you lead your life, what you accomplish in life must be done with grace and courage as well as with honor and humility, and what you leave to future worlds is most important because Hope as an institution and as an idea was not built for you and only you: it was forged in deep beliefs before you were you and it must continue as such for many future days. And for that reason, for all we hold valued at Hope, stories need to be told.

We mark this day as both a day to remember how far you have traveled and to celebrate who you have become. Your task is just beginning. The world to come for you will at times be harsh and at times fair. Many tests are yet to come and how you fulfill your mission will say all about you that needs ever be said. Many days from now, at another event like this one, you will be sitting in another area of this arena, and your children, the next generation, will sit much like you do now and then and only then can it be said, all that will ever have to be said about you, that you took the torch in days of darkness and light, in times of sorrow and joy, and you carried forth to that new generation a beacon whose light is a message that love is important, that family is important, and that what you accomplish in life must be done with grace and courage as well as honor and humility. On that day many days in the future you will look at that new generation and tell them, "We mark this day as both a day to remember how far you have traveled and to celebrate who you have become. Your task is just beginning."

Thank you.