The following are remarks by UnidosUS President and CEO Janet Murguía as delivered at the 2023 UnidosUS Capital Awards.
Good evening, and Happy Valentine’s Day!
By now, I’m sure you’ve all heard from your significant others just how romantic it is to spend Valentine’s Day dinner with 600 of your closest friends. But, even here, in this beautiful hall full of policy wonks and nerds, love is in the air!
I’ve got my husband Mauro here with me and he’s delighted to be spending our Valentine’s Day dinner here tonight. And I’ve seen some other couples worth noting. Maybe we can get the kiss cam going tonight! Ana Navarro is here with her husband Al Cardenas, both are former Capital Awards honorees. Thank you for joining us. I see Ingrid Duran is here with her wife Catherine Pino. Catherine is a former Board member and staff alum of UnidosUS. And I see our good friend Chuck Rocha is here with his fiancée Ebony Payne. Let’s acknowledge all those who are here with their sweethearts tonight; let’s give them all a round of applause.
As some of you may know, I recently returned from sabbatical. I’m so grateful to our Board for giving me this time to rest and reset. And I want to give a very special acknowledgment to someone who stepped up in an extraordinary way, serving as our Acting CEO while I was away, our COO Sonia Perez. Sonia, would you please stand.
During my sabbatical, I had the opportunity to travel and spend time with my husband and family, but by far the biggest highlight was taking my oldest sister Martha to Tangancícuaro, Michoacán in Mexico where she was born. Martha is 79 years young. She’s had special needs all her life; her aptitude is that of a six- or seven-year-old.
More recently, she has developed a form of Parkinson’s disease, so her mobility is a real issue. For many years, she’s wanted to return to her birthplace.
She kept telling us that her biggest desire was to just sit in the plaza of Tangancicuaro and eat un elote asado – a roasted corn. It took several weeks and the support of my family to arrange the trip. The logistics were difficult (i.e. walker, wheelchair, we even borrowed an old golf cart to get her around), but we found a way for us to get her there and be reunited with lots of our extended family. She got to Tangancicuaro, she made it to the plaza, and she had un elote asado! I will always remember the huge smile on her face and the sheer joy she expressed in that moment.
People say that the gift is in the giving. Well, I can attest to that. When you can use your time and energy to make someone’s dream come true, no matter how big or small, the return on that investment is incalculable and invaluable. The way it can fill your soul is so powerful. But the point of that story is not just the personal reward I received – although that was substantial. The point is that – as the writer James Baldwin alluded to – “with love comes tremendous responsibility.” Our love for Martha makes my siblings and me responsible for her and her happiness.
During my sabbatical, I thought a lot about love and responsibility – not just on a
personal level – but, in the broader context: love for one another, love of community, and love of country.
When I was growing up, my mother reinforced with us the importance of amor por nuestro prójimo. The term prójimo suggests more than the love of a neighbor or one another; it implies a responsibility to one’s community and how we should treat and care for each other.
Just as my love for my sister bears tremendous responsibility, so too does our love of community and country. On a national level, I believe that each of us has a responsibility to restore the spirit of nuestro prójimo to our nation’s discourse, and to how we govern.
For too long our policies and our politics have revolved around a cult of politicians
when they should be based on our values as a people: Freedom, democracy, equal treatment under the law, an opportunity to compete on a level playing field, access to education and healthcare and the ability to earn enough money to put food on the table and a roof over our heads. These should be at the top of our nation’s agenda.
As many of you know, I had the privilege of working for President Bill Clinton. In fact, it was exactly thirty years ago that he said, in his inaugural address, “There is nothing wrong with America that cannot be cured by what’s right with America.”
I believe our values as a Latino community reflect a lot of what’s right with America. I believe we can be uniquely qualified to help lead the country in this moment. The nation’s division over racial, ethnic, cultural, and geographic differences is a challenge our community understands very well.
There is enormous diversity in our community, yet what binds us together is a core set of values. We believe in faith, family, country, hard work, and treating people with dignity. I believe that, thanks to these strong values, our community can, and is ready to, play a large role in restoring the nation’s faith in the ties that bind us. We’ve already started.
If you look at the polls we conducted of our voters during the mid-term elections, our community overwhelmingly rejected hate and extremism and voted for democracy. Our vote was the deciding factor in preserving the right to vote and the integrity of our elections in states like Arizona and Nevada.
And our community came together in Arizona to uphold the value of a good education for every student, regardless of immigration status. A coalition of many of our US Affiliates and partners, including this year’s Public Service Award winner Aliento, mobilized millions of voters to help pass Proposition 308. As a result, DREAMers and other non-citizen students will now be eligible to receive financial aid and in-state tuition at public colleges and universities – the same as all other students.
Our organizing theme for this week has been The Power of US. And I believe there are many others who are ready to stand with us to restore our country and promote common sense policies that will lift everyone up and help us live up to our ideals as a nation. I believe we are a force for good. I believe in us.
Communities pull together to overcome strife. People put aside their differences to help one another. In times of tragedy, it is not uncommon to see people risk their lives to help strangers.
Just a few days ago, one of the world’s most devastating earthquakes hit Turkey and Syria. Amid this despair and hopelessness, we have seen people uniting to help rescue and save as many as they can. One of those on the ground is UnidosUS public service awardee, World Central Kitchen and its iconic founder, José Andrés. As soon as they could, they began feeding first responders.
It is love of humanity – and their responsibility for it – that drives their work. And it should inspire each of us to take on the challenge of restoring the spirit of nuestro prójimo here at home.
That spirit is what has driven my predecessor, our former President and CEO Raul Yzaguirre, throughout his entire life. And it is why President Biden honored Raul with the Presidential Medal of Freedom last summer. As the President said on that very proud day for Raul’s family and for our organization, Raul’s work to deliver the promise of America to millions of Latinos and other communities has helped ensure that our country remains a land of possibilities. Thank you, Raul!
As Raul well knows, the challenges before us remain significant.
It will take time and resources and perseverance. But I believe we are up to the challenge. The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” Love brings hope. Love brings compassion and understanding. And love can bring us to a better place as a people, a community and as a country.
I want to thank you for sharing your Valentine’s Day with me and your UnidosUS familia.
Gracias y Adelante!