Professor Soto’s Speech, from a Listener: More on Arizona Whites Hostility to Immigrants

José Cobas encountered the internet uproar over the graduation speech by Prof. Sandra Soto at the University of Arizona on May 14, and asked me what I thought. Here is my response, with a few clarifying notes.

The clarifying notes: The occasion was the graduation ceremony held by the college of social and behavioral sciences, held separately from the main commencement so that all the SBS students can get individual recognition. The ceremony is held in a huge arena at the Tucson convention center. Students are seated on the floor of the arena, and family members and other guests are in the tiers of seats all around this floor. Faculty, department heads, and deans who are participating in honoring the graduates attend in academic regalia and are seated on a platform at the front of the floor of the arena. I was there to “hood” a new Ph.D. whose thesis I had directed, and the dean’s office asked me to join Sandy Soto and two other faculty members as a “name reader,” reading out the names of the graduates as they crossed the platform. Sandy and I were seated right behind the podium so we could change places quickly. Sandy was selected as graduation speaker. I’m not sure how the selection process works (I’m actually retired from the university), but I’m sure it was partly because she is a very well-regarded teacher. My email to José Cobas:

Hi, José

As it happens, I was sitting right next to Sandy on the podium and so right behind her when she made her speech. The booing was frightening. It was NOT coming from the students, seated on the floor of the arena. It was coming from families in the seats all around us. People tried to applaud to counter it but the booing just got louder. Sandy had to stop a couple of times because it was clear her words would not be heard if she continued. The booing finally died down when Dean Jones stepped to the microphone and urged the crowd to permit a “civil discourse”. After her talk Sandy was a “name reader” as each of the graduates came to the podium to be acknowledged, and she got warm smiles from students and at least one took a second (this was all very choreographed and went very fast since on the order of 1000 names were read) to thank her for the speech.

There were many, many Spanish-language surnames and first names in the list of those graduating (I was the reader who followed Sandy). If you read her talk you will observe that it is very carefully worded and very honest. She urges the graduates to use their education to think critically about these issues, and she inserts the “human” side, her own feelings, and those of the Tucson High School students she had met with earlier that week who are under attack for their support of Mexican-American studies courses. I do not think that she expected the kind of response she got, the talk was very judicious, in my view — nothing but facts and her thoughts about what the recent burst of anti-Hispanic legislation felt like to her as a person, no name calling at all. However, people were not listening.

I had the very strong sense from the booing that the tone was not just, “We disagree with you”, but something like, “Who does that greaser bitch think she is?” (I hope you will forgive me the vulgar language). I was surprised that even a couple of my own colleagues that I spoke to after the ceremony, while agreeing with the message, felt that it was an “inappropriate topic” for a graduation speech, which I guess is supposed to be nothing but the blandest platitudes for fear a “captive audience” would be offended. So much for the highest goals of the university … It does seem clear to me that many, many White people in Arizona are not ready to engage in dialogue of any kind. Their minds are made up, they dread the slightest loss of power, they utterly reject even the most thoughtful challenges to their ideas, they give lip service to “critical thinking” and “honest dialogue” but are not ready to in fact participate in that. It was not a happy experience. Since I was obviously a very senior person, all robed and draped in several kinds of medals, I made a conspicuous show of shaking Sandy’s hand as she sat down. I’ve realized watching the video clips that we were behind the banners and the podium so that probably didn’t make any difference at all. Anyway obviously Sandy should be very proud of what she said and the way she comported herself at the time and since, with great dignity.

I’ll also take this moment to share my own feelings about SB1070 (obviously the attack on Mexican-American studies is completely racist and ridiculous. Paolo Freire’s “Pedagogy of the Oppressed” is some kind of threat to the United States? It’s had 50 years to do its evil work (;-)) and somehow I don’t find among the many things that are wrong with my world much that can be traced to poor Paolo Freire). Anyway, back to SB1070 — I think there has been too little attention to how spectacularly counter-productive SB1070 is in the face of a real fear, that human smuggling is coming under the control of the Mexican drug cartels and their criminal allies in the U.S. Law enforcement people (except for that grandstanding idiot Sheriff Joe) have always, always taken the position that they do NOT want to be involved in enforcement of immigration law, the responsibility of the Border Patrol and ICE, because they want people to feel that they can come to the police to report crimes and to be witnesses. SB1070 absolutely ignores decades of that policy. Immigrants who are the victims of crime under SB1070 cannot go to the police.

The only place they can (and will) go is to counter-mafias. I don’t think SB1070 will survive a constitutional challenge, but if it does, Arizona is going to be like 19th-century Sicily. My own “policy position” is that the US, Canada, Mexico, etc. — whoever the “NAFTA’ countries are, must have something like the European Schengen agreements that permit the free flow of labor. After all, if Brits can handle Polish plumbers, we can surely cope with a handy flow of Mexican roofers, brick-layers, and who knows what else — maybe some rocket scientists or some of their entrepreneurial talent too. I don’t think this is going to happen and I think the reason it’s not going to happen is racism.


  1. libertyspeaks

    They are booing themselves then because this is rude and not what America is suppose to be. People come to here for religion freedom, freedom of thinking, accepting other races. This is in Bill of Rights. When opposite happen it is showing this world there is no real Bill of Rights. Sorry my english is not so good. I want to love America, but this rascism make it hard to believe. So many people want to believe. I am much educated in my own country, but not here. I see thing here that are shocking and sad. Not what I expect.

    • Seattle in Texas

      Heh there libertyspeaks–first, I like your name. Second, I really hope you never apologize for the English again. White supremacy says you are supposed to speak a certain way with a particular dialect, have perfect grammar, etc. Screw it. I’m a native English speaker and my writing is horrible…but I still write. But my job (of which I won’t disclose here for privacy reasons) tells me I’m not alone, nor are you alone–believe me. 🙂 What’s important is that you have a place to communicate and share your thoughts free of unnecessary hostile comments directed back at you. People may not always agree on every single point here and that’s okay, but the trolling is rather annoying and something I’m personally not a fan of–though something I don’t think you will have to worry about here. I’ve read the last couple of comments you put up and you get your points across just fine–that’s all that matters in my own humble opinion. I’m glad you’re here. I hope you keep sharing your thoughts.

      I hope your experiences in the U.S. get better. It’s a sad nation and not friendly to many people, both people from within (and on the shared continent/soil more largely) and those who come from abroad…. Hang in there and stay close to those who are supportive of you 🙂

  2. libertyspeaks

    Seattle you are a nicer human person. I came to America because I have much education but cannot find work in my own country because of civil wars. Always fighting and not safe. Now I have good job and live in a big house. I have new car and my children go to a nice school. But not everybody friendly to us. People stare at us like we are not suppose to be there and are different. It is painfully so.
    Mostly I am glad to be here because of my job. I can make a nice life for my family without being always afraid. I just do not understand how America acts so full of racsism. We are like everyone else. We just want to be happy and feel excepted.
    Immigrant people here are in this country but not free welcome really. Maybe I should not complain too much because my family is safe and we have a chance at some new life anyway, but don’t like all rasism going on.

  3. Seattle in Texas

    As you know, people come into the U.S. for different reasons and under different conditions, but I think the one thing all have in common, is that they hope they will do well. Some do well and others don’t. I think many find themselves painfully disillusioned after they’ve been here for a short period of time, regardless of economic and material well being or lack of. Perhaps the first thing many see is the many truths that most of white America is either sensitized to or prefers to distort and/or deny, regarding racism, xenophobia, and other types of inequality, and historical and political hypocrisy. I realize that combined with the various firsthand types of discrimination, along with missing loved ones from the home country and perhaps coupled with traumatic memories and experiences, has got to be very painful and tolling. It’s a lot to carry and stomach, as well as to try to cognitively work through. Nonetheless, I am glad the U.S. is a better place for you and your family and overall you all are doing well here.

    Besides incredible music, friends, and Starbucks, one of the cultural things/messages I grew up with was, as an American we have the obligation to be critical of the state and government. Being content can be harmful and is certainly not in the best interest of the oppressed or silenced/marginalized. I would hope that you would feel free to be critical of the U.S. Appreciate your blessings and advocate for others when you can. Your own experiences allow you to speak out on many issues, if and when you feel comfortable doing so. And your voice and feelings, knowledge–whether from formal education or through firsthand experiences, are just as important as anybody else’s.

    Very glad your here. I look forward to your future thoughts and insights on the various issues discussed at this site. Thank you so much for sharing 🙂

    • No1KState

      Hey Seattle! I missed the 7-day cut off, so I’m responding to your greeting here. Good to hear from you!

      @ Jessie – I really like the changes. Hope things are well!

  4. Seattle in Texas

    Don’t mean to move my comment away from the main post, but don’t know where else to put it, soooo….

    Always enjoy seeing you on No1KState, even if I don’t participate.

    I appreciate the changes also.

    And over the last few weeks have enjoyed reading thoughts from either newer commentors, or from people who have been around but haven’t commented. And Will above, I appreciated your thoughts on Christianity and the white Jesus a while back, as well as your other thoughts. I don’t know if you are the same Will from a while back, if so, glad to see you back. If not, well, glad to see you here.

    Everybody take care

  5. No1KState

    @ libertyspeaks – Where are you from? If you don’t mind sharing?

    @ Will – Thanks for explaining (on the earlier thread) your perspective. To Jessie’s point about trolls, I couldn’t tell if you generally disagreed by found that particular post convincing, or if you’re just recently becoming more aware of the impact of racism. So really, thanks for sharing.

  6. libertyspeaks

    It is so nice to meet you NO1 person. I am from Africa. I do not write too much detail specific here for privation purposes. I had education in middle east and Africa. There is much tension where I am from in Africa. Many people have die because of small wars. Nobody can control this. It is not safe for my family. It is better safe in America. But rasism here is some painful for my family. But still safer in America. I must have look at both sides. If rascism not here, would be better country. This makes people unhappy with regret.

  7. No1KState

    Yeah, racism is a b*tch. Folks here are trying to resolve the issues. Sometimes, I come to vent as well as get info, but you get the gist.

    Wow. Africa, huh? The Motherland. I’ll respect your privacy. Africa has a lot going on. I hope one day to help resolve those issues, too.

    And I hope you’ll indulge one more question: what’s the general African view of black Americans calling ourselves African Americans? Do they appreciate it? Not appreciate it? Don’t care? Or some mix of all three and other opinions. Just curious.

    As for my screenname – K State refers to Kansas State University. A few years ago, they beat Oklahoma to win the Big 12 college (American) football championship. So that made them “number one.” “No 1” is shorthand for “number one.” I didn’t go to Kansas State, but I was pulling for them to be Oklahoma. Also, a friend thought my previous screenname was corny (silly), so I changed it to No1KState. If you wanna just refer to me as No1 or KState, that’s fine. I’ll know you’re talking to me.

    Like Seattle said, don’t worry about your English. We can understand you. And, I’m not always a fan of the US, but I’m glad you’re able to provide for yourself and your family. That makes me happy.

  8. libertyspeaks

    Peoples in Africa NO1 or KState many cannot read. Do not know what people in America call themself. Very high literacie rate. Not like America. So much death, so much poor. Do not have things here you have, many newspapers, computers. We do not know what America call themself. Good that you honor your ancestors still. Shows respect and is honorerable.

    • No1KState

      Thanks. That’s why I do it. I call myself African American to honor my ancestors.

      And I’m sorry for not being clear – I meant you can call me No1 for short, or you can call me KState for short, rather than typing out No1KState. 😉

      Hope you’re having a good day. Don’t let the racists get you down. People over here may be literate, but that doesn’t mean they’re not ignorant. As we say here in the US, keep your head up.


  1. Tweets that mention Professor Soto’s Speech, from a Listener: More on Arizona Whites Hostility to Immigrants :: --

Leave a Reply