Address to the Fall 2008 University of Southern California (USC) Student Body
¡Bienvenidos! (Welcome), as you commence a new year of matriculation at one of the nation's most respected institutions of higher learning. I am grateful to send you this message from across the country and proud to stand by you in solidarity as you sojourn through an exciting year replete with a myriad of opportunities.
This message is being delivered from another institution of notoriety in this nation. Unlike your institution that nourishes life and creativity, the one I am in seeks to destroy them. We exist at opposite ends of the spectrum of life and opportunity.
As a consequence of biased policies which target youth of color, many Chicana/o and Latina/o youth end up in prison cells. It is an unconscionable reality we are compelled to confront. Census Bureau statistics reflect that there are 2.7 Latinos living in prison cells compared to every one Latino living in a college dorm.
We have higher dropout rates, lower test scores, and fewer college graduates, which all leads to less involvement in community affairs. According to the U.S. Department of Education, 37% of Latinos do not finish high school, compared to the national average of 15%.
The ACLU Racial Justice Program is currently tackling a disturbing national trend in which children are funneled out of public schools and into the juvenile and criminal justice systems. They characterize this phenomenon as the "school to prison pipeline."
I know firsthand the devastating effects these statistics can have on our community. I have been incarcerated since age 15 for a crime I did not commit and had no role in. I was sentenced to die in prison and I still remain captive after nearly 20 years of wrongful imprisonment.
I am in the battle for my very life. Without the strong support of people of conscience who are committed to defending justice and human rights, I will die in prison.
It is human rights abuses like these that cry out for us to answer the call to service for the betterment of humanity. If we shirk from our responsibility we will be complicit in fostering more injustice and leaving ourselves vulnerable to further abuse and victimization.
I know what it takes to transcend dehumanizing conditions. If not for my independent pursuit of higher learning I would have been defeated long ago by the crushing weight of this experience. Education is vital to our survival and building bridges that enable us to connect the past with the future.
I urge you to not take your education and opportunities for granted. Demonstrate that you are among the worthy who were entrusted with this opportunity that many others have been denied or taken for granted.
You each represent beacons of light to a generation of scholarship that will follow you. The task before you can not be underscored enough as you valiantly carry the torch of victory in the struggle for self-determination, respect and quality education.
Know that you stand on the towering shoulders of a long illustrious line of strong Chicana/o and Latina/o leaders who sacrificed so you could enjoy the fruits of their toils and struggles. We are the descendants of the women who gave birth to one of the greatest civilizations on Earth, the architects who built the colossal Mayan and Aztec temples, as well20as great scientists and educators.
You are now the custodians of their legacy and your actions will determine the preservation of their memory. Leave your footprints as signposts along the path as you fulfill your hopes and dreams. In so doing you can help change the world a little at a time and liberate our gente (people) from the stranglehold of dependence and ignorance.
Once you are gone your stewardship will be celebrated by the bright eyes, brilliant minds, and beautiful faces of young Chicana/o and Latina/o children anxiously awaiting to take the baton. Like you, they will be pillars of hope and inspiration to others.
We will not be defeated. As individuals we are strong, but together we are unconquerable!
Efrén Paredes, Jr.