Remarks by the First Lady at LULAC Unity Luncheon
New York Hilton
New York, New York
1:36 P.M. EDT
MRS. OBAMA: Oh, my goodness. (Applause.) Thank you, everyone. Let’s give our love to Jennifer Lopez. Thank you so much for that kind introduction. (Applause.)
Good afternoon, everyone. How are you all doing? (Applause.) It is my honor and pleasure to be here today. I want to again thank Jennifer for that very kind introduction and for all of her amazing work to lift up our young people every single day. She is truly an amazing woman, and I am so very proud of all of her work.
I also want to recognize LULAC President Margaret Moran, as well as your Executive Director, Brent Wilkes. Yes! Give them a round of applause. (Applause.)
Most of all, I want to thank all of you -- the activists, the community leader, the business, labor, and government officials. We have our high school and college students here -- (applause) -- who are the heart and soul of this organization. Yes, indeed! (Applause.) Where are my young people? Where are you all? (Applause.) Yes. So proud of you. So proud.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: We are, too.
MRS. OBAMA: Yes, we all are proud of you. You all are making such a huge difference for your communities. You’re working to improve health outcomes, you’re registering folks to vote and signing them up for health insurance, you’re organizing around issues like housing, financial empowerment, and civil rights. And the vast majority of you are not paid. So you’re doing all of this after a long day of work or school. You’re running off to a meeting after you cook dinner. You’re giving up your weekends and holidays to host events.
And you’re doing it all because you know that if you give just a little bit of your time and energy, and convince more folks to do the same, you can truly do your part to create a better future for our next generation. And perhaps more than anything else, that is LULAC’s history.
Just think about the story of one of this organization’s former leaders, a man named Felix Tijerina. (Applause.) Felix was born to Mexican migrant farmworkers in 1905, and never got a formal education himself because he spent his childhood picking cotton in South Texas and washing dishes in a restaurant in Houston. Like so many in your community, Felix was smart and he taught himself enough English words and phrases to work his way out of the dish room. And by the time he was 50, he owned a total of four restaurants across the Houston area. (Applause.)
But just being a successful businessman wasn’t enough for Felix. He’d heard that many Latino children were dropping out of school before the end of the first grade because they struggled with English and couldn’t catch up. Now, Felix knew this trouble from his own life. And when he became LULAC’s national president, he launched a pilot project to help these kids.
He hired a young woman to teach a class of Latino preschoolers five or ten English words a day, so that by the end of the summer they knew about 400 words. A year later, the project expanded to nine more communities. There was no money for salaries, so Felix paid the teachers himself. And when the schools ran into debt, he paid off that debt, too.
Eventually, Felix and LULAC convinced the State of Texas to fund these schools that would be known as the “Little Schools of the 400.” And in 1965, these Little Schools went on to inspire President Johnson to launch the Head Start program –- a program that you know now serves more than a million children every year. (Applause.)
Felix’s story is the story of that tenacious pursuit of the American Dream, that unyielding focus on lifting up the next generation through education. That has always been the story of this organization.
In the 1930s and ‘40s when many Latino schoolchildren were sent to places referred to as “Mexican schools” -- tiny one-room shacks with little or no ventilation or running water –- it was LULAC who took those school boards to court, helping to set the stage for Brown v. Board of Education a decade later. (Applause.)
In the 1970s, this organization created a network of National Education Service Centers to provide young people with educational counseling, mentorship, and leadership development. And today, you’re providing more than a million dollars in college scholarships to promising students every year. (Applause.) This is an extraordinary legacy.
And while I know you all are incredibly proud of everything you’ve achieved, I also know that you are not satisfied -- not by a longshot. And that is why you are here today.
You’re here because, in the face of so many challenges and obstacles, you’re still asking yourselves the hard questions: How are we going to lift up our children and grandchildren and improve their educational outcomes? You’re asking, how will we instill in them that hunger for education that drove so many people before us -- folks who came to this country in search of a better life and worked hard to seize that American Dream for themselves and their families?
Because the truth is that right now there are still too many young people in this country who aren’t getting the education they need -- an education that goes beyond high school. The reality in today’s economy is that education is essential to getting a good job. So our young people must understand that a college degree or some kind of professional training is an absolute necessity.
But as you know, too many young people in the Latino community simply aren’t fulfilling their potential. Just listen to some of the statistics. A while we’re thrilled that Latino high school graduation rates have reached a record high, they’re still lower than almost every other group. And when it comes to college, regardless of their test scores and GPAs entering school, Latinos are far more likely to drop out than their white counterparts. And fewer than 15 percent of Latinos over age 25 have a bachelor’s degree -- a rate that trails blacks, whites, and Asians.
So those are some pretty sobering numbers. And maybe there are those who believe that this isn’t the most pressing issue, or who hear those statistics and think, “Well, I’m not part of that problem. I’ve got my degree, or at least I’m on track to get it, so I’ve done my part.”
But that’s not how somebody like Felix would think. See, he’d be thinking about the millions of kids who aren’t on track to get any kind of degree. He’d be worrying about what’s going on in their lives, what’s going to happen to them and their families. And right now, we all have got to think like that, too -- every single one of us.
Now, I know that education is one of so many pressing issues on your plates right now. And with a broken immigration system hurting so many of our families and neighbors -- (applause) -- some of you may be wondering why I decided to focus on education today. But what I know from my own life experiences, is that if we truly want to lift up our next generation, we must tackle all of these challenges at the same time. And that is actually one of the greatest lessons of LULAC’s history.
LULAC initially formed back in 1929 in response to horrific violations of Latino civil rights. Back then, Latinos were being brutalized and killed by police and lynched by the KKK. “No Mexicans Allowed” signs hung outside of restaurants and storefronts. Latinos often couldn’t own property or serve on a jury. And if you walked into a public building, you’d often see not two water fountains, but three -- one white, one black, and one brown.
But LULAC didn’t just focus on these pressing crises; all along, they were investing in education too. Yes, those early leaders traveled from town to town to organize local councils to right those injustices, once being run out of town at gunpoint. And they rallied the Latino vote, even in the face of poll taxes and voter intimidation. But they also sued to desegregate their schools. They also organized parents into neighborhood committees, launched boycotts to protest terrible learning conditions for their children. They sold tamales and held dances to raise scholarship money.
So make no mistake about it, we have to keep on fighting as hard as we can on immigration. (Applause.) And as my husband has said, he’s going to do whatever administrative action it takes to fix this broken system. (Applause.)
But we cannot afford to wait on Congress to lift up our next generation. We can’t afford to wait on anybody when it comes to our kids’ future. Your grandparents and parents didn’t wait for opportunities to come to them. No, they packed up their families and moved to this country for a better life. Felix didn’t wait for Texas to set up a program to teach kids English. No, he hired those teachers himself.
So today, we have got to live up to those examples and reignite that hunger for opportunity -- that hunger for education –- across all of our communities. And we all have a role to play in this endeavor. Parents have to be reading to their kids from an early age and making sure they go to school every day and do their homework every night. Our young people, you have a role to play as well. You have to make education your number-one priority and be role models for those around you. (Applause.)
So if you have a friend, a sibling, a classmate who is not taking school seriously, if you know someone who’s not planning to go on past high school, I want you to reach out to them and convince them that their future depends on getting a good education. And all of us, we must look around our communities and start asking some important questions, like does the local high school offer enough AP classes for our kids? Does the library offer a summer reading program? Do the community groups and churches give enough scholarships to our kids? Do the overworked school counselors have enough time to help kids apply to college?
And if the answer to any of these questions is no, then we’ve got work to do -- because we have got to encourage every one of our kids to dream big. And then we have got to shower them with love and support and resources as they strive for those dreams.
And that’s what my Reach Higher initiative is all about. We’re trying to inspire every young person in this country to complete their education beyond high school -- whether that’s a community college, a four-year university, or a professional training program. And we’re urging businesses and nonprofits, schools and universities, state and local governments to find new ways to support our young people on this journey.
And believe me, this effort is personal to me. See, my parents never finished college, but they always told my brother and me that education was our ticket to success. And they worked, and sacrificed, and saved every penny so they could send us to college. (Applause.) And no matter what they were dealing with in their lives, whether it was health issues or any number of other problems, they kept those issues to themselves because they didn’t want to distract us from getting our degrees.
And I know how hard that can be for parents to let their kids go, especially for families who are up against even more challenges than mine ever was -- folks who are just barely making ends meet. So they need their kids working part-time jobs to help pay the bills; they need them around to help take care of their siblings.
And those are crucial issues, and nothing is more important than taking care of family. But we need every parent to understand that the most important thing any child can do for themselves and their loved ones is to get an education. That’s how they can ensure that they’ll truly be able to take care of their families. That was certainly true for my family. And today, my mom doesn’t have to worry about a thing, because my brother and I, we got our degrees. (Applause.) We achieved financial stability, and now we can take care of her.
And that story can be true for families all across the country. And the young people in this room are perfect examples. Take the story of a DREAMer, Emma Chalott. Emma is here. Yay for Emma. (Applause.) Emma and her family moved to Dallas from Mexico in 2003 when she was just seven years old. And for years, she struggled to adjust to the new language and customs. But when she entered high school, Emma joined her school’s LULAC council. She obtained her deferred action status, and then volunteered in the community to help other young people request theirs as well.
This spring, Emma graduated from high school with honors, and in the fall she’ll be enrolled at Austin College, where she’s earned enough scholarships and grants to graduate debt-free. (Applause.) Yes! Looking back on her journey, Emma realized that she didn’t do this all on her own. She had the backing of LULAC and her teachers and counselors. But most of all, she had the support of loving parents who helped her believe she could succeed.
So for Emma, living out the American Dream by getting an outstanding education isn’t just an aspiration; it’s an expectation. And she says that the real pressure is real in that -- the pressure to live up to the hopes and dreams of those around her. But listen to what Emma says about the pressure. She says, “It’s not a burden at all.” She says, “It’s a blessing.” Yes -- a blessing. This 18-year-old understands the opportunities we have here in this country. And we are all so blessed.
We’re blessed by the sacrifice and hard work of all those who paved the way for us -- the parents and grandparents who risked everything to come to this country; the folks who washed dishes and worked in the fields; the folks who were run out of town trying to organize their communities. They’ve blessed us with the opportunities we have today -- opportunities for our kids to go to schools worthy of their promise; opportunities for our young people to finish college; and opportunities for all of us to build a better future for ourselves and our family, regardless of the color of our skin or the language of our parents or grandparents. (Applause.) We are blessed.
And to all the young people here, I want you to know that simply having those opportunities is no guarantee of success. You’ve probably begun to understand that for yourselves already. Maybe you’re the first in your family to go to college. Maybe you’re working part-time jobs on the side to even afford college. Maybe along the way, somebody doubted that you were college material at all. Maybe they picked on you because of your accent -- because you were striving for something better.
But in spite of all that, you all are here today as scholarship winners and leaders for your peers and your communities. And you should be so proud of that success. And I want you all to take some time and savor it, celebrate a little bit. But only a little bit. (Laughter.) And then I want you to get back to work -- because the truth is, the work of pursuing your dreams is never finished, and it’s never going to be easy.
That’s something that the President and I have seen throughout our lives. There will always be another challenge around the corner. There will always be doubters and cynics who tell you to set your sights lower. And yes, there will always be those fears and anxieties in your own mind -- fears that you’re not good enough or that you just don’t belong on a college campus and shouldn’t even try to get there in the first place.
But my message to all of you today is this: Instead of letting those fears hold you back, use them -- use them to spur you forward. When you start to doubt yourself, just buckle down and work harder, and do everything you can in your power to get that education. Now, that might mean stepping outside of your comfort zone, or even moving far away from your family to get that education. But that’s how you’ll get the skills you need for the life you dream of -- skills like leadership, and critical thinking, and learning how to thrive in new situations.
And here’s the thing: Once you get those skills, no matter what challenges you face, whether in your family or your community or your personal life, you will be able to rise above them. You will be able to reach back and help others do the same. That is the power of a good education. That’s how you can give back.
That’s how you can help carry forward the dream of folks like Felix and everyone else who built this organization. That’s how you can continue their legacy of building an even better future for those who come after you.
And like Emma says, remember that’s a blessing. And I want you all to move forward with the wind at your backs, and the knowledge that so many people believe in you. I believe in you. Your President believes in you. (Applause.) And we couldn’t be more inspired by your promise.
So we cannot wait to see all that you accomplish in the years ahead.
Thank you, LULAC. Thank you all for everything you do for this country. (Applause.) Keep up the great work. We have lots to do. God bless. And we are there for you. Thank you. (Applause.)
1:57 P.M. EDT