Acceptance Speech

What could anyone say at a moment like this? Almost anything would sound trite. Nothing possibly could convey the honor that I feel. Nothing could express the happiness and humility of receiving this recognition from the friends; family and associates of the man I loved and honor above all the public servants I have ever known. I feel proud, and honored and very deeply grateful.

I wish to thank most profoundly those who nominated me, and the members of the Award Committee.

You have impelled me to reflect on the meaning of courage. What is courage?

The opposite of fear?

The absence of fear?

The confronting and overcoming of fear?

So I turned to the words of the great Alan Nevins as he defined it in the prologue to the then-Senator Kennedy's Profiles in Courage: “Courage, as Senator Kennedy explains in his first chapter, is a diamond with many facets, and it owes much to its setting.”

For myself, I have since childhood rejected and repudiated the doctrine of fear. Fear seemed pervasive, hanging as a heavy fog all around my childhood world: the fear of abject poverty, of dread diseases like tuberculosis, and the fear linked to a hostile, alien neighborhood, speaking with a harsh and unfriendly sounding, incomprehensible language.

There was the terror of being dragged to that first day of school — to its forbidding looking strange adults and unknown classmates; not knowing English, I was compelled to spend a whole year in "low first" grade.

But in the midst of these terrors I was blessed with a fervently devout mother and aunt, whose name was Guadalupe. One day, in Aunt Guadalupe's missal, I read these words by Santa Teresa de Jesus, and it seemed a heavenly message:

Nada te turbe

Nada te espanteTodo se pasa,

La Paciencia todo lo alcanza

Quien a Dios tiene la falta

Solo Dios basta.

These simple words were so powerful that even to this day I cannot do justice in English, but here, roughly, is a try:

Let nothing vex you

Fear not.

All things soon pass; Patience conquers all.

He who has God with him wants for nothing, Our Lord God suffices.

These words gave me the courage that was essential to self-respect. From then on, fear did not overwhelm me.

When I arrived in "high second" grade there was another revelation — I was an American. My wonderful, inspiring teacher, Miss Mason, made it clear that if we were born in the United States we were Americans. This was astonishing news, because at home we were being brought up as Mexicans who would eventually go back to the homeland where my father's ancestors had settled in the sixteenth century. That evening at the supper table I announced this startling revelation: I am an American because I was born here. But my "Nana" harrumphed: "Well, if that's so, if a cat is born in an oven, does that make him bread?" And with that and the instant laughter and jeers of the crowd of cousins who had just come from Mexico, I was laughed out the room: "Ha Ha, he wants to make believe he is a gringo."

It took a long time and the advent of World War II before I identified irrevocably as an American and prepared myself to compete in the mainstream on an equal basis, with no crutches, no favors and no excuses.

I found myself by 1950 impelled to involvement in politics.

My mother advised me to stay out of politics: "You'll make the Americanos angry," she said. But she also told me,

“First, respect yourself." Always, I remembered the words of Santa Teresa, so beloved by my mother, "fear not." And it was this kind of teaching that led me into public life and laid the basis for all I have tried to do. It was this that enabled me to see that no one, least of all myself, should or even could be silent in the face of injustice.

So much needed to be done; there were so many problems; and I was among the Irish of the Southwest — for people of Mexican descent were resented, used, abused and isolated, subjected to daily discrimination, and alternately exploited or ignored by the political powers of the day. The well-known Mexican leaders were bombastic cynics. (The terms Latino or Hispanic hadn't been invented, and if an Anglo thought you were respectable, you were "Spanish.") Those florid and verbose "leaders" would not run for office because they thought it was hopeless, and besides, political offices did not pay a living wage — so why antagonize the Americanos?

But how could I have self-respect if I didn't at least try to do something? That was the kind of question I was asking myself when I first met John F. Kennedy. It was at a public housing conference in Washington, and he was a mostly unknown Congressman. I saw and identified with something beneath his shyness — a decency, a concern, a strength.

I didn't know it, but I was already committed in my heart to public service. I'd worked with juvenile offenders; I was working in public housing. I could see just how great the needs were, and also how great the power of government was, to raise people out of poverty and degradation. So he in Washington, and I down in San Antonio, were on a parallel political path — each working in our own way, in far distant places, toward the same general goals — though his were better defined than mine, and his vision far greater.

Once I got into politics, I learned this very early: people will respond to you if they can believe what you say. People will trust you if you keep your word. People will respect you if you respect yourself. If you lay out the problem accurately and if you propose a reasonable solution, people will give you a chance, notwithstanding your heritage or race. Some would never vote for the Irish Kennedy or the Mexican Gonzalez; and some would only vote for us because he was Irish and I am Mexican; but most would decide the issues on the merits, and us on our ability.

John F. Kennedy had an eloquence and character that evoked the finest ideals of the American people — feelings that lie dormant too much of the time. But to those of us of that generation he was the quintessence of American spirit, youth and "can do."

Who else could have made the Peace Corps not only believable but workable? Who else could have set us on a course to travel to the moon? And who else would have cared -and dared — to challenge segregation even in its stoniest bastions? Who else could have caused us to understand that the best way to raise people out of the mire of indifference and hopelessness is for each of us to extend a helping hand — one human being at a time, one Peace Corps volunteer, one Head Start teacher, one vote, one schoolhouse, and commit us to do just that, to accept the challenge as our own? Who else could have so awakened a slumbering, complacent country?

He and I came from different worlds, but we traveled a common path, we shared the same goals. We believed in the same things. Here was a man of absolute, undeniable physical courage; here was a man of grace, and charm and wit; and here was a man who called on himself, and all of us, to be better, to do better, to see farther. For me to receive any recognition in his name is a greater honor than I could have ever dreamed.

In my time I have had the honor to be vilified for standing up against segregation. I have had the privilege of being a thorn in the side of unprincipled privilege, and the great joy of being demonized by entrenched special interests. I have had the special pride of seeing hard jobs completed: the great civil rights laws; the cleanup of corruption in the savings and loan industry; the enactment of Federal laws that help educate the poor, care for the sick, eradicate disease, and house the people. And I have endured the impatience and humiliation that comes along with sometimes falling short of the goal.

But my friends, as all these thoughts crowd through my mind, as the emotions and memories, the pride and happiness of being among you friends who knew, loved and honored Jack Kennedy — this stands above all else:

The things he believed in, the goals he set — the things we all joined him and you in fighting for — those are no longer just ideas and ideals. They are today rooted principles, and they are works in progress. Discrimination is not just illegal today, it is reviled. The Federal government no longer disclaims responsibility for the education, for health care, for the basic needs and necessities of human dignity and decency and life. The country expects the government to set goals, to lead, to move, as he would have said, with vigor.

How could anyone receive this award and not feel pride? I do not mind, and never have cared about, the curses and calumny that have come my way. What I care about is what you care about — decency, justice; and an abhorrence for what is wrong and an intolerance for mediocrity. Nothing could mean more than to receive an honor in the name of the President I loved, respected, and revered more than any other — who awoke a sleeping nation, and set it down the path it craved, the path of vision and caring and the courage to do something good and lasting.

The President surely believed this: every one of us can make a difference. Every one of us should. Whether we make a difference or not, depends on just one thing — the courage to be true to ourselves, the faith to try.

There are no words to express the depth of my gratitude to you today. I will strive, every day of my life, to be worthy of this honor.

Remarks delivered by U.S. Representative Henry B. Gonzalez at the John F. Kennedy Library and Museum, September 11, 1994.