2014 Alisal High School Commencement Speech

Keynote Speaker: Mark Cisneros

I know what you were saying to yourselves as I was walking up here. And you’re right. I do workout.

How are you guys doing? I heard you’re graduating today. Cool!

You know, before I came to Alisal High School, I thought I was a real Mexican, but, man, I was wrong! In my nine years at Alisal High, the students here, not just the Mexican students, but all students, have changed me.

You remind me everyday of the beauty of culture, the beauty of community, the beauty in adversity and triumph. Because of you, I have a broader and more profound feel for the daily battles that are fought in our minds and in our hearts.

Here in the East Side, the struggle is magnified. It is real. There is nothing artificial about it, and because it is real, you are also very real. There is nothing artificial about who you are, at the core. You are some of the toughest and wisest kids I have ever seen in my life. And when I pause to talk with you and listen to your stories, I am mesmerized by your honesty and your tenacity and your ability to keep moving forward.

Life in East Salinas isn’t easy, but you’re lucky, though, as I was when I was a kid growing up in L.A. in a place similar to East Salinas, a place the L.A. Times ranked as the second worst place to raise children in Southern California. But I’ll be honest with you. East Salinas is the perfect place to practice wrestling with life’s complexities, because life doesn’t get much more serious than in this area. Everything that you must deal with as an Adult is on display on the East Side, in HD and in 3D, right before your eyes. I couldn’t think of a better education than the one East Salinas can provide you. But if you couple this with the education you get at Alisal High and put a college education on top of that, then really nothing can ever get in your way. Absolutely nothing!

I’m living proof of this. I was in jail six times, twice in L.A. County. I did almost every drug in the book. I’ve been beaten. I’ve been shot at, and I’ve had the barrel of a gun pressed against my forehead. I’ve been the target of racism and discrimination. I saw my dad abuse my mom, until I was old enough to stand up to him and tell him to stop, and yet I would’ve died for my father, rest his soul. I’ve seen friends die. I’ve seen others succumb to drug and alcohol addiction. I’ve seen family members rendered powerless by alcoholism. I grew up watching my mom use WIC stamps to pay for our groceries, bless her heart.

But still I didn’t let anything stop me from reaching my goals. I was a product of my environment, but I didn’t accept. I went on to earn an AA degree, a bachelor’s degree in English, and a Master’s Degree in English. I’ve been a part-time English professor for nine years. I’ve won awards for both my teaching and coaching. I would like to think that I’ve positively affected lives, and been a role model to hundreds of kids. And, now, here I am today. I’m your commencement speaker. I don’t know how this happened, but I am grateful. It is the greatest thing that has ever happened to me, and I mean this from the bottom of my heart.

I mentioned these things because, you, too, whether you know it or not, whether you want to believe it or not, are products of your environments. You don’t have to be, though. This is up to you.

Like I said, I’ve learned a lot from you guys, but the one thing that upsets me is that I still haven’t learned Spanish too well. I wish I could give this speech in Spanish because I know there are a lot of Spanish speaking people in the audience. Plus, let’s be honest, Spanish sounds a lot sexier than English. I mean it’s one of the Romantic Languages, right? You can say almost anything in Spanish and it sounds sexy. For example: Done esta la zapateria? Or la iglesia tiene campanas de oro. Or En mi rancho hay sies caballos. It’s crazy! Try it! Order your food in like this the next time you go to Taco Bell: me gustaria salsa verde y pico de gallo! “Uh, no hablo espanol,” would probably be the response.

This is my Alisal birth.

I came to Alisal in the summer of 2004. My girlfriend–now wife–got a job that was too good to pass up. I was teaching in L.A. at the time, and I was all of a sudden facing a major decision in my life: do I stay in L.A. and say good bye to our five-year relationship, or do I behave like a good “mandilon” and follow her to Monterey? Well, here I am.

I called Monterey home in late July, just three weeks before Alisal High started its school year. In L.A. we start in September, so I thought I still had time to get a job, but I soon realized that most high schools had already done their hiring, and there were hardly any jobs left.

Then Seaside High called. The interview went well, and I was offered the job. As I was walking out of his office, the principal said to me, “Mark, you should check the online pay scale for our district. We don’t pay as much as L.A.” I wasn’t too bothered by this. I figured the difference was only $1000 or $2000 difference. I checked the scale and it was almost a $10,000 difference that what I was earning in L.A. I called him and thanked him for his time. He told me to try Salinas. I had never heard of Salinas in my life. I didn’t even know there was a place on this planet called Salinas. He told me it was about ½ hour away.

Well, I called almost every school in Salinas, but there were no openings. I didn’t call Alisal because I had a feeling they didn’t have any openings either.

I decided to go back to L.A. to finish some things that needed to get done. While I was there, I received a phone call. It was the Alisal High principal. She asked if we could have the interview over the phone, and I said “Of course!” I didn’t’ care if the interview was in smoke signals or sign language. I just needed a job!

I was hired, and I returned to Monterey the next weekend, one-week before school was to start. I mentioned to some neighbors that I had gotten a job, and they seemed happy for me. They asked the name of the school and I said Alisal High School in East Salinas. I almost had to catch the lady that asked me because it looked like she was going to faint. After she caught her breath a little she said, “You know you’re going to die, right? You’re going to get shot. That school’s dangerous!” I said, “C’mon! I’m from L.A. It can’t be worse.”

I checked into Alisal High three days before school started. I had never even seen the campus, and I didn’t know a single person. In the parking lot, near the flagpole, I met a petite, Filipino woman, an English teacher here at Alisal High. Her name was Jane Albano.

It was a sunny day, and we were near the school’s steps. I had been worried about the heat because I had just gotten back from L.A. where it was 104 degrees. I was hoping that I had escaped the heat by coming up north. Anyway, I asked Ms. Albano if it got hot in Salinas. She threw her arms in the air in complete anguish, almost as if she was going to cry, and she said, “Oh, God! Yes, it gets really hot!” In my head, I was like, “Man, I thought I escaped the heat!” Then Ms. Albano continued, “Last week we hit 80. It hardly ever hits 80.” “80!” I said. “80 is hot to you?” And I laughed and she kind of laughed, and that was it. By the way, Ms. Albano graduated from Alisal High School in 1968.

Anyway, it didn’t take me very long to realize that Alisal is the best high school I have ever taught at, and I would swear on a stack of bibles if you didn’t’ believe me. Alisal High School is the centerpiece of the East Side, the Cathedral where East Salinas’ youth come to get baptized before they enter adulthood. Mr. Mazzuca, himself a 1971 graduate of Alisal High, said to me a few days ago, “If you graduate from Alisal High School—if you get your diploma from Alisal High—it’s a big deal, man!” And he’s right! It is a big deal. It is a fact that many Alisal graduates have gone on to represent the spirit of Salinas in professional sports, educational administration, military, and local and state government positions.

This is a special place, and what makes this school special isn’t the actual campus, nor is it the teachers, nor is it the staff, although these wonderful people do add a special flavor to the school. No! You, the students, are the ones that make this school great, and every graduate before you has contributed to Alisal’s greatness, and you, today, right here, right now, are living, breathing proof of Alisal’s beautiful spirit, and in just a few minutes, you will be the newest graduates in the history of Alisal High School.

Like I said, there are a lot of forces that come together to make Alisal High a special place, but there is one trait that I believe isn’t mentioned enough, and this is the sense of humor we have here at Alisal High. Our students, for the most part, are blessed with a fantastic ability to laugh—to laugh at our lives, at our pains, at our tragedies, to laugh as a means of healing and showing compassion.

Yesterday we lost one of our greatest authors, Maya Angelou, a woman whose voice rose from a life of adversity, abuse, and great struggle. Today her work is read by thousands of students. She says this about the importance of humor: “My life has been one great big joke, a dance that’s walked, a song that’s spoke, I laugh so hard I almost choke when I think about myself.”

I urge you to cling to your sense of humor: it will protect you and keep you sane. This is important because this is something you can’t learn in a classroom. I encourage you to continue to laugh, because life continues to get serious, and your sense of humor is going to help you survive.

Plus, who doesn’t like to laugh? Some of the funniest moments of my entire teaching career have happened here at Alisal High, and I cherish them.

The first thing that struck me as funny is when I took attendance for the first time in my classes. It went something like this:
“Alright, guys. Let me take roll really quick. Raise your hand and say “here” when I call your name.”
1. Maria Guadalupe Miranda Lopez Trujillo
2. Cesar Arturo Rodrigo Ramirez Lopez De Los Lagos
3. Jocelyn Zepeda Martinez Galindo La Mancha Nina, Pinta, Santa Maria
And the names kept getting longer. I was out of breath by the time I got to the H’s.

Then our first party was crazy! It was a girl’s 16th birthday and the class wanted to bring food. Everybody volunteered to bring something, and I figured we’d have some chips, cookies, soda, and a cake. Well, in the morning the food started to roll in. I swear it was like a Mexican buffet. We had enchiladas de pollo, taquitos con guacamole, salsas, Jaritos, tortillas de arena hecho a mano, and tamales. Then towards the end of the party, one of my students was walking towards me. She had a dish in her hand that was covered in aluminum. She looked at me and said, “Mr. C., do you like this, and she lifted the cover off the plate, and it was Choco-Flan! I almost peed in my pants. I looked up to the sky and said: (song) this is where I want to be/right here with my loved ones.

As some of you know, I coach the boys’ soccer team here at Alisal. We’ve been pretty successful and we’ve won some big games, but the joy I derive from coaching doesn’t come from the actual game. It comes with the relationships and camaraderie that I share with my players and coaches. And this camaraderie usually starts with a name, and soccer players have the craziest names. I’ve coached players with names like Torta, Burrito, Pollo, Churro, Papas, Nino, Chikis, Happy Feet, Venado, Tiburon, Chivita, Chivo, Chino, Chango, Grenyudo, and, of course, my all-time favorite, Boracho. Imagine coaching a game and you’re yelling “Borracho, Borracho” the whole time. It’s funny. We’ve had other names that just wouldn’t be appropriate to say at this time, if you know what I mean.

So you see I’ve been spoiled with beautiful experiences at Alisal, both in and out of the classroom. In addition to what I’ve mentioned, I have also been asked to baptize babies, to be the best man at a couple of weddings, invited to quinceñeras and house parties, to do body shots, and to go on family trips to Mexico to get drunk and ride horses. Some students have even tried to set me up with their older sisters or aunts. In all honesty, it’s flattering and I appreciate every minute of it.

I’d like to shift the tone a little. I’d like to touch on a few things I know to be true about you guys, but it comes with a preface.

A few years ago, I read a NY Times article about a prestigious high school in the Bronx, New York. Now, we’re talking prestigious in almost every sense of the word. The students lived in fancy houses and their parents had money and great jobs. Anyway, this high school was sending a bunch of their graduates to Yale, Princeton, Harvard, Brown, and all the other top American universities.

However, over time, the principal would hear that another one of his graduates had dropped out college, and then another, and another, and another. He couldn’t figure out why, and it bothered him a great deal. He hired a team of experts and researchers to get to the bottom of the problem. This is what they found: although the students from this prestigious high school were scoring ridiculously high on their state tests and on their SAT’s and ACT’s, and they knew how to write structured essays and do all their homework, they were lacking some important character traits. They were dropping out of college because once they left the comforts of their homes and school, they didn’t know how to deal with the realities of life. They had no grit, no fight. They didn’t know how to deal with failure or to bounce back from it. They couldn’t handle adversity. They lacked persistence and social intelligence. And so because they lacked character, they could not find success on a greater level.

On the other hand, many of the other students, the ones with lower GPA’s and lower test scores, were the ones actually finishing college. The same research showed that these kids were able to recover from bad grades and resolve to do better; to bounce back from a fight with their parents; to resist the urge to go to the movies with friends instead of staying home and studying; to ask professors for extra help after class. These things made them successful.

Well, guess what? You possess a lot of these traits. They come with growing up on the East Side. I’ve seen it first hand in all of you. You have what these rich, spoiled kids didn’t have; the very tools they needed in order to be successful.

You know how to bounce back. You’re Trojans. You know how to deal with adversity. You’re Trojans! You have fight-you have grit. You’re Trojans. You never give up. You’re Trojans!

So really, when you think about it, you already have all the tools you need in order to be successful. All you need now is a chance, in whatever career you choose. You need a shot! And once you’re there, you will be successful, if you remember where you come from.

A few years ago, I had a kid named Gerardo Rocha, class or 2007. He came from Mexico in the seventh grade, and he had a significant Spanish accent still. I was teaching 12th grade A.P. English. His essays were the best I had ever read at the high school level. He was writing and reading better than kids who were born here-better than kids whose first language was English. He wanted what these other kids were taking for granted, and he took it. It was amazing!

I was driving to school one morning when I saw him walking on Williams. I pulled over to give him a ride. As he got in, I realized it was my big chance. I could finally ask him how he did it—how he was able read and write better than anyone in my class, despite coming from Mexico in the seventh grade. So I just asked, “Hey, Rocha. How do you do it? “Do what?” he said. “You’re the best writer and reader I have in class. How do you do it? You came from Mexico just a few years ago,” I said. He looked at me with a slightly serious face and said, “La neta Cisneros. Cuando vine de Mexico a Salinas, le puse un monton de ganas.” And that was it. That was his secret. Ganas=drive. It’s really that simple sometimes. Gerardo went on to pass every single AP Test the school had to offer. For his efforts, he was awarded the most prestigious full-ride academic scholarship Fresno State had to offer. It included a laptop and a parking space. Gerardo and I are still good friends.

“Anyway, I keep picturing all these little kids playing some game in this big field of rye and all. Thousands of little kids, and nobody’s around — nobody big, I mean — except me. And I’m standing on the edge of some crazy cliff. What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff — I mean if they’re running and they don’t look where they’re going I have to come out from somewhere and catch them. That’s all I’d do all day. I’d just be the catcher in the rye and all. I know it’s crazy, but that’s the only thing I’d really like to be. I know it’s crazy.”

That was Holden Caufield, in case you didn’t know, and the cliff he wants to save the kids from is adulthood. That’s all he’d like to do all day, save kids from falling into adulthood. Adulthood weighed so heavily on J.D. Salinger that he had to write a novel about it, and it’s one of the best ever, because it’s true. Adulthood is horrible, at times. But if you’re going to live any kind of meaningful life, adulthood is necessary. It is in the period of life where we find out who we really are, what we like, what we dislike, whether we can love, whether we can’t, whether we can die, and whether we can’t let go.

Any life worth living must go through adulthood. So be ready, Trojans. You are going to suffer tremendously. Some of you, in the near future, may even fall on your knees like I have and you’ll look up to the sky and say, “Why me, God! Why me!” But then you’ll get up because the suffering subsides. And then you’ll go on to experience some of life’s greatest moments. You’ll experience pure joy, and you’ll fall on your knees like I have and you’ll look up to the sky and you’ll say, “Thank you, God. Thank you!”

Then you will suffer tremendously, once more and many times more. Hang in there. It’s only life. You’ll be ok. Believe me.

I want to congratulate you, the class of 2014, on this tremendous accomplishment. I am proud of all of you. Your smiles make me very happy. I also want to congratulate your parents and guardians and your grandparents and family members. You have made them very proud, too. I want to congratulate your teachers and my colleagues for getting through another year. We can do it all over again next year. I’d like to congratulate Mr. Garcia and the rest of our administrative staff on a job well done, including Ms. Ayala, Mr. Avitia, and Mr. Egan for directing the ceremony. I’d also like to thank our classified staff and personal and our custodians. They are some of my best friends. Thank you all.

Finally, I want to thank you once more. I don’t think I can thank you enough. You have made me the happiest man in the world. You have made my wife and kids proud of me, as well, especially my daughter who has been encouraging me for the last month, giving me words of encouragement. My eight-month-old daughter has also been encouraging me, but she sounds like this: ba ba ba scream and screech.

Before I end, I’d like to share these words from my best friend and hero. He never knew he was my hero and he never knew he was my best friend. He’s dead now, so I can’t tell him, His name is Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and he said, “Don’t cry because it’s over. Smile because it happened.

Anyway, get out there and live your lives. Take care!

“First down, Trojans!”

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7 thoughts on “2014 Alisal High School Commencement Speech

  1. Mr. Cisneros,

    Awesome words of inspiration. Keep up of the good work at Alisal.

    Steve Solis
    Gabilan Plaza Alum
    Alisal High Class of ’83

  2. very nice congrats Mark A long way from
    Norwalk HS. We should find a way to get your soccer team to Philly to play our boys or we can come to you . We were just preseason ranked top 50 in the U.S.
    Great work !

    Mark S. Duncan
    Director of Athletics
    Boys’ Varsity Lacrosse Coach
    The Shipley School
    Bryn Mawr, PA
    @shipleysports

    • Haha! Thx, Mark. Long time, man! How’d you get to this site? I told you about it? Playing your school would be bad ass. Funds are tight around here, so it would be hard for us to travel to Philly, but we’d love to host you guys. We typically go all out with Mexican food buffet when teams come from afar. We’d do the same with you guys. You can play other nationally ranked schools that are near to us.
      Mark
      626-354-4488

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