Message to the Harvard Class of 2021, on our graduation day, May 27th, 2021
It’s been said that, according to aeronautical science, hummingbirds should not be able to fly.
And still, they do.
I have always been mesmerized by our infinite learning potential: how, since our very first days, we are already trying to understand our environment, how the brain reorganizes every bit of stimuli reaching us, and how the mind assigns almost everything into the categories it builds to make sense of an otherwise chaotic world.
This last year has been, in every conceivable way, chaotic. In 2021, we graduate from Harvard, yet some of us completed the entirety of our programs without ever setting foot on campus. In the gap year when everything stopped, we connected from every spot in the world, from our bedroom desks and our kitchen tables, took our places in fictional rectangles on a screen, and got ourselves a Harvard education.
In the gap year when everything stopped, we connected from every spot in the world, from our bedroom desks to our kitchen tables, took our places in fictional rectangles on a screen, and got ourselves a Harvard Education
I never met my classmates or my professors in person. I got to know them from their binary quadrates. Sometimes we used virtual backgrounds to portray the causes we believe in, but also to conceal whatever was truly behind us – creating phantasmagorical illusions. We embellished our surreal little boxes, and, as the mind does, we rearranged reality to our convenience. But there is beauty in your mischievous cat, your fidgety infant, your messy living room, and your pajama bottoms. There is poetry in the misaligned lives peeking from the impeccably aligned mosaics we conformed together in every class.
I am writing to you today, still enclosed in these imaginary brackets, and still mourning that we did not get to meet in person just yet.
Sometimes it feels as if I’ve been jumping in and out of enclosures my whole life, a hermit crab transiting from one shell to another. The “college-dropout” box (yes, that was me), the “middle-class, Mexican housewife,” then the “divorced, working-mother,” the “accidental teacher,” and even the “rejected Harvard-student-wannabe” (ten years ago – a whole other story). None of these versions of myself was, in my view, “Harvard material.” I thought I was not good enough. I thought it was too late.
What defines us? We attempt to answer this question by juggling many compartments and hierarchies: the ones we entrench ourselves into, the ones we impose unto others. However, these constructs of our minds are chimeras, the ilks we invoke to rise above confusion. Categories help us think, and reason, and feel safe. But they also deceive us; they make us casualties of bias and stereotypes. They move us to codify people and sort them by race, gender, age, religion, origin, or (dis)ability.
But there is beauty in your rightful background: the different tinges of our skin, the accents in our voices, the blights we carry, the places we call home, the ways we love, the ways we worship. There is sublimity in being unshelled and vulnerable, uncategorized. The authentic dimension of our concerted humanity is too ethereal to be constrained or cuffed.
My grandfather used to call me “hummingbird” because, like all children, I once was tiny and restless. We are born unpackaged, unashamed, and unassuming. We learn to creep into other people’s expectations and make them our own. I was given a box: I was told to be pretty and be quiet, to be congenial, and be still. To be laborious, but not overly ambitious. The blueprint into which I was to build myself.
My road to Harvard was convoluted and lengthy: 2021 will also be the year I turn 50. Some of my classmates were half my age and, oh, my God, had twice the brainpower. I didn’t fit into the typical “graduate student” category. But once we recognize that these shrouds are hallucinations, then their seams become permeable.
Fellow graduates, we now enter yet another genus: that of Harvard alumni. May I wish for us to remain unwrapped and curious. May we indict and redeem ourselves for the historical gallows of prejudice. May we get beyond the blurry figments that entrap us. May our lives be committed and our actions sustained.
In the year that everything came to a stop, stillness is also a conceit. Like hummingbirds suspended on nothingness, if they can’t see your flapping wings, it doesn’t mean you are not flying.