Felipe Luciano: Successfully Challenging Stereotypes
November 20, 2009
From being the first Puerto Rican news anchor for WNBC and continuing on to WCBS-TV, Felipe Luciano successfully challenged stereotypes. In tribute to Hispanic Heritage month, he spoke at Lehman College about Latino leadership and strengthening Hispanic heritage through higher education.
14 Minutes 32 Seconds
"Inspiring Talks" features faculty, guest speakers, and experts discussing their own stories of adversity and success, as well as hopeful new developments, in a variety of fields.
This is Christina Dumitrescu, a student at Lehman College. Born and raised in New York City, Felipe Luciano is the founder and chairman of the Young Lords Party. Luciano's commitment to community empowerment, ethnic pride, and civil rights helped change the complexion of politics, culture, and society from New York to Puerto Rico. From being the first Puerto Rican news anchor for WNBC and continuing on to WCBS-TV, Luciano successfully challenged stereotypes. In tribute to Hispanic Heritage month, he spoke at Lehman College about Latino leadership and strengthening Hispanic heritage through higher education.
I have a few things to say to you beloved. I hope you listen to it in the spirit in which I give it. I consider you walking miracles because Latinos in this town were not supposed to survive. What we were asked to do is to come here as mules. What we were asked to do is to do those dresses down 8th Avenue.
What we were asked to do is just stay here, work, and be quiet. And never quite become a part of America. That has changed. We are the largest ethnic group in this country. We are the swing vote in this country. President Obama would have not been elected without Latinos. Let me make that clear. (APPLAUSE) We are an incredible force in this city. But we have gone on some times. We sometimes forget our history. Sometimes we develop cultural amnesia. And that cultural amnesia is very hurtful to us because it keeps us from actually affirming and manifesting who we are as a people.
When Colon, Christopher Colon, who was lost, bewildered, confused, and a fool said that he discovered, he discovered nothing. We were already there. So the first thing we have to understand is that we owe nobody anything for having been who we were. When he first came to the New World, he said that he saw some of the most beautiful people he'd ever seen.
It is true to nature that when European colonialism began to destroy cultures, the first thing it said is, "God, you're beautiful." Then they killed 'em. And that's something that we have to remember. Because while we move and manifest ourselves, people will always give you the sense of, "Jesus, you talk very nicely for a Latino." And it amazes me that we don't understand that education is about making you the best that you can.
Columbus came here as Cortes did to Mexico, slaughtered the indigenous people. It is thought that they slaughtered between 18-- some 80 million indigenous people. So it always knocks me out. We have Latinos who still-- by the way, this is not to say that I am not part Spanish. Because I am. But let's be very real about the role that Spain played in destroying Native Americans. And people across the Caribbean and South America.
To this day in Puerto Rico, is there one Latino, is there one Native American that you can point to? In Santo Domingo, in the Dominican Republic, there's not one Native American tribe that you can point to. In Cuba, not one. And we continue to act as if that was something that happened years ago. Believe me, the trauma of that conquest lies within us. And to this day, when you go to Puerto Rico you see Plaza Colón. We revere the Spanish and we do not give credit to the slaves and the indigenous people who made those countries what they are.
To this day, we cannot imitate Mayan architecture. Do you know that in Mexico, they were already performing cerebral surgery? They were already doing brain tumors. This is before Columbus even thought of getting there. This is when European were, they say, still in caves. Think about it, Latino. You have the genes of genius in you.
They were doing cataract surgery before Columbus got there. They were removing the thin film over the pupil, taking it off, and allowing you to see. In Spain from 711 to 1492, the people we call Islam, the Arabs-- by the way, many of us are related to Islam, whether you know it or not. We are, we have the blood of the world in us. When Michael Jackson said, "We are the world. We are people," he was talking about Latinos. I feel we have everything in us.
The question is-- and by the way, when Cortes entered Tenochtitlan, when he entered Mexico City, he said he had never seen avenues so straight. He had never seen a nation as beautiful. Of course, he proceeded to kill after that. But the point was that he understood that the architecture was far beyond anything Europe could imagine.
There is nothing for you to be ashamed about in terms of your past. Absolutely nothing. However, to achieve a viable present, to move forward into the future, you must look at education seriously. It is not enough just to say I'm going to school. How were you taken advantage of and why is education important? Folks, Latinos have not developed the world view. While Iraq is going on and Afghanistan is going on, have we as Latinos put a page in the New York Times that says whether we're for or against this madness?
As Latinos, the church, the schools, the civic associations, we as Latinos have a role to play in this country. And after 400,000 soldiers died in World War II, after hundreds of thousands died in Korea, after loads of people died in Vietnam, don't tell me you don't feel part of this bad boy. This is yours. Never make any-- never allow anyone to tell you, "Man, you're not part of this country."
Are you serious? We were here before anybody else. The first settlement in the United States was St. Augustine. The first black man in this New World was Puerto Rican, 1508. So it was 111 years before British took over the slave trade. The Spanish were the first slave traders. I'm not proud about it. So the racism that we sometimes see exhibited even among Latinos started with the Spanish. Family beloved, what I'm talkin' about is some of the racism that Latinos express in their own cultures.
I know too many girls who feel badly about their so-called "bad hair." I never heard of bad hair. I've only heard of hair. (LAUGHTER) And here's the killer about this. While you're discussing your inferiority, or thinking about it, there are people who adore you. If I took you to Italy and I said you Puerto Rican, Dominican, Salvadorian, or Peruvian, or Mexican, they would flip out. They love Latin music.
There are girls I know who say, "Oh, I wish I had your color." (LAUGHTER) And you're trying to change it. Black people don't laugh. We did the same thing as black people in this country. We have Nadinola skin creams. Lighten it up. Ebony didn't have a black model on its cover for years. Among black Americans, there was a whole thing called the paper bag test. Nobody wanted to marry anybody darker than they. We all went through this color madness.
Scholarship allows you to see past that. Why would I think education is important? Because it allows you to expand your scope. So many people do not understand and can't relate to anybody. Some-- I know some guys in Brooklyn who've never been out of Brooklyn. And when you say you've been to Santo Domingo, Puerto Rico, you've been to Italy or you've been to China, they have no idea of what the world is.
In order for you to expand to-- to accomplish what you want to accomplish, you must take care of three things. You must be able to speak well, write well, and think clearly. Education is about thinking independently and clearly. What frame of reference do you have? I'm always amazed when I speak to young Latinos and black folk and they don't know anything about other cultures. Folks, we are not the only victims. Listen to me, beloved. The Irish in 1848 went through a horrible victimization here. They were told, "No Irish need apply."
So we are not the only ones who went through this. If you think you're going through hell, let me bring to Rwanda. Let me bring you to Uganda. Some of us as black people sometimes allow the victimization to go to our heads. And we forget. And this happens without education, what Africans are going through right now. Some of us forget that while we are going through hell, there are Native Americans who are really going through it.
If you think you see poverty, let me take you to South Dakota. Black folks, as we begin to emerge as a moving force in this country and we say, "I'd like to serve the disenfranchised," I would suggest that you look at Native Americans as a perfect vehicle for that. I understand we need black doctors uptown. I understand we need Latino sociologists. We need people to help now the Native Americans. 'Cause those were the originals who got hurt.
Education is important. Education also gives you not only a world view and a frame of reference you can then know. I went to China, for example, in 1972, before many of-- before any of you were born, actually. And when I went there, they kept on asking me, "Have you been here before?" And I told them no. They said, "How is it that you know so much about it?" I said, "I read."
I went to the Congo. And by the way, for Puerto Ricans, the African ancestry that you possess is from the Congo. For Dominicans, it's from Guinea and the Congo. For Brazilians, they're from Angola. Sometimes we're Latinos, we would rather we cut somebody long, deep, and serious rather than ever admit to African blood. And for Cubans, it's Nigerian. But I go to the Congo and they said the same thing. "How is it that you know about the Congo?" And I said, "Because I read."
Folks, reading is absolutely crucial. And college allows you to touch people that you've never met. You want to be an American. I'm not saying that you should cut your umbilical cord. But education actually molds you, morphs you into being more of a citizen. Why? Because you begin to know your rights. You must be the generation that stands up. You must be the generation that educates yourself. You must be the generation that speaks not only of Latino pride, but can read Hemingway, James Baldwin, Amiri Baraka, Octavio Paz.
Those are the people-- Piri Thomas. How many people have read Down These Mean Streets by Piri Thomas? Black men, listen to this. This is a brother who's tremendous. Black Puerto Rican who's a tremendous cat. How many people have read The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin? Need to read it. How many have read The Autobiography of Malcolm X? You develop tolerance. You develop compassion. You develop a frame of reference. You've developed an ability to relate to others.
I will end with this. It is important for us to understand that faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen. You do not know where you're going. Believe me, the challenge is to connect. I was in your space, and I will tell you honestly I was a gang member who loved to read.
I don't know how I did it. But people used to laugh at me. I used to read all the time. It allowed me to succeed. And while friends of mine are now dead, murdered, jailed-- and I visit them. Because I love them. That nonsense about, "Let 'em go," no. Your job is to connect with them and to offer them a new alternative. But you must manifest the divinity inside yourself. God doesn't make junk. And he has given you faith.
The reason that you are here today is because somehow, somewhere, you know that there's a genius in you. Some of you are gifted with speech. Some of you are gifted with art. Some of you are gifted with diplomacy. There are some people-- I just happened to love-- my particular specialty happens to be Judaism. I love Judaism. I don't know why. Who knows? I love it. I teach it. I'm crazy about it.
I also happen to love Italian culture. I happen to love Asian culture. That is my role to relate to others. Your role may be different. Believe that you have a mission. Believe that your mission is to be educated. Because you cannot accomplish anything without that. Read as much as you can. Travel. Please travel. We need to read. But not only must we read, we must comprehend what we read. I find that our students today are reading but not comprehending. I did it simultaneously when I was growing up.
I think I admire you. The world before you, you may be able to live to be 100 years. You'll be able to live longer. Listen. They have a ship now that goes beyond the earth's gravity and just with a little propulsion moves fast because space has no gravity, and you get to China in 15 minutes. You will be able to see that in your lifetime.
You will be able to see new horizons. But you must study for it. Be careful. Again, be aware of who you are. Be proud of who you are. Let no one take away your pride, including your family. Understand that we are beautiful the way we are. Understand that you are perfect the way you are. Do you know half the world would like to be you? If you only knew how many Asians, how many whites, how many others-- they love your-- they love bachata. They love salsa. They love merengue. They love bomba plena. You'd be surprised.
If you went to Japan today and walked into Tokyo, they've got clubs dedicated to each of the bands that you know. We're the only ones who think, well, our music is not that-- it's not that popular. Lies. In Iceland, they love this music. In Germany, they love this music. And I've been all over. You don't know it because no one's telling you how wonderful your music is. How wonderful you are.
Four years. Finish high school. Do not allow anyone to deter from finishing high school. We need you. We need you as teachers. We need you as policemen. We need you as housewives. We need you as lawyers and doctors. We need you out here. Remember this: Education develops tolerance. Remember that you're related to every culture in the world. Arabic, Jewish, African, Native American, Chinese. Because if you're Native American, you're also Chinese.
We are the world. We are the next diplomats of the world. Can you imagine yourself doing what Hillary Clinton is doing? You can do more than you think you can. Do not believe the dream killers. I end with this: Faith is not palpable. Faith is the substance of things hoped for-- this is Hebrews 11. Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen. I believe in you, Latino. I believe in you, black man. I think you're the most gorgeous students in the world. And I will meet you at the top. God bless you (APPLAUSE).
Visit us at www.lehman.edu. This is a production of the Lehman College Media Relations Office.
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