Remarks At National DAR Continental Congress

President Eduardo M. Ochoa received the Americanism Award at the National Daughter's of the American Revolution (DAR) Continental Congress.

President General Dillon, Daughters, distinguished members and guests: thank you so much for this humbling award, and for the opportunity to address you on this occasion.

The DAR Americanism award is aimed at immigrants, and it is fitting that it does so. We are all, in a fundamental sense, immigrants. Throughout mankind’s history, when things got crowded, or resources got scarce, people moved on in search of greener pastures. But the discovery of the New World by Europeans was truly an epoch-making event. It became possible to go to America and break free of the rigid class structures and entrenched institutions of Europe and build a new life.

That much was true throughout the Americas. But in a process that began in 1776 with the Declaration of Independence and culminated in 1789 with the first government formed under the US Constitution, the North American colonies introduced a revolutionary innovation to the world: a democratic republic to govern a new nation composed not of royal subjects but of free citizens, the first since the Roman republic. It was a remarkable achievement, into which went a high level of learned deliberation, informed by the experience of past human history. Reading the Federalist Papers, one marvels at the high intellectual rigor of the analysis, the thoughtful design of the three separate branches of government, the wise reckoning of the weaknesses of human nature in its checks and balances. (Frankly, one wistfully wishes for such high statesmanship in our day.)

The impact of that earth-shaking event was truly felt around the world. It led eventually to the French Revolution, and to the independence of the colonies of Spain and their adoption of constitutions heavily inspired by the North American example. Sadly, most of them fell short of that model. Their failures highlight how rare and remarkable was the achievement of the Founding Fathers, and how easily it could have gone awry.

I was born and lived in Argentina until I was 14, at which time my parents, who had long admired the United States, immigrated to this country. They had the foresight to send me to bilingual schools from the first grade, so my transition to high school in the U.S. was smooth. Before the first year was over, I met Holly, whom I married four years later. However, my parents were not able to adapt, and shortly after I started college, they moved back to Argentina, and eventually Mexico, where they lived out their lives. All these changes took a toll on their marriage, and they eventually divorced.

Aspects of this immigrant story are not uncommon. Often, the first generation of immigrants pay a heavy price, and it’s only the next generation that reaps the benefit of their decision. As former Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta — and Monterey resident — often says of his grandparents, “they came to America to provide a better life for their children,” to which I would add, “but not always for themselves.” That is why I will always be grateful for the sacrifices my parents made, sending me to excellent schools in Argentina that they could ill afford, and later deciding to migrate to the United States so that I could lead a better life.

When my parents left, Holly’s parents became my surrogate family. They provided the stability and the role model that steadied my precocious independence. But fundamentally, it was my relationship with Holly that helped me mature as I navigated this strange new world, secure in the knowledge that I was loved and appreciated by my lifelong companion. Thank you, dear Holly.

After completing my Ph.D., Holly and I headed back to the west coast, where I joined the California State University. Serving as a faculty member and administrator on several campuses over a thirty-year period, I became increasingly committed to the mission of the CSU: to provide wide access to quality higher education at the bachelor’s and master’s level for Californians, so they can have successful careers and lead meaningful lives as citizens and members of their community. I continue this work as president of California State University at Monterey Bay, where I am particularly proud of the numbers of students who are the first generation in their families to attend college, many of whom are immigrants or children of immigrants.

The timing of this Americanism award is pregnant with meaning. At a time when blood-and-soil nationalism is on the rise here and abroad, this award shines a spotlight on the true essence of America’s greatness: the audacious idea of self-government, of the inherent dignity and right of human beings to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. This idea is the legacy of the Enlightenment and has universal appeal. It continues to draw immigrants to our shores, who keep nourishing the vitality of American society. America’s practice of self-government and its free and tolerant culture also inspires the peoples of the world with its example, more so than it compels others to follow it through its military might. May it continue to do so in the years to come.

Thank you so much for this special award, and for the statement that it makes in affirming America’s enduring values.