Senator Durazo to UCLA labor studies class: ‘Walk away today with a commitment to keeping your unrealistic dreams’

The labor champion urged students to remain connected to their younger selves

Durazo represents the 26th California Senate District encompassing Central Los Angeles and East Los Angeles. Prior to being elected to the State Senate, she served as the Executive Vice President of UNITE HERE International, the Vice Chair of the Democratic National Committee, the National Co-Chair of the Barack Obama Presidential Campaign and she was the first woman Secretary-Treasurer of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor.

Citlalli Chávez-Nava | June 21, 2023

Over the weekend, California State Senator María Elena Durazo, a longstanding champion of labor, immigrant, women and civil rights, delivered the keynote address to the labor studies class of 2023 —  the largest graduating class in the program’s history.

During her powerful speech, Durazo (D-Los Angeles), talked about her unexpected, yet urgent journey toward becoming an elected official and shared personal stories and experiences that have and continue to inform her legislative agenda today. Durazo described her younger self — the child of migrant workers who traveled across the state picking cotton, grapes and peaches with her parents. 

“She slept with her brothers and sisters on the back of their dad’s flatbed truck looking up at the stars, and her family didn’t have health insurance, or dental insurance. And it was around the time that Cesar Chávez and Dolores Huerta were organizing farm workers. Cesar’s work intrigued her, injustice and racism angered her.”

In college, Durazo explained, these experiences eventually led that young woman to the anti-Vietnam War movement, the Chicano civil rights movement, the empowerment movement in Los Angeles and an eventual failed attempt at organizing garment workers. 

“But that young woman’s failure is what inspired me 40 years later, to carry on her fight, and win what we want. That young woman inspired me all my life,” she said. “The young woman whose family didn’t have health care and coverage — I was that young woman.” 

She shared how those experiences prompted her to champion recently-enacted legislation that expanded health and dental to older Californians regardless of immigration status — the first such legislative win across the country. 

Durazo’s key message centered on the importance of remaining connected to one’s younger self to draw inspiration now and into the future.

“You see, the person who will inspire you, all of your life is sitting in your chair, wearing your graduation gown. Because in the end, the younger versions of ourselves [aren’t] someone we need to grow out of. The younger version of yourself is who needs to go with you,” she said. 

She urged the labor studies of 2023 to dream big and to challenge the status quo. 

“When you get out of here with your diploma — [embrace] your irreverence, your disregard for the way things have always been done, your unrealistic dreams, your impatience, and even your anger. Embrace the impossible, because you can make it possible. Cherish your impatience and channel your anger long enough to succeed. Don’t grow out of who you are today. Walk away today with a commitment to keeping your unrealistic dreams.”

Durazo, concluded her remarks highlighting one of her proudest legislative accomplishments thus far — securing a permanent home for the UCLA James Lawson Worker Justice Center overlooking MacArthur Park in her Senate district – a building that holds personal significance for her. 

“This is the building where I got my start as a union organizer. And it was Reverend Lawson, who taught me the power of nonviolence, who taught me the power of collective action — who worked with me to rebuild and transform a union that had broken down a union that was no longer serving the needs of its members or workers in that industry. We transformed that union, and we transformed the Los Angeles labor movement,” she said. 

Gathered in a large, bright conference room of Covel Commons, several hundred students and their families also heard moving speeches from student speakers who embraced “social justice at work and in the community” — the guiding ideals of UCLA’s labor studies academic program.

Mary Entoma, a first-generation student from Cebu City, Philippines talked about feeling isolated and alone when she first came to UCLA yet she found much-needed connection and community in organizing workers.

“Instead of going to football games every weekend, I spent my Saturdays in organizing trainings. I’ve done my homework on the picket line with workers fighting for housing and fair wages…” she said. “These institutions were built to make us feel isolated, but the labor movement reminds us through rightful resistance and desire for community, we will never be alone.” 

Student speaker Hector De León, from the Inland Empire paid tribute to his high school counselor, grandparents, father and mother — all in attendance — and discussed how he sees labor in the world. 

“Our labor is a lifelong dedication to constructing a better world for our loved ones and those around us,” he said. 

In total, the interdepartmental program conferred 56 bachelors degrees and 54 academic minors upon the labor studies class of 2023. The ceremony also featured remarks by Labor Studies Faculty Chair Chris Zepeda- Millán, IRLE Director Tobias Higbie, Labor Center Director Kent Wong and Interim Dean of Social Sciences Abel Valenzuela Jr. 

UCLA Labor Studies is the first major of its kind at the University of California. Renowned for its commitment to engaged student learning in community worker settings, rigorous hands-on research and courses that explore some of the most pressing labor and social justice issues, the program became a major in 2019 after being established as a minor in 2014. 

Photos: Labor Studies Commencement 2023 Photo Album 

Video: Labor Studies Commencement 2023 Reel

Learn about the UCLA Labor Studies academic program here.

Learn more about UCLA Labor Studies commencement speakers here.