Berta Esperanza Hernandez-Truyol is a professor of law and an internationally renowned human rights scholar who utilizes an interdisciplinary and international framework to promote human well-being around the globe. She was named Levin Mabie & Levin Professor of Law in 2000, and named Stephen C. O’Connell Chair in 2019. Her speech is below:
Thank you, President Fuchs. Good afternoon! Buenas tardes! It is an honor and pleasure to be here!
Graduates, from where I stand, you present an impressive and impressively beautiful interdisciplinary sight. Women, men, non-binary persons; engineers, political scientists, anthropologists, journalists, environmentalists, economists, psychologists, biologists, chemists, physicists, sociologists, educators, linguists, artists, and historians.
You hail from more than 30 states and more than 30 countries, representing a great collage of ethnicities, races, and religions.
You speak so many languages – languages of people, languages of science, languages of scholarship. You are, frankly, a bit intimidating.
This magnificent sight is a reality I should have anticipated when President Fuchs invited me to speak.
At first I was deeply moved, then I was hugely excited, and then I was terrified beyond words!
I have written over 100 articles and chapters, a couple of books, edited another few. I’ve been giving speeches as an academic for years … and I have come closer to writer’s block in composing this speech than practically any other.
Reading some of “the best graduation speeches” – a suggestion made for inspiration – instead caused much perspiration!
It was too late to try to back out so I went to one of my guides. The Buddhist teacher and scholar Pema Chödrön recognizes that fear can be paralyzing. But fear itself says “If you don’t do as I tell you, I have no power.”
To take fear’s power away, I sought to ground my words in my own life experience, my own three commencements – from Cornell, Albany, and NYU.
The year I graduated Cornell, my brother was graduating high school so mom and dad flipped a coin to decide who went where.
This was not a small enterprise as my parents and younger brother were living in the Netherlands, where dad was heading up the Dutch office of a big U.S. corporation.
Dad got to travel. He proudly arrived in Ithaca. We graduates, as is traditional, lined up in the Arts Quad. Dad was so proud. You see, he is from very humble beginnings. So very humble I cried the first time I returned to Cuba, the place of my birth, and saw where he had grown up: A garbage-strewn, poverty riddled, inner-city, with dilapidated buildings, aimless souls, and mangy stray dogs. He is so very smart, so very very smart, that his first boss saw his potential and encouraged him to go to university – where he met my mother and the rest is a beautiful love story.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
After lining up in the quad, the desfile – the academic procession, took us to Barton Hall – Cornell’s historic, but small, field house.
Graduation’s overflow crowd meant no room for my dad, so he did not get to see my graduation. All during the ceremony, while Dale Corson, then president of Cornell, spoke wise words, and cheered our achievements, I thought only of my dad. Somewhere outside. Not seeing me graduate.
There is a good end to the story: My dad wrote a warm yet well-argued letter expressing his disappointment.
A couple of years later, the graduation venue was changed to Schoellkoff Field – the football stadium, where hopefully no more dads or moms were ever left out again.
At my Albany Law School commencement, when the Dean announced that I was graduating with honors, the faculty member handing out the diplomas, not only dropped his jaw; he dropped my diploma!
On my way back to my seat, I remembered other similar incidents.
In high school when I applied for early admissions to Cornell at the insistence of my headmaster in PR, only to receive a nicely written letter informing me that early admissions was only for boys. At Cornell, going to a career counselor to receive guidance on applying to law school, only to be told that I didn’t really want to go to law school, that I should go into teaching and return back home to “help my people.”
Two notes on that. One, at the time I had no clue what he meant. I get it now. Two, he was right; though I think law school teaching was not what he had in mind for me!
Papi missing my graduation; the faculty member’s shock that someone like me, a Latina, was graduating with honors; early admissions only for boys; quote “going back home to teach my people.”
You might think these are painful memories. But for me they were just puzzling events; statements about the way things are – about the status quo.
I have learned status quo is not a neutral position. It internalizes “the way things are” and blinds us from exploring how “things should be.” It normalizes subordination and injustice.
My experiences were puzzling, not painful, because they reflected my unquestioning acceptance of the status quo – the way things were.
Yet they triggered something in me, at first inarticulable, then overwhelmingly strong, that made me the person that I am today.
I am always in search for the way things should be. Soy yo – this is who I am.
Which gets me to your own transitions.
Today you stand at a majestic threshold. You can take the easy road, affirm the status quo, or you can make a bold leap of faith.
Whenever you are faced with such decisions, my hope for you is that you say Soy Yo.
What does this look like now that you are doctors? Doctors is what you are, but it is not who you are. Who you are – your Soy Yo – will decide your journey through transitions, the big and the small; how you respond to the status quo.
I’ve thought about transitions in my life, that shaped quien soy yo – I’ve shared some bits with you. A few more:
I was born in Cuba. My mom went to Havana to study because it was home to Cuba’s only university at the time. There, at 17, she met my dad, a poor and brilliant kid from the inner city. An unlikely pair whose love lasted for 73 years until my dad passed at 90.
My brother and I came along as did Castro which led to our leaving the island, a first major transition in my life.
On my desk I keep a piece of paper that has bubbles with some major personal transitions sketched on it. My Soy Yo story.
The first bubble notes a memory from our first days in Miami. It captures an image that is as clear in my mind today as it was decades ago.
My mom, who had been a high-ranking diplomat in Cuba, kneeling by the tub washing out my little brother’s diapers. A diplomat – what she was -- washing diapers – who she was: a Diplomat mami. I did not know this then, but I understand now: it is who we are that matters.
I learned English. We moved to Puerto Rico where I went through high school, during which events provided a second bubble on my piece of paper.
Mami had pre-menopausal breast cancer back when all the inventions, medications and technologies of today did not exist. It was a scare, but you can smile: she just turned 94!
So off to college I went – Cornell – at the same time my folks and younger brother moved to Europe.
This is the time to tell you that arriving in college I had no idea that I was different because I am Latina. And the next bubble is part of the learning of how different I am:
I realized I liked girls. Soy yo. And life went on.
I went to law school where I was one of 32 women and one of 8 students of color, out of 280 students in my class. I worked at the USDOJ where I was the only Latina in the Antitrust Division. Little by little I was finding who I am. The self-discovery and the discovery of American culture – my Soy Yo process – fueled my flames of justice-seeking: understanding that I am a multi-faceted individual, that all disciplines matter in making this world a better place, and that only interdisciplinarity can solve the intricate concerns that we face as humans.
That we are all complex, what I call multidimensional, beings. Mami diplomats do diapers. We all have a culture, a sex, a gender, a language, an ethnicity, a sexuality, a level of education, a fluid socio-economic status. All these markers frame the discovery of who we are –quien Soy Yo.
That takes me to a double bubble at the end of that piece of paper on my desk – which remains a work in progress.
It was the learning about grief and loss and beautiful recovery. Before marriage equality I lost my partner of over 20 years to a short but incredibly cruel battle with cancer. The funeral home was not going to let me make arrangements because in their eyes we were strangers. So I used my tools. I had a power of attorney, which of course died when she died. But the funeral home did not know this. So I showed them the power of attorney: I made the arrangements. An unconventional challenge to the status quo.
I thought there would be no more chapters in my book of life, that I’d live my status quo.
But I was wrong. I met my now wife, Vivian – someone with a similar experience and we became quick friends.
And now, with marriage equality, we are happily married with three great kids – Nikolai 15, and 8-year-old twins Nadal and Natalia. Tengo muchos So Yo.
Law, particularly Constitutional law and international human rights are my tools to raise awareness about the deep privations many experience at home as well as around the world.
Your knowledge in your respective disciplines -- engineering, anthropology, biology, chemistry, economics, physics, journalism, religion, languages, history, and so on -- are your tools.
They allow your Soy Yo.
We live in a world in which we need all the tools available. At my Cornell and NYU graduations, the university presidents talked about the national problems at the time – and the role of graduates in solving them. I listened, I have lived for public service ever since.
Now you are graduating. There are many status quos that need dismantling.
There are structural biases inherent in scientific methods; research paradigms; medical, social, educational, political, cultural, legal, economic models.
This is a Soy Yo moment for you. Crossing this threshold, it is your privilege to deploy the tools you have mastered to dismantle the infirmities in your fields and to be the catalyst for change.
We have a world that needs much love – there are global migration crises, caused by desperate conditions of privation; there are kids in cages; there are melting ice caps; there are disappearing species; there is racial, ethnic, and gender injustice; there are mysteries of the universe like the nature of dark matter; there are the hungry and the poor; there are the marginable – my made up word for the vulnerable and marginalized.
These and more are the challenges you are called to resolve.
So, doctors, with the tools you have carefully crafted and refined at this spectacular institution, what are you going to do? Who are you going to be? What will you answer when you ask yourself: ?Quien Soy Yo? Are you going to support the status quo or change the status quo? How will you, as we say at UF, Go Greater?
Really, is it even a choice? You have toiled hard, you have toiled long. In the process I hope you also have partied hard and loved long. And now, as you walk through that magical threshold, remember Soy Yo!
Many, many congratulations. Felicidades!