For Dianisbeth Acquie, a proud Latina from Brooklyn and the daughter of two immigrants, it wasn't always easy making her way through college. Last week, in front of an audience that included her Latinx peers, she reflected on what she's learned about herself and what it means to be empowered by a college education. Here's the powerful speech she dedicated to her family, delivered at her graduation from Harvard, where she graduated summa cum laude.
Bienvenidos y gracias.
Seven summers ago, I stepped onto Harvard’s campus for the very first time. These were the days when the name weighed on my tongue like a brick of sugar. I do not remember much of my first taste of this looming, ivy-strewn world, but one memory is etched into my mind as if someone had written it with a penknife. Mamí, Papí, and I were perched on uncomfortable stone benches in front of what used to be Au Bon Pain. My mother pointed to the heavy cast iron gates with sudden urgency. She said to me, “Dianis, te veo aquí. Lo puedo ver.” For a split second, I could see it too—me graduating from one of the most elite institutions in the world. Me, the only daughter of two immigrants, me, the girl from Brooklyn who went to a slightly shabby Catholic school, me, the young woman who stands before you about to receive a diploma from Harvard.
This diploma, which will hang orgullosamente in my living room, does not belong solely to me. It has my name stitched into it, but it tells nothing of the needle and thread that sewed it. This diploma was not only achieved through the silken paragraphs that I learned to write in a classroom with students who were nursed on words like dissonance and juxtaposition. This diploma belongs to my mother, whose tears could have swept the world clean on the day when she left her only daughter in a strange dorm room in an unfamiliar city, and to my father who traipsed up and down the East Coast from New York to Cambridge a dozen times to bring me home. It belongs to my parents, who sacrificed so much so that their daughter could succeed in this country and taste at last the apple pie promised in the American Dream. This belongs to the people who never learned to read so that I could one day attend a school with one of the world’s greatest libraries, the people who worked with their “broken” English so that I could one day get a degree in it.
Today, I can afford to be triumphant—I see the end of the finish line, and the rose-colored glasses cloud my vision. But things have not been easy here. There have been crooked days when the weight of the unfulfilled ambitions of those who have come before me piles up on my chest until I feel like my heart could crack in two. There have been conversations that have reminded me of the feathers that my parents have had to pluck from themselves so that I could have wings to fly. I sometimes think about when I returned home after my freshman fall and my great-grandmother told me with the timbre of a woman whose heart is breaking, “Dianis, pensé que no ibas querer más comida de la casa después de estar en Harvard.” There have been crises of belonging. I spent months haunted by what a few classmates implied when they said to me: you are here because you are a minority. They casually, callously sent me reeling. Was I only here because I was a minority, a Latina? Did those aspects overshadow my passions, my talents, and my dreams?
Looking at all of you, beaming with the promises of a bright, hazy future and shining with pride (and tears, that’s OK, me too), I realize I have an answer. I am here and I am successful because I am a Latina—because being a Latina has taught me how to be resilient, intelligent, brave, and kind. It has taught me the value of community and my own worth. It has taught me everything that I have learned at Harvard that I have never had on my transcript and will not see on my diploma. I have my family and my parents to thank for teaching me all of these things. But I also thank Harvard, a place that taught me what it meant to be brown and a woman and Latina. This is the place where I learned bachata and had my first pupusa. It is where I have met some of the bravest, kindest people in the undergraduate Latinx community. In them, I have seen not only the greatness that Harvard has to offer, but its goodness as well. Let me take a minute just to say: Do not allow these bright flames of goodness within you to burn out with the metallic harshness of the world. When you turn your class rings over so the shield faces out and head into the real world, do not only show people what they expect of Harvard students—brilliant, analytical, innovative thinkers. The world always needs more creativity and logic, but it also desperately needs more humanidad. Show people boundless compassion. Show them tender empathy. Enséñales tu latinidad y lo que has aprendido de tus razas con orgullo. Show them over the course of your lifetime what I have had the great privilege of seeing in you over the last four years.
Clase de 2016, do not forget those who have come before you. And do not forget those who are coming after us. Many more classes of Latinxs will tread through Johnston Gate long after we are gone, but many Latinxs will not even think of coming to a place like Harvard because they are in communities where the idea is unimaginable. There are people who have been left voiceless, who cannot tell their stories in the same way that we have been able to do so over the last four years. We have been afforded the possibility of an esteemed Harvard education. It is our turn to return the favor and keep the cycle going by using the resources that we now have. As Toni Morrison once said, “Remember that your real job is that if you are free, you need to free someone else. If you have some power, then your job is to empower someone else.” Sigán para adelante siempre, pero no se les olvide mirar para atrás par ver a quien pueden ayudar. Mis queridos compañeras y compañeros, I have full faith that you will leave Harvard and empower others. I thank you for the kaleidoscope of memories that I can replay in my mind over and over again and for the last four years of growing up together. Ha sido mi placer y honor pasar cuatro años con ustedes.
Mami, I made it. Papi, I made it.
Graduates, we made it. ¡Sí se pudo!