Good morning; buenos dias!
I want to thank Dr. Billington and the Library of Congress staff for inviting me here today, and for having this wonderful celebration for Hispanic Heritage Month. As the nation’s oldest federal cultural institution and as the largest library in the world, there is no more fitting a place than here to display highlights of the contributions of Hispanic Americans to the nation.
Last year during a Hispanic Heritage Month celebration, I participated in a tribute to the many Hispanic men and women who have served our Nation in the armed forces.
At the tribute, Congressman John Salazar spoke about his father who served proudly in combat and had instructed his family to bury him in his uniform. Sadly, Mr. Salazar suffered a heart attack recently and passed away. Before his father died, Congressman Salazar was called to the house by his mom. And with his last breath, Mr. Salazar said to his son, “I love you” and “uniform”. In those few words, Mr. Salazar captured the essence of our culture: duty to family and duty to country.
This story causes me to reflect on the honor many Hispanics have brought not only to our great country, but also to the proud heritage of Hispanic leaders in our Nation. Hispanic Americans have a vibrant culture and a community spirit that has made tremendous contributions to this country… and it strikes me that a celebration of our heritage is a celebration of America.
Throughout my career, I have not forgotten where I came from or the obstacles that I had to overcome to stand before you today. The values of my Hispanic heritage have played a role in getting me to this point.
This month our Nation recognizes what many of us in this room know from personal experience: The values of America's Hispanic community are the same values that sustain our Nation's greatness: Sacrifice. Hard work. Trust. Personal initiative. And perseverance in the face of adversity.
Growing up in Texas, I saw these values everyday in the life of my parents.
My father, Pablo, was not an educated man. But he worked hard, every day, to give his eight children the American dream.
As a young man, my father picked crops in the fields of South Texas where he met another migrant worker—a young woman named Maria who became my mother.
Later on, my dad and two of my uncles built the house that I grew up in Houston. I still remember when I was a small boy playing in the field as they laid the cinder blocks for the foundation. Then they nailed together the 2x4s, put up the sheet rock that would form the walls, and skillfully hammered the composition shingles onto the roof. From that sweat and toil and vision arose the small two-bedroom house that became our home … and my mother still lives there, proudly, today.
That home is my past, but it also represents our heritage, as Americans who always dream and work for a better tomorrow. Humble beginnings are not something that hold you back in this country, because we all have the foundation of freedom to build on.
Watching my parents build on this foundation always inspired me. As a young boy, I always asked that my mother wake me before dawn so I could eat scrambled eggs and tortillas with my father before he left for work. As my father and I ate breakfast together, my mother would dutifully prepare a modest lunch of beans and tortillas. She would then carefully place them in a brown lunch sack. After breakfast, my mother and I would wave goodbye to my father as he left to catch his ride for work. The memories of this daily ritual burn strong in my chest as I recall this simple time, that simple food, and those deep, enduring American values of family, hard work, and sacrifice.
This is the heritage of our community. These are the values our Nation reaffirms during Hispanic Heritage Month.
Just a few years ago, my mother came to stay with my family as she visited Washington for the first time. We walked the monuments and the museums like other curious tourists, but I also took her into the Oval Office, this little woman who once picked cotton, to see the President of the United States.
It was important for me to be able to do that for her. I wanted to thank her for her guidance and to show her what I had accomplished because of her sacrifices and those of my father.
At dawn on the last day of her visit, she was up early to say goodbye as I left for work—just as she had been there for my father on so many mornings. Only I wasn't going to labor at a construction site, I was reporting to the White House to advise the most powerful person in the world.
I don't think she ever dreamed – when she was working in the cotton fields – that her son would one day take her, on his arm, to the Oval Office.
But she and my father did know that the proud heritage that they passed on to their children—and that I pass to my sons—a heritage of hard work and sacrifice, faith and family, hope and perseverance, could open untold doors in this land of opportunity.
The story of America is a story of constant renewal and reaffirmation of our founding ideas and our enduring values of faith, family, and freedom.
These are values that demand the best from every American: Whether you are a new citizen who has just taken the oath to protect and defend the Constitution or you are a citizen who traces his roots back to the first wave of refugees to come to this New World, we must all treasure the opportunities that abound in this promised land.
There are many Hispanic Americans around the nation today who are striving for the American dream. Many of these men and women come from backgrounds not unlike my own.
National Hispanic Heritage Month provides the American people, and particularly Hispanic children, with the opportunity to see as well as to hear that no matter their background or heritage, the possibilities for the future are limitless. They, too, can one day be Members of Congress, Attorney General or corporate leaders. One day there will be a Hispanic American deciding cases on the U.S. Supreme Court. And one day, there will be a Hispanic man or woman leading our country as President.
The future of Hispanic American culture is as exciting as our past. That is why we are here to today, to honor and remember this heritage that continues to give every American – Hispanics and our non-Hispanic neighbors all over this great country – so very much to learn from and be proud of.
While National Hispanic Heritage Month is limited to the month of September, our heritage, history, and impact on this nation is limitless. As Americans, we are a people dedicated to justice, opportunity, and equality. As Hispanics, we cherish our heritage of hard work, perseverance, faith and family.
With our heritage rooted deeply in these values and our hope in the future of America, we will continue to strive towards excellence in all that we do, leaving a strong legacy for our children and future generations.
Muchas gracias y que Dios los bendiga… and may God continue to bless this great nation.