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Hispanic National Bar Association
26th Annual Convention

Remarks prepared for delivery by
Secretary Mel Martinez

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Thursday, October 18, 2001

Good afternoon, and thank you for that very generous welcome. I appreciate your kind words, Nelson.

President Bush asked me to bring you his personal greetings, along with his very best wishes for a successful convention.

With the focus this afternoon on Latina lawyers, I first want to extend my congratulations to Attorney General Madrid. You are a legal pioneer in New Mexico who is paving new paths for Hispanics... and Hispanic women in particular. Now that the Association has recognized you as Latina Lawyer of the Year, I hope that the rest of the country will have the opportunity to hear your story.

Enhorabuena por recibir este gran honor.

I respect the Hispanic National Bar Association and the work you do every day in support of this nation's lawyers, judges, law professors, and law students. The Association has taken on a leadership role among legal professionals. Your passionate advocacy is bringing more Hispanics into the field of law... helping your members move forward in their careers... and advancing their skills as lawyers.

You have stepped forward to fill an important need. I thank you for that. I wish that as a young lawyer just out of law school, I had had such an organization as the H-N-B-A to help me.

I also want to thank the Association for stepping forward after the events of September 11th.

We all know that more than 500 Hispanics were among the victims of the terrorist attacks. Many of those who died were immigrants who did not earn much money cleaning the offices of the World Trade Center and working in its shops and restaurants. Much of what they did make, they sent back to their homelands to support their families. They left behind loved ones in this country who are struggling to make it through a difficult time.

I understand that you have set up a Legal Resource Center to help victims and their families by writing letters, filing claims, and requesting government documents on their behalf. This is a great service, and I thank you.

Our nation has truly come together - in so many different ways - during the past five weeks. With a passion that none of us could have imagined before, we are comforting loved ones, and supporting complete strangers through financial donations and prayers. Our children are even mailing dollar bills to the White House, to help families devastated by poverty in Afghanistan. In less than a week, close to 100,000 envelopes have arrived at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

I have never been more proud to be an American than I am today. If the terrorists thought that they could rob this country of its hope and its heart, the terrorists have failed.

President Bush is providing the right leadership for the right time. I can assure you that the President you see every day, urging Americans to go about their business and reassuring us that those responsible will be held accountable, is just as resolute outside the spotlight of public attention.

He is determined that the United States will win the war against terrorism.

At every opportunity, the President reminds our fellow Americans that hate can take many forms, but that hate comes from within. It cannot be divined based on someone's ethnic heritage, or their religion, or the clothes they wear. A civilized society must be a tolerant society.

Because many of us chose to live in this country and become Americans, we have received much in the way of opportunity to live the American dream. It is now, more than ever, that we can give back to this great nation by our patriotism, our work, and our defiance in the face of terrorism.

The Hispanic community will have an enormous role in helping to restore stability and solidarity to the nation in the coming months. Hispanics are a backbone of the labor force and a growing force in the economy.

More than 30 million Americans - or about one in every eight - claim Hispanic heritage. Some were born here. Others came here as immigrants... or like myself, as refugees

As our numbers soar, Hispanics are creating jobs and giving citizens the tools they need to improve their quality of life. In 1992, we owned fewer than 800,000 of our own businesses; today over two million businesses are Hispanic owned.

I am pleased that so many of these new owners are women. Hispanic women are making powerful contributions in the business world. In fact, the fastest growing firms within the Hispanic community are those owned by women.

I have heard the President say many times that the Hispanic influence enriches every aspect of American culture... from the arts, to our foods, to our faith. The Hispanic community exemplifies commitment to family, love of country, and respect for others - traits that are shared by so many Americans.

We are all citizens of this great nation, no matter how or when we became a part of the American melting pot. Being an American is not determined by who our ancestors were. It is not a matter of family or bloodlines. To be an American means above all, to believe in an idea - an eternal and precious idea.

As Abraham Lincoln put it, those who came to our shores after the revolution were not related by ancestry to the brave men who had fought for America's freedom in 1776. But they did read the Declaration of Independence, which said: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal."

They believed in that "self-evident truth" about equal rights and human dignity. And then, said Mr. Lincoln, those immigrants felt that by their faith in the truth of equal freedom, they were one with those who fought in the Revolution.

They felt "that they have a right to claim it as though they were blood of the blood, and flesh of the flesh of the men who wrote that Declaration, and so they are."

In other words, all Americans form a united community, almost a single family, in a bond that is much stronger than flesh and blood.

We are connected to one another through our shared faith in the noblest, most enduring idea that ever gave shape to a nation: the idea of equal rights... the God-given dignity of each person.

Hispanics are fully as American as every other person because we share that faith in the enduring truths of equal natural rights, freedom, respect, and opportunity. And so our nation is more than just a collection of diverse and beautiful cultures. America is a living foundation on which many cultures can flourish in freedom.

Yes, Americans sometimes fail to live up to their own high standards... but America is at its best when it strives to make this ideal a reality, teaching by words and actions that every man and woman on Earth is entitled to the same tolerance, respect, and love.

The American idea also represents a purpose for the whole world.

The streams of immigrants and the way our political institutions are imitated in other countries show that the American idea of equal rights is not just for us. It is the world's eternal idea. Providence has given us the honor and the burden of keeping it aloft as a light to which men and women everywhere may aspire.

President Bush is deeply committed to improving the quality of life of Hispanics in this country. He understands the problems we deal with daily. He lived and worked closely with the Hispanic people as governor of Texas, and has surrounded himself with Hispanics in this Administration.

Nearly ten percent of the men and women the President has appointment to policymaking positions are Hispanic, far more than in any previous Administration.

I serve in the Administration alongside Alberto Gonzales, the President's chief lawyer... Hector Barreto, head of the Small Business Administration... U.S. Treasurer Rosario Marin... while Gaddi Vasquez will soon be nominated to serve as Director of the Peace Corps. And fellow Cuban American, Ambassador Otto Reich, is a distinguished diplomat whose nomination as Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs languishes in the Senate, awaiting action.

You are rightfully proud that two of the President's appointees are members of the Hispanic National Bar Association. Past president Jimmy Gurulé has been confirmed as Under Secretary for Enforcement in the Department of the Treasury. Juan Carlos Benitez is awaiting confirmation as Special Counsel for Immigration-Related Unfair Employment Practices.

I look forward to working with them.

The President wants the face of this government to reflect the changing face of America. He is encouraging federal agencies to improve the representation of Hispanics within our ranks... and we have taken his advice to heart at HUD. With our workforce now six percent Hispanic, HUD is above the federal average. Still, that number is too low. This is something that I am working to change.

Despite the massive resources being directed into the new war against terrorism, the everyday work of the government continues. It has to, because war or not, the people depend on us.

They expect decent public housing to live in. They wait for their Social Security checks. They want their mail delivered on time. They need the medical prescriptions Medicare provides. You may not be reading about our work on the front pages these days, because there are plenty of other events competing for space. But the work of government goes on... and even as we respond to the terrorist attacks, this Administration is making steady progress on the other priorities of the American people.

Since the attacks, the President has restated his commitment to immigration reform, and to working with Mexico to broaden immigration between our two countries. He has said many times that the Administration is looking at a guest worker program that will benefit America as well as benefit Mexico.

We are committed to strengthening democracy and trade with Latin American countries by creating a free trade zone of the Americas. Trade has an extraordinary impact on the economy, and can be a powerful force for good in the world.

Homeownership has a tremendous impact on the economy as well... and has the power to transform lives and entire communities. One of my top priorities at HUD is to give more Hispanic families the opportunity to own their own home. Several of the initiatives I have introduced this year are targeted at expanding homeownership.

To give our children the education they deserve, we are going to have to close the achievement gap among all students. This must start early on in their schooling. The President is committed to accomplishing this through the education blueprint he calls "No Child Left Behind" that will improve schools and boost the performance of students.

At an event last week celebrating National Hispanic Heritage Month, President Bush announced the creation of the President's Advisory Commission on Educational Excellence for Hispanic Americans. I am honored that he appointed me to serve as one of its members. The Commission will study ways that we can help Hispanics benefit from federal education programs.

We also need a Patient's Bill of Rights that helps people get proper care and holds their HMOs accountable. We need to ensure the solvency of Medicare for this generation and those to come. We need to pass a comprehensive national energy plan... and the President's plan to encourage the good work of faith-based groups and others who provide social services in our communities.

We need all of these things, and there is no reason to think that we should not have them. And the Hispanic community can have a tremendous voice in making this happen.

Which brings me to a very old fable...

A long time ago in a small village lived a very wise old man. A boy in the town didn't like the wise man and decided to trick him. So he caught a small bird and, cupping it in his hands, took it to the wise man.

"Is this bird alive or dead?" he asked.

If the wise man answered that the bird was alive, the young boy planned to give it a quick squeeze and open his hands to show the bird was dead. If the wise man said that the bird was dead, he would open his hands and let the bird fly away.

"Is this bird alive or dead?" he asked.

The old man looked deep into the young man's eyes and replied, "It is whatever you want it to be. Its destiny, my son, is in your hands."

This is where we find ourselves in 2001. As Hispanics in this country, we have achieved great things. We have the strength in numbers we never had before. We have the voice we never had before. And now... our destiny is in our own hands. The next step is up to us.

I urge you - as individuals and as members of the Hispanic National Bar Association - to speak out and make a difference for Hispanic families. You can have a tremendous impact by standing up for the things you believe in... by working with President Bush to encourage Congress to take up and pass Hispanic priorities. There is no certainty that you will succeed. But you will certainly not succeed if you do not make the attempt.

In pursuing our destiny, I urge you to be bold.

Thank you for the opportunity to speak with you this afternoon.

Content Archived: March 12, 2010

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