WASHINGTON– Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack today accepted the Federal Agency of the Year award from the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) and delivered remarks at the organization’s 87th Annual National Convention. This award recognizes USDA’s commitment to civil rights and equal opportunity under the Obama Administration.
Secretary Vilsack: Ah, Luis [Clemente], thank you very, very, much for that kind introduction. On the way in, Luis shared with me that it was his 50th birthday, so I thought back to 1966 – that was the year that his father [Roberto Clemente] was Most Valuable Player. Now, that’s what I remember, but of course Luis remembers being born that year.
Ladies and gentlemen, I am absolutely honored to be here today. And I am thrilled to accept, on behalf of the hardworking people at the United States Department of Agriculture, this acknowledgement of the work that we have done in civil rights for Hispanic and Latino employees and individuals who receive services from USDA. As I thought about the receipt of this award, I really think it is the Department of Agriculture, and me personally, who should be giving LULAC an award.
It was not long ago that representatives from LULAC came to my office, encouraging the Department of Agriculture to turn a page in its sordid history in civil rights. It was LULAC advocating on behalf of Hispanic and Latinos to encourage us to understand the power of diversity; the opportunity that it created for us to be a more functioning and efficient USDA. They ask us to understand and to consider the importance of outreach. To encourage more young people to participate in USDA activities, to look for employment opportunities. Jeff Prieto, my general counsel; Oscar Gonzales, who runs our efforts of farm loans in the Farm Service Agency in the state of California – the number one agricultural state; Ed Avalos, who has been Under Secretary of Marketing and Regulatory Programs for the entire time of this Administration; Al Almanza of our food safety efforts—are friends, they are people that have provided me advice and counsel as we look for opportunities to expand.
And we have seen, over the course of the last several years, a remarkable increase in the number of people working at USDA and that has resulted in those individuals who come from a wide variety of backgrounds sharing their stories and their struggles, which has made this department more sensitive and more caring.
We have looked at the opportunities to create better housing for farmworkers. Today, we are announcing, for example, $26 million of additional resources for farmworker housing. That may not seem like a large effort, but I will tell you that prior to President Obama being president, prior to my taking the Secretary’s office, there had never been a representative of the United Farmworkers Union invited to USDA. There had never been anyone, including Cesar Chavez, who had been in the USDA building in the history of the farmworker effort. We changed that. We wanted to be a department that worked with those who work for us. And I will tell you, this is personal to me.
My son and I went to McAllen, Texas a number of years ago to work with migrant farmworkers and their families to build homes. Ladies and gentlemen, I’ll tell you that I have had experiences with poverty before, but never like that experience where we lived in the homes of those who we were trying to help – homes that were in need of incredible repair. The home we lived in had an 80-year-old grandfather taking care of a 12-year-old granddaughter – probably, it was the other way around. It was an incredibly difficult place, obviously in need of amazing repair. It taught me a lesson –never to take for granted the work of those who toil in the fields, who make life better for us – to always look for ways in which we can make life better for them.
That’s why it’s important not only to advocate for expanded farmworker housing, to look for ways to provide additional resources for Hispanic-serving institutions, to create internship programs for young people who are Latino and Hispanic who want to be part of the USDA experience, developing loan programs for socially disadvantaged farmers, as we have; but it is also important for the United States Department of Agriculture and those who work in agriculture to be strong proponents, strong advocates, as LULAC has been, for us once and for all, finally fixing a broken immigration system to make sure that we honor the work that is being done that has provided us this incredible array of food that we enjoy on a daily basis.
Let me finish by simply saying one other thing. This has been an incredible experience for me as an individual. I have learned so much from those who work at USDA about the power, creativity and innovation that comes with diversity and a diverse workforce. It means a lot to me because I started out life in an orphanage in Pittsburgh. I was adopted into a family, and I don’t know what my heritage or background is. When I speak to a group like this I say, ‘well maybe I am Latino, who knows.’ I would certainly be proud to be, if you want me; I would be happy to be part of it. I’ve got a daughter-in-law who’s a Latina and a one-year-old grandson who’s Latino, so it’s part of the family. It’s part of who we are.
Here’s what I’ve learned: I’ve learned to be proud of an America that is accepting. I’ve learned to be proud of an America that understands the power of those who come to our shores with a hope and a dream for a better life for themselves and their families. I’m proud of an America that has the strength of being opening and welcoming. I’m proud of an America that gives rise to organizations like LULAC, that continues to press the case for a federal government, for federal agencies, for our country to be open to diversity; to be open to the sharing of stories; to understand the struggles of those who have come up the hard way; to create a better level of understanding so that over time we can build a trusting relationship that will empower USDA, the federal government and the United States of America.
That is why I’m here today – to thank you for this award, but to thank you more importantly for the lessons that you have taught me as a person about the power of diversity, and the extraordinary work that’s now being done at USDA that will continue to be done for generations now on because of LULAC’s advocacy and because of its voice in suggesting that it’s in our collective best interest to embrace diversity. And we have at USDA, and we will continue. Thank you and God bless.