CUNY J Commencement Speech: A U.S. Newsroom



Birds flying high, you know how I feel. Sun in the sky, you know how I feel.  It’s a new dawn. It’s a new day. It’s a new life for all of us. And I’m feeling good.

Thank you, associate dean Mendelson, for that introduction.

Thank you, trustee Sunshine; chancellor Milliken; and our guest speaker, Marty Baron of the Washington Post, for celebrating this day with us.

Hola, familia y amigos!

Gracias por acompañar a la generación 2016 hoy en el día de nuestra graduación.

Hello, family and friends! thank you for joining the class of 2016 on our graduation day.

Cuny J School, lemme hear how y’all feeling! Gente de la CUNY J School, ¿Cómo se sienten?

Es para mí un gran honor estar aquí. I am very honored to be here today.

Quiero dedicar este momento — I want to dedicate this moment —  a la memoria de dos personas que ojalá estuvieran aquí conmigo hoy: to the memory of two people I wish were here with me today.

Mi tía, my aunt, Graciela, y mi hermano, my brother Guillermo, a quienes extraño todos los días.

It’s thanks to their love and support, in part that I’m standing here. Tía Cachela-Canuta, Memo-Kokis, los extraño mucho – I miss you so much — this is for you.

Also I want to express my gratitude — a mi madre, María del Carmen, y mi hermano Édgar que vinieron desde México — to my mother, María del Carmen, and my brother Edgar, who came from Mexico to be here today — los amo.

Now, let’s get to business, guys.

Class of 2016…  We did it! ¡Sí se pudo! In just a few minutes, we will be free from the CUNY J School yoke.

Let the search for jobs begin, and let’s remain hopeful that one day we can make . . .  hundreds of dollars a year.

Let’s enjoy this moment, because tomorrow the clock starts ticking: six months from today we have to make the first payment on our student loans.

Can you believe that sixteen months ago we walked into 219 W 40th street thinking we would conquer and save the world? Then we came up against the dreaded Craft class — as well as legal and ethics, multimedia and interactive and – always — DEADLINES.

When we straggled into second semester, craft class was still there every Tuesday morning, like a school bully who won’t give you no peace.

We were expected to crunch data and report at the same time — to create interactive pieces that only our friends clicked on.

Bob Sacha made some of us sweat blood in his class on video storytelling for the web.

“Hey, guys! don’t call it b-roll. We’re shooting scenes. . .” . . .  “And don’t be late. Because if you’re late I’m gonna effing scream at you!”

. . . . .

I cleaned up the last part of that quote, Bob.

This was when each of us began to specialize in a reporting area. I have to take a moment to thank Prue Clarke, the director of my specialty — international reporting. She pushed me to become the best I could be.

Then came summer internships that took us across the country and around the world. We came back only to find our capstone deadlines looming.


I never imagined stress could be so much fun.

I cannot stop laughing at the paradox of my current situation. Just when the country elected Donald Trump as president, a job he landed after calling my people rapists and criminals, you, the Class of 2016, elected a Mexican boy from the desert, directo de la frontera, as your student commencement speaker.

Okay, Trump and I have some things in common. We both won a wild election – is that recount for graduation speaker still going on? – And this is sad: Trump and I have the same birthday – June 14th.

On the bright side, that’s also the birthday of Che Guevara.

But lemme get to the body of my sentiments, the truth I want to speak.

Why did we do this? Why did we enroll in this torturous program?  People might have asked you that. They certainly asked me more than once — from the moment I stepped into my first craft class up to just about a week ago.

“With all your experience, Gustavo, why did you come to grad school?” Well, I remember the questionnaire I answered for the class facebook. Under “dream job” I wrote: “to take photos of penguins for National Geographic.”

Seriously, I want to believe, yo quiero creer, that most of us got into this thing called journalism because we thought, or at least hoped — teníamos un poquito de esperanza — that by telling untold stories we could bring about change.

Nothing new, really. One of our predecessors, an investigative journalist by the name of Ida B. Wells, defined our mission, if not our destiny, when she said: “the way to right wrongs is to turn the light of truth upon them.”

And so shall we, especially when we know that dark times are coming. I’m sure that after this presidential election you are tired of hearing that there’s no better time, nor a more dangerous one, to be a journalist in this country.

But for me, the decision to come to the J-School was about a few things: I wanted to hone my multimedia skills. The program was affordable. I got a scholarship. The curriculum was challenging. In all, great bang for the buck.

But perhaps most important, I thought that graduating from the J-School would help me get out of the box in which many want to keep me, a hard fight that will not end after getting my degree.

Just to make sure, I am getting my degree? Right, Sarah? Andy? Ok…

Because no matter how much work you do, there are people who will have a preconceived notion of what you are — because your name isn’t American enough, and your history doesn’t conform to their limited understanding of today’s society.

Not long ago I sat down with a recruiter from a leading national newspaper, hoping to keep alive my dream of doing bigger things.

The recruiter saw my resume and asked me, “have you worked in a newsroom in the U.S.?” I was confused, but didn’t hesitate to point out that I had worked for Latino publications in New York, Atlanta, Philadelphia, Dallas, El Paso… you know, the U.S.

But this person replied, “I don’t know how to say this… have you worked in a U.S. newsroom?”

And that’s when I understood what she meant.

In moments like that, the world around you moves in slow motion.

I tell you this story because, in the words of our distinguished guest speaker, “the truth is not meant to be hidden. It is not meant to be suppressed. It is not meant to be ignored. It is not meant to be disguised. It is not meant to be manipulated. It is not meant to be falsified. Otherwise, wrongdoing will persist.”

In a year in which a racist, misogynistic demagogue got elected president of this country, we have spoken aplenty about how and why the media got it wrong.

And as the press self-flagellates and tries to find a way to do its job better in these crazy times, I have yet to hear that part of this self-reflection is figuring out how to find new voices – journalists who mirror today’s America.

My story is not unique. It’s as if the acts of journalism committed in Spanish — or any other of the languages spoken in this country — are below the standard set by the English-language media.

Throughout my career, I took my cues from my journalism hero, Rubén Salazar, the Mexican-American journalist who covered everything from the Chicano community to the Vietnam war.

Just as he did, I tried to give voice to Latino communities, coverage that the mainstream media pretty much ignores.

It’s easy for the establishment to say, “aren’t we all the same? aren’t we all Americans?” Well, obviously some people think we’re not. Otherwise we wouldn’t be in the tumultuous moment that we are in now.

If the media is serious about changing, what needs to change are the voices that have always told the story.

In a country where almost 38 percent of the population is not white, newsrooms across the nation show a meager 17 percent of diversity.  And as the rungs of the ladder go up, the diversity numbers go down.

That’s the homework that Marty and his peers will need to do soon because the times are a’changing.

But there’s hope.

Marty, I’m pleased to learn that you have recruited two of our best classmates: Kazi Awal and Nicole Lewis. They’re leaders and stars. And I admire them. Soon they will join some of our other alumni at your paper.

I’m also proud of the winds of change here at the J-School.

This year, we welcomed Miguel Paz, the first Latino to be hired as full-time faculty.

And at a time when the country is becoming more multicultural and multilingual, the J-School had the vision to add a Spanish-language master’s program, led by the wonderful Graciela Mochkofsky.

What’s more, this year the diversity among the student body reached 61 percent, making it seem as if the newsroom of the future is no longer a dream.

On that note, I want to celebrate all those at the school who made today possible – with a special shout-out to Yahaira Castro and Christa Noelle of student services. They consoled us. They advised us. They fed us 2,000 slices of pizza each semester.

And to my classmates… I wish I could name each one of you.

Compañeras y compañeros de la generación 2016, I’m so proud of being one of you.

I came here thinking that the program was going to help me grow. and it did.

But it also put me in the midst of people who inspire me. We supported one another — on the nights we worked so late that we got kicked out of the building …. when our interactive projects didn’t interact …  when our editing software crashed . . . and when we were buried under an avalanche of assignments.

We made each other laugh. We made each other better. We made each other shine. We turned into a family — and you, all of you, became my heroes.

Thank you.

[thunderous applause]

About Gustavo Martínez Contreras

was born in Texas, brewed in Mexico City, seasoned in the Mexico-United States border, aged walking the streets of Philadelphia. He had a short-lived stint eating grits, fried chicken, and peaches in Atlanta. He later became a béisbol writer for El Diario de Nueva York. He has written about immigrant communities in English, Spanish, and some Spanglish. Although he does not have a shelf full of awards, Gustavo has received thank you notes and hugs from people who have trusted him with their stories. His work has appeared in Voices of New York, El Diario/La Prensa, Dallas’ Al Día, The Philadelphia Public School Notebook, Philadelphia Weekly, Radio Bilingüe, Latina Lista,, among others. He is currently pursuing a master's degree at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism.
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