Arizona State University
Martin Luther King, Jr. 2002 Celebration

ASU&MLK 2002 Servant-Leader Winner

The following speech was given January 29, 2002, by ASU&MLK Servant-Leader winner Socorro Hernandez Bernasconi, at the ASU Martin Luther King, Jr. Breakfast Celebration.


First of all, I want to express my deepest gratitude to Dr. Louis Olivas, the person who nominated me, to the people who established this prestigious award, and to the committee who selected me for this great honor. I am truly humbled and pray to God that I may be found worthy to accept it. Secondly, mil gracias a mi esposo, Santino, because without his help and support through Centro de Amistad, I would not be able to do half the things that I do. Also, thanks to my children and the rest of my family for their understanding of all the time I spent away from them.

I have been told that this award is presented annually in recognition of the principles and the vision of Dr. King. It is significant that the University panel that selected the awardees this year chose me, an Indolatina. The struggle that Dr. King was involved in for so many years focused on the plight of the African-American people and the injustices which they endured. But he also was a visionary. He reminded us that “INJUSTICE ANYWHERE is a threat to JUSTICE EVERWHERE.” He understood very clearly that the African-Americans were not the only ones who have suffered at the hands of unjust structures. He spoke of “all God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics ”…and as children of the same Heavenly Father, each has a right to the basics and that no one has the right to usurp what rightfully belongs to others. Here in the Southwest, the class of people who have suffered at the hands of unjust systems have numerically been the Native Americans and the Latinos. In fact, if it were in the minds of the slave masters to keep the level and number of slaves limited to the level where they can be controlled, they failed miserably with the African-American. But the same system came very close to wiping out the Native American. In fact, some tribes for all intents and purposes, are extinct. With the federal government’s protection (or perhaps despite the federal government’s protection), many Native groups are beginning to grow and thrive after years of persecution and oppression. But, they have a long way to go and we, as Indolatinos, support their efforts.

The Latino part is much bigger and much more complex. What Dr. King had to say about the injustices against African-Americans applies to Indolatinos as well. The ideal of having more children, higher fertility rates and a lesser inclination to abortion means that the Indolatino birth rate is higher. The second most popular name last year in Arizona was José. I doubt that many people of the majority culture named their children José.

In addition, even with the wringing of hands and gnashing of teeth by many over the illegal immigration and rising number of undocumented, all of society has much to gain by their exploited labor. I believe that most of the food we are eating here today was planted, cultivated and harvested very cheaply by undocumented labor.

The increase of Indolatinos, however, is not limited to just the Southwest. In fact, by 2005 we will become the largest “minority” in the United States. We will be “part of the problem” of the future or “part of the solution”. Our challenge is to break the cycle that says that the “ones on the bottom” always need someone else to look down on and over which to exercise power and control. Even now, as the number of Asians continues to grow in many parts of our country, we, the Indolatinos, have the challenge to not “do unto others as was done unto us.” We have the responsibility to keep our eyes on the vision of Dr. King and his Dream speech so that we can be proud to know that we are not becoming like the oppressor, but in fact are breaking the cycle of violence which has been part of our country’s heritage for over two hundred years.

It saddened me to hear that after 9-11, people rushed to buy the two hottest items: FLAGS AND GUNS! Yet studies show that the guns we rush out to buy to “defend ourselves” wind up being used to kill someone we love. In the year 2000, in Arizona, there were 106 domestic violence related deaths according to the Arizona Coalition Against Domestic Violence. Seventy five of these deaths were gun related.

We consider violence (whether its personal, domestic, community, national or international) as a BIG LIE that tells a person or a people “You don’t count, you don’t deserve respect, you deserve to starve, you deserve to be trampled on, you deserve to be beaten, you deserve to die.” Dr. King said, “No lie can live forever.” Similarly, my mother used to say “La mentira permanece hasta que la verdad aparece.” And so, we must contradict this lie with the TRUTH. The truth is, everybody counts, everyone deserves respect, no one deserves to starve, no one deserves to be trampled on, no one deserves to be beaten or to die…because as Dr. King quoted, “Any man’s death diminishes me because I am involved in mankind”. He told us that “All life is interrelated. The agony of the poor impoverishes the rich; the betterment of the poor enriches the rich.” He reminded us that “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single dominant destiny and whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. For some strange reason, I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. The rich man can never be what he ought to be until the poor man is what he ought to be.”

Recently, Former President Clinton shared the following thoughts when he accepted the first Dayton Peace Prize:

“We all tend to fear and distrust those who don’t look like us, talk like us, worship like us, think like us. When you’re afraid of somebody, you don’t trust them. It’s a short step to disliking them. If you dislike them, it’s a short step to hating them. If you hate them, it’s a short step to dehumanizing them. Once you do that, it’s not very difficult to justify killing them.”
I, personally, remember April 4th, 1968 clearly. I was attending an ecumenical gathering of “Christian” religious leaders in some big church in Phoenix. In the middle of the meeting, the announcement was made that Martin Luther King, Jr. had been shot. Someone in the audience said; “It’s about time that S.O.B. got it!” Needless to say, I was shocked beyond belief and was too hurt to make any comment. I just quietly left that gathering. Like Jesus, Dr. King was hated for upsetting the “status quo” and many of his enemies rejoiced at his death. However, the assassin’s bullet did NOT kill his spirit. If anything, it FREED it! It took away his physical limitation of being at only one place at a time. Now, Dr. King’s spirit is FREE to be with each and everyone of us at the same time. For those of us of Christian traditions, that Spirit, fashioned after the Spirit of Jesus, urges us to live out our Christian mandate to “feed the hungry, give water to the thirsty, give hospitality to the stranger, shelter the homeless, clothe the naked, and look after the sick and imprisoned.” It reminds us that “We are inevitably our brother’s keeper because we are our brother’s brother.” It teaches us to apply our faith to the social challenges of our lives.

Dr. Lowery, co-founder with Dr. King of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in Atlanta, asks, “How can we celebrate Martin—and then sit silently by and ignore a criminal justice system that is the system in our nation that has been the least impacted by the civil rights movement and social change?” I ask, how can we celebrate Dr. King and just sit back and do nothing when we hear about a millionaire specifically targeting a small, vulnerable community with limited resources such as Guadalupe, to set up a business that degrades women, endangers children/youth and dehumanizes men? How can we ignore the fact that in Arizona, basic children’s needs are grossly neglected and then children are punished as adults when they wind up in Juvenile Hall? How can we ignore the fact that Arizona has the highest adolescent suicide rate in the nation and spend so little on youth services? Why do we allow Arizona to cut social services and provide no funding for mental health services while spending millions on the alternate fuel fiasco? Why do we allow the federal government to guarantee a million and a half dollars to all survivors of 9-11 to avoid lawsuits against big corporations but exclude the “undocumented” survivors? Does life have value only if you have certain papers?

Dr. King’s spirit urges us to speak up when we see an injustice, forces us to take action, to mobilize and not let fear paralyze us. Dr. King knew that Peacemaking and fighting injustice go hand in hand for “True peace is not merely the absence of tension, it is the presence of justice.” Additionally, Pope Paul VI of the Catholic Church says, “There can be no peace without justice” and Rigoberta Menchu, the Nobel Peace Prize winner from Guatemala, adds “There can be no justice without equity”.

Let us, then, make Dr. King’s celebration a day of COMMITMENT to PEACE, JUSTICE and EQUITY. Let us make it a day of ACTION AND SERVICE not just a holiday where we sit around and reminisce! Let us look around and see what needs to be changed and plan a social action on this holiday every year.

We can start by:

  • Making serious efforts to uproot racism and prejudice from our hearts, homes and communities.
  • If we have a gun at home, turn it in to be transformed into an instrument of peace, helping make the prophecy of Isaiah a reality: “In those days, they will turn their swords into plowshares”. Isaiah 4:2-3
  • Encourage children, youth and seniors to DREAM, helping make the prophecy of Joel a reality: “Then afterwards I will pour out my spirit upon all mankind. Your sons and daughters shall prophesy, your old men (and women) shall dream dreams, your young men (and women) shall see visions.” Joel 3:1-2
  • Ghandi tells us that “Poverty is the worse form of violence.” Let us use the “Weapon of Love” that Dr. King speaks of to change those institutions that are contributing to poverty.
Dr. King’s SPIRIT is here today with each and every one of us to encourage us, validate us, affirm us, strengthen us, to challenge with us, to fight injustice with us, to MARCH with us!


Closing prayer:

“…When your judgment dawns upon the earth,
the world’s inhabitants learn justice.
O Lord, you mete out peace to us,
for it is you who have accomplished all we have done.
                              Isaiah 26:12

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