We must take charge of our own destiny and define ourselves

The following are remarks as given by UnidosUS President and CEO Janet Murguía at the 2022 UnidosUS Capital Awards on March 29, 2022 in Washington, DC. Watch the video below.

Good evening!

What a joy it is to see all of you in person!

It’s been three difficult years since we were last together in this historic building.

Our community – our families – paid a steep price during the pandemic, and each of us shares in the pain of that loss.

While we are far from getting back to normal, we should acknowledge that we’ve come a long way and are here together at last in one place.

So let’s just take a minute to savor this moment together.

As some of you know, our headquarters here in DC are directly across the street from the Russian Ambassador’s residence.

Yesterday, we raised the Ukrainian flag in front of our building to demonstrate our solidarity with the people of Ukraine.

I WANT the ambassador to see that flag in the morning when he wakes up.

And I want him to see that flag at night when he goes to bed to remind him that Russia’s tyranny is opposed EVERYWHERE.

Ukraine flag at UnidosUS HQ
The flag of Ukraine was raised this week at the Washington, D.C. headquarters of UnidosUS.
Ukraine flag at UnidosUS HQ
The flag of Ukraine was raised this week at the Washington, D.C. headquarters of UnidosUS.

Like many of you, I’ve been deeply moved by the bravery and tenacity of the Ukrainian people.

It has been a humbling display of courage.

They join generations throughout history who have paid dearly fighting for freedom and democracy.

Our community is no stranger to such sacrifice.

Fighting for our country, defending our rights and building upon those freedoms for future generations is an essential part of who we are as a community.

It is written in our DNA.

We share with our fellow Americans a love of country and a passion for freedom.

We’ve fought with valor in every American war and military conflict.

We’ve served in every branch of service, won more than our fair share of medals for bravery, and have patriots serving today in Congress and the Administration.

We have two such patriots with us tonight.

Each has served with distinction in defense of our country and continues to represent our community at the highest levels of government:

The first is Secretary of the Navy Carlos Del Toro who served 22 years in the U.S. Navy, captained a destroyer and ultimately served in the Office of the Secretary of Defense and the White House.

He’s here tonight to introduce one of our honorees: Representative Ruben Gallego from Arizona who’s marine unit saw some of the worst fighting of the Iraq War.

Mr. Secretary and Congressman, each of us thanks you for your years of service and your dedication to our country.

I’d also like everyone who has served in our nation’s defense – our veterans – to please stand as well.

Each of you deserves our heartfelt thanks and gratitude.

You know, our founders knew that democracy is a fragile thing.

They structured a government of checks and balances because they understood that not all threats come from outside our borders.

Some rise from within.

We are now facing such a time.

Our fundamental right to vote is under siege in states across our country.

Under the guise of ballot integrity, a number of state legislatures are making it more difficult for citizens to vote – especially in areas where people of color live.

In Texas alone 23,000 mail-in ballots were rejected outright during their recent primary election.

It is a dangerous rebuke to our freedom and requires a strong response from each of us.

Our vote is a fundamental right and the key to our representation.

We cannot falter in our defense of it.

We must challenge these laws in the courts, fight in state legislatures, and work to register voters, district by district, to protect our rights as citizens.

And, most importantly, we finally need to pass the John Lewis Freedom to Vote Act.

The Latino community had a record turnout in 2020 despite the pandemic – a 30 percent increase over 2016.

With a million Latinos turning 18 each year, it’s not hard to see why they are trying to block our vote.

We can never take our freedom for granted.

We can’t just stay in our comfort zone and hope that our rights won’t be taken from us.

As we’ve seen in Ukraine, the fight for democracy is never over.

It’s a never-ending challenge for all of us.

Inherent in that challenge is the need to change the narrative about our community.

Despite all the progress we’ve made, most Americans know very little about us.

Our history is rarely taught in schools.

Our contributions to America are rarely recognized.

And our patriotism and military service are poorly understood.

The absence of a strong narrative about who we are,  what we have done, and what our value is to the nation affects every facet of our lives.

It affects how others see us and it explains why our rights and citizenship are often questioned.

More importantly, it affects how we see ourselves.

It affects how our children are taught in school, what they see on television, in film, and on social media.

Twenty-eight years ago, my predecessor, Raul Yzaguirre recognized that we needed to do more than just talk about our role in building America.

We needed to cement our contributions in a museum on the national mall.

He took that concept to our champions on Capitol Hill – a bipartisan group that created a commission and advanced that legislation in Congress.

Those champions include: former Representatives Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Xavier Becerra and Lincoln Diaz-Balart, Congressman Mario Diaz-Balart and of course Senator Bob Menendez.

Through 14 sessions of congress and four presidents, UnidosUS has pursued this goal.

And, I’m proud to say that in December of 2020, a bill authorizing our National Museum of the American Latino passed Congress and was finally signed into law.

Now, of course, we were not alone in achieving this dream.

For decades, we have had a wealth of support by a host of organizations and individuals including the famed producer, director, and author Emilio Estefan.

I’m particularly delighted that  Emilio will be presenting later tonight when the Friends of the National Museum of the American Latino are honored.

He’s played a leading role in making Raul’s vision a reality.

Raul is here tonight and I’d like to take a moment to acknowledge him, specifically:

Raul, your foresight, your passion, and your sheer force of will have advanced our cause in every aspect of American life – from our representation in government, corporate America, the arts and sciences to our civil liberties and our rights as U.S. citizens.

Your life in service to our community has lifted us all.

We are deeply honored to have you and your wife Audrey, and some of your family with us tonight.

It’s hard to overstate what kind of difference a museum can make.

I don’t know if you’ve had the opportunity to visit the National Museum of African American History and Culture.

I was profoundly moved by my visit there.

You cannot unsee the tiny shackles used on children or forget the suffocating feeling you get walking through the basement floor devoted to centuries of the slave trade.

The higher you climb through the museum, you cannot help but be inspired by the arc of their achievements and the stories that define them.

While our story is different from the African American experience, we need to be able to tell it in such personal and powerful terms.

We need to bring our history alive and present for everyone to see.

We need to document our past so that it informs our future – and not just for our benefit – but for the benefit of our country and all Americans.

Creating a narrative for our community, sharing our struggles for equality, our defense of democracy, and our contributions to this country – is central to our success and an integral part of UnidosUS’s work going forward.

The museum is just the beginning of a journey to tell our story so that it resonates with all Americans and becomes a part of our collective memory.

For too long, others have defined us.

For too long, they have painted us as outsiders or, worse, made us invisible.

Our community has come too far and achieved too much to let them prevail.

We must take charge of our own destiny and define ourselves.

We are a force for good in this country and, united – Unidos – there is little we cannot achieve.

Muchísimas gracias.

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