Speaker Remarks

Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti addressed the Class of 2019 at the Commencement Ceremony on Sunday, May 19.

Good morning! Muy Buenos Dias! And welcome to sunny and drought-stricken California. [laugher] It is a great honor to be here today. Thank you to President Veitch, to my dear friend Steve Olson for his kind words, to Professor Chase or the inproved Eric Garcetti, he took my job when I left—to the Board of Trustees, incuding Hector de la Torre my friend who called me about this honor, to the students and faculty of Occidental College, thank you for this incredible honor. The conferring of this degree means that the next time I’m in a public place and someone shouts, “Is there a doctor in the house?” I can shout back “Yes!” and leap into action. I’m so proud to join the long line of distinguished honorary degree recipients known the world over—Dr. Ed Shearan, Dr. Kanye West, and of course, Dr. Kermit the Frog of Southampton College. This is quite a sorority and fraternity I’m joining.

But in all seriousness, to be getting this degree here at this school, in it this city at this moment, a place so close to my heart and so urgent for this world, a simple thank you barely conveys my gratitude. And I want to take a moment and join you all of you in congratulating the other distinguished honorary degree recipients, to Lande, to Lula and to John who have inspired us and touched here today. Let’s give them another round of applause. [applause]

And most of all to the graduates and the families of graduates, congratulations. From day one, when an overly enthusiastic O-Team leader greeted you to late-night hangouts at the Cooler, to exemplary renditions of Io Triumphe, you have accomplished extraordinary things and made us all so very, very proud. And it’s great to be back on this campus to deliver your Commencement address. You see here 20 years ago, my first full-time was as assistant professor of diplomacy and world affairs and of government. And I had the privilege of teaching on this campus everything from human rights to international relations theory and introduction to American politics. I had no permanent office; I shuttled between then-chair Jane Jaquette’s office, later setting up shop in Professor Movindri Reddy’s office when she was on sabbatical, and then finally in the late, great Roger Boesche’s office, where he changed the life of a young Oxy student named Barack Obama who went from 1600 Campus Road to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. [applause]

And my Occidental connections don’t end there. My grandfather, the son of immigrants from Eastern Europe, Harry Roth, grew up just down the street at 1570 Munson Avenue, three homes from campus. And wife Amy worked here at the Urban & Environmental Policy Institute, heading up, of all things, a progressive agenda for the 2001 mayoral election and her colleague, Ana Guererro, is now my chief of staff.

I was drawn to teach here at Occidental because at this school academia and activism aren’t separate tracks. They are intersecting disciplines. On this campus there is a natural connection between the classroom and the community. And Occidental students aren’t satisfied just living in the world, you go out into it and shape it and make it. Back when I was teaching, Los Angeles hosted the Democratic National Convention. But here on this campus, students demanded and we brought every L.A. and public high school to campus for a shadow convention that showed us what young people demanded of our political leaders. It was here where we pushed to get sweatshop clothing out of the College’s bookstore to lift up the wages of workers in the apparel industry both here in the United States and internationally. It was here on these sacred grounds, once home to the original inhabitants of this land, the Tongva, where students asked hard questions about identity and their place in the world. I saw and was touched by that activism while I was here. And I see it every day in the students I used to teach who keep in touch with me, who are working on Capitol Hill, at the United Nations as diplomats, human rights workers, as people who have gone out to the public and private sectors to change the world.

So today, graduation marks the physical and temporal crossing of a border—from one home to the next, from your past into your future. These moments of transition force us to assess who we are, where we have come from, but more importantly who we want to be and where we want to go. The moments in life from which I have grown the most are usually unsure, unsteady, uneven times, these times like you are experiencing today of transition and insecurity, the idea of new places and new spaces. I remember crossing into one of those when I came to teach here.  When I got those temporary offices, a course title, and was wished good luck, I remember on this campus when I was first thinking about running for public office and I remember my self-doubt on this campus as no doubt you have, too. Could I teach? Would students open up to me? Could I win an election? Would I be able to serve the people of the city well?

At these moments of insecurity, it is easy for us as human beings to wall ourselves off, to retreat to something easier or more familiar. But my core message to you today as graduates, is to encourage you to cross borders. To find comfort in the uncomfortable. You see, you’ve all crossed borders and walls to be here today. Certainly the case in my family story. I’m your average Angeleno—I have an Italian last name, and I’m half Chicano and half Jewish, or what I like to call a kosher burrito. [laughter] I am the result of courageous immigrants, who fled pogroms and oppression and hardship and violence, border crossers who had the courage to find their and this nation’s future. My grandfather Salvador was a one-year-old baby when he crossed our nation’s southern border in the arms of my bisabuela, my great-grandmother. Earlier that year his father had been killed in the Mexican Revolution. So his mother did what any mother would do—she left everything behind to try and save his life and rebuilt theirs, just as mothers today sit on our border trying to do as well. He was in more ways than one a dreamer, even before we used that term. Growing up here in Boyle Heights without a father he had a tough childhood where he got in trouble. I remember spending the evening at his house with my sister once and there was a really distinguished man who came on the television, he was African-American and tall, and he said, “I know that man—he’s the mayor of Los Angeles, Tom Bradley.” I couldn’t believe that my immigrant grandfather knew the mayor, so I asked him, “Grandpa, how do you know him?” And he said, “Well, when I was younger, and he was younger, he arrested me.” [laughter]

Whether it was that assertion by my predecessor’s predecessor’s predecessor, or falling in love with my grandmother, herself the child of immigrants from Mexico, he crossed another border. And during World War II he left his wife and two young children behind and volunteered to fight for our country in the Army. And when he returned to a grateful nation, he got his citizenship and through his veteran’s benefits went to barber school downtown, learned a trade, got a union job, built a business and supported his family. I wouldn’t be here today if my great-grandmother hadn’t had the courage to cross a border. I wouldn’t be here if my grandfather hadn’t crossed over that border of opportunity. And today the grandson of a border-crosser leads this city. [applause]

You see, you are graduating from institution that just like the city it calls home, embraces those who navigate borders to come here. We welcome you. You belong here. Whether you are from Michigan or Michoacan, whether you are from South L.A. or South Sudan, as Americans, and for those of you who are foreign students, we all have stories of family members who have taken incredible risks to provide a better life for us. Or maybe it was you–maybe you were the one who crossed that border to be here today, You see, every time we see a border, it’s natural to feel both a sense of anxiety and excitement – kind of like the feelings you have today as graduates. I put those two words together and have invented a new word called “anxcitement.” You know that feeling right now you feel in your stomach? Anxcitement pushes you forward, helps you take risks, but other times it can hold us back and ask us whether we will try to wall off our fears.

But when we look to history we see it is riddled with attempt to contain our borders, to build walls. In 221 BC, Chinese Emperor Qin Shi Huang began construction of a wall to surround his newly unified empire. The wall had two purposes: we keep people out, and to keep people in as well. He didn’t just try to fall in a physical space. He also attempted to wall in time, burning every book in the kingdom and burying scholars, all under the guise of making progress, marking the start of a new era and he declared “Year Zero.” The road of history is lined with walls like that one. The Sumerians’ Ammarite wall to keep out nomadic tribesmen, to Hadrian’s Wall protecting Roman Britain from northern aggressors, to the Maginot line defending France from Nazi Germany and later the Berlin Wall piercing the fragile peace between the Soviet Union and the United States.

But oftentimes we don’t just try to contain our world with physical barriers. Think about the walls we put up every day of our lives. Think about the fear we feel when we meet someone different from us. Think about how you approach otherness in your life, how you react to it and engage with the immigrant struggling to make it, the homeless veteran in need of housing, healing and hope, the advocate with a different political perspective who passionately believes in her cause. Will we cross those borders to meet those individuals with an open mind and an open heart, or do we draw borders out of an aversion to difference? I fear sometimes that today we are so determined to win at all costs that we see compromise as a betrayal. I loved what you said about compromise. That we can’t acknowledge the legitimacy of someone else’s argument, that that’s seen as selling out. That Zero Sum thinking has led to the decay of our moral and social vocabulary. And we can’t find a common space on both sides of an issue, that instead we build barriers between us. If we do not commit to the courage of crossing those borders, we are left with close-mindedness and nothing else.

We see this at the national level, where we have gone from a president who said, “Tear down the wall” to a president who is saying, “Build up that wall,” both interestingly from the same party. And it isn’t just physical walls that threaten us, but economic and social walls that hold us back. In this country we believe in the idea of economic and social fluidity, yet the wealth gap in America is the highest it’s been since the Great Depression and the highest in the developed world. Black women are three to four times more likely to die from pregnancy-related causes than white women. And Latinas earn 54 cents for every dollar earned by the white male counterparts.  At the borders that surround us we are forced to scale these walls of student debt. Your education cost twice what it cost me, adjusted for inflation. That’s wrong. Unequal social networks, walls of an ongoing storm of climate change. But I believe that your individual and collective success, Class of 2019, will not be defined just by how swiftly you scale the walls before you but by how you can topple them down all together. To build a better, more sympathenic and more connected world. And that work has never been more urgent.

At the end of Word War II where were seven border walls or fences in the world. When the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, there were 15. Today, there more than 70. Barriers separate Israelis and Palestinians., Seprate North and South Koreans, Austrians and Slovenians. Since 2015 the European continent has seen more than 620 miles of new walls built. That’s roughly the distance between here and Salt Lake City, or eight CVS receipts [laughter]. That surge in wall and fence construction is not entirely surprising, because the world is filled with Colonel Jessups—that’s Jack Nicholson’s character in A Few Good Men. Right after famously telling Tom Cruise that he can’t handle the truth, Jessup slips into a tirade where he says, “Son, we live in a world that has walls and those walls have to guarded by men with guns. You don’t want the truth because deep down in places you don’t talk about at parties, you want me on that wall. You need me on that wall.” And yet Thomas Friedman in The Lexus and the Olive Tree wrote that with the advance of globalization, the sun is setting on the Colonel Jessups of the world. And we’re gone from system built around division and walls to a system increasingly built around integration and webs. And Friedman was right. But 20 years ago when he wrote that it’s clear that what he didn’t account for was the fear and anxiety born out of globalization and technological advancement, fear that is leading people to put up even more walls, fear that our jobs will be lost to automation, fear of a diverse workplace or neighborhood, or that to be part of an integrated economy means the surrender your national identity, as we see playing out in Britain today.

Too many human beings fear the future that this fast-paced, interconnected global economy will leave us left out and left behind as it races toward the future. So some say the answer is building more walls. But today I say, the answer is the opposite. We need to cross borders. [applause] We need to cross borders today more than ever before because we know that walls rarely work. The Great Wall didn’t succeed in keeping anyone out of China. The Germans bombed and went around the Maginot line. The Berlin Wall divided the German people until it fell and even the greatest wall of all didn’t keep out the White Walkers. [laughter]

And just let me pause here because I know tonight’s big night. [laughter] And as mayor I get to see the episodes of Game of Thrones early so I’m just going to tell you how it ends, [laughter] So after what happened in King’s Landing, Daenerys’ likability plummets, but she decides to have a town hall and her likability starts to soar. Her plan for medical care for all is countered by Drogo, who splits from her, runs against Daenerys as a moderate; Arya kills Sansa because of something that happened when they were young, and Tyrion and Brienne start dating just for comedy. It turns out Viserion isn’t dead and Jon Snow and Viserion escape to Essos where they open a waxing studio called Scorched Earth. [laughter] Bran starts doing slime videos on YouTube that are very successful and Gilly does her Ancestry DNA test and she’s one-fifth Starkarian, and so she takes the Iron Throne with Sam as her Hand. Then the entire kingdom is overrun by Starbucks that are run by Hodor. That’s the ending of Game of Thrones—I hope I didn’t spoil it for anybody. [applause] The season’s been kind of a waste anyway. [laughter]

Spoilers aside, here in Los Angeles and on the Occidental campus, we don’t wall ourselves off from the world. As our country increasingly turns inward, you are the force that pushes those walls out. We know that this is our city’s great strength, and this country’s great strength, indeed is the world’s great hope. It is us breaking down walls that has Los Angeles now the third largest urban economy in the world, something that helped us win those Olympic and Paralympic games  by offering the world in the midst of a Muslim ban and closed borders and family separation that everyone is welcome here in this city [applause]. It is what helped us to raise the minimum wage, we knocked down the wall of college debt by making community college free in Los Angeles, we call ourselves proudly a city of sanctuary and belonging, and we stand shoulder-to-shoulder to defend, not just speak out for, but to defend our immigrant neighbors because they aren’t they, they are us. [applause] It is why we’re not trying to erect walls that you can’t erect to keep out climate change, we are leading with the nation’s first urban green new deal to make 100 percent renewable power a reality in our city, and here this campus has helped us break down the walls and implement the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals, a first for a big city because you can’t lead the world if you don’t open up to the world.

It is why we’re not trying to erect walls that you can’t erect to keep out climate change. We are leading with the nation’s first urban green new deal to make 100 percent renewable power a reality in our city, and here this campus has helped us break down the walls and implement the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals. That’s a first for a big city because you can’t lead the world if you don’t open up to the world. You see, Occidental is that story of a campus less and less walled off from the surrounding community and the city. I once flew over this city with Barack Obama in Marine One and I asked him where he used to hang out, and he said, “I don’t know, when I was at Oxy they said just hang out in Pasadena and not in L.A.”

It’s true the emerging narrative of this place is putting itself at the heart of a city, that is now the heart of this world. You have made this real. You can see the face of the world on the streets of L.A. and you can see it in this audience today. You are part of a city that is diverse as this place, and that experience has enriched your life in profound ways. This improbable, audacious experiment of a city, this imperfect paradise we call LA, is all about the intersections that come when we cross borders. This city, once Tongvan, Spanish, Mexican, Californian, now American. But you know, I was on a plane 36 hours ago, and from 38,000 feet there’s something you can’t see—borders. We’re putting up walls when we should be learning how to cross borders.

Let me end with a quote from a great poet, Robert Browning. He wrote a poem about the artist, Andrea Del Sarto. One line in it says, “Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp.” In other words, we should always reach for things we may not hold. Think of the slave who fought for her freedom but died in chains so that somebody would be free. Think of the woman who said that women should be able to vote in a country where that hasn’t existed for 100 years, and never was able to fill out a ballot so that somebody would. Think of the farmworker who said their children shouldn’t die of pesticides, those folks who said I should be free to marry anyone but couldn’t marry their loved one. Our reach should always exceed our grasp, or as Browning says, “Or what’s a heaven for?”

Let us cross those borders so we can reach past what we think is possible. After all, what is Occidental, what is Los Angeles for?

Congratulations, Class of 2019.