University of Vermont

Ceremonial Events - Commencement

Estava_Commencement Address 2006

Gustavo Estava Commencement Speech

"Openness to Surprise and Hospitality"

photo of Gustavo Estava giving Commencement SpeechPresident Fogel, members of the faculty, students, honored guests, and you, particularly you, all graduates leaving behind you today the condition of professional students:

First and foremost, I want to express my deepest gratitude for the great privilege of addressing you at this commencement ceremony. I feel honored. Equally, I find myself totally surprised. That at seventy I should receive this invitation all the way from the distant land of Vermont is an amazing surprise for me.

As some of you know, I live and work at the grassroots in a small unknown Indigenous village in the poorest province of México. My writings are usually classified as unconventional, because they celebrate peoples who are escaping education or economic development; or, because I explain how human rights have become, for many, the Trojan horse for their own recolonization; or because I see the nation state as a structure of domination and control. I am a radical critic of representative democracy. I am closely involved with radical social movements, like the Zapatistas, posing the strongest challenge not only to the Mexican nation state, but to the governments, corporations and institutions promoting globalization and neoliberalism.

Given these facts about my life and work, for your great university, so far away from my home, to bring me this honor is not only a total surprise. It is, for me, a courageous and dignified political statement. For you to host me today, a man swimming and working against the current, is a very important expression of Vermonter hospitality in an inhospitable world: where instead of hosting the otherness of the other, radical cultural differences are feared and flattened by nationalism, fundamentalism and globalization.


I learned the art of hospitality and the importance of being open to surprise from my unschooled neighbors, from campesinos and urban marginal as well as Indigenous peoples... all those with whom I have allied my life and work at the grassroots. Living in the real world, learning from it, outside the bubble of the classroom, untutored peasants have shown me how the good life requires an openness to surprise...and hospitality to the otherness of the other.

In my world, learning and living are the same thing. The young live and learn with their parents, their extended families and the community, in their daily lives. They are raised by plants and animals as much as by their human elders. This presents a radical contrast with modern education.

One of the really strange and paradoxical contradictions of modern society is the way we educate our young. In order to prepare them for life, we take them away from life. For twenty years, we enclose them in the most peculiar bubble of industrial classrooms, where they learn about the world, not from the world. We assume that we must protect their learning process by keeping them out of the real world with all its turbulence and dangers. We reduce the world to abstract, virtual images; to information; to theoretical speculation; to so called knowledge. Imprisoned in the unreal classroom for decades, the real world, in a very deep sense, becomes alien to them in their lives.

This fundamental contradiction of the educational system is deliberately hidden with lots of tricks: case studies, field trips, study abroad programs... Service learning is now fashionable. "Experiential learning" was radically started by John Dewey, the most famous Vermonter educator and UVM graduate, more than a century ago, to resist the life-less and unreal classroom. Since the first time I heard the expression, I have been asking myself: Can any learning exist outside experience? If some learning is called experiential, what should we call the other kinds of learning? No matter how much we try to hide the fact, the bubble is there. Conventional students are trapped within it for over twenty years. You know this pretty well. This is your experience, your experiential learning!

And now, you are ready to pop open the bubble. Celebrating you, the university is telling all of its graduating class: Get out! Commence your life in the real world! This is the commencement of your life outside the bubble of the classroom and your beloved campus. You will thus enter into what my friend Chris Foraker calls the quarter of life crisis. It is more severe and of deeper consequences than the very well known mid-life crisis. Few people, however, talk about it.

Modern conventions reduced "crises" into something fearful. Chinese wisdom, in contrast, associates crises with both risk and opportunity. To dis-cover the opportunities ahead of you, you need to be fully aware of the risks...hospitable to them while fully open to surprise.

Today, your first adult crisis arrives in a very special moment of the world, now plagued with extreme uncertainties. I know that I know nothing about the future — except that it does not exist. This sensible observation is particularly pertinent in this moment in history when experts of every stripe offer global projections for the 21st century. But if someone pretends to know what will happen, it is only because he or she does not have enough information or because he or she is paid to pretend such anticipation. Because nobody really knows.

You took your first steps climbing the educational ladder in times of relative stability. Some certainties seemed certain. Full of expectations, you planned your studies towards this diploma, imagining the world awaiting you: full of opportunities for the new certified professional.

Fifty years ago, the educational system launched the revolution of increasing expectations: with courage, discipline, energy, sacrifice and ambition, unending progress would bring unending material goods. Today, instead, reality is imposing decreasing expectations, frustration, accommodation, and desperation in many. The survivor compulsion - to escape the condition of losers by winning at any social cost - is by now well known.

When I began my professional studies, three jobs were already waiting for me. Before we ended our studies, we got excellent positions and income. Not any more. A recent study by the Ministry of Education revealed that only 8% of all the graduates of Mexican universities will be able to work in the field they studied. Only eight of every hundred. Imagine the frustration and anger of a lawyer driving a taxi or an engineer working at a ticket counter.

The figure is higher in the US, and even more so for Vermont. In a recent survey of UVM alumni, two-fifths of its graduates got jobs closely related to what they studied. That means that some of you, perhaps many of you, will not be able to find a job in your own field. You will be certified professionals in something you are not allowed to practice.

This plain fact may arouse Prozac anxiety and despair in millions. You may feel as if I have just told you that these last 20 years of your life have been wasted, but this is not what I want to share with you. Looking back at a rapidly changing world, I feel full of hope for young people. Each and every one of us can learn to apply our knowledge and skills in useful, good work for the rest of our lives. Instead of following conventional, expert-certified, highways towards social and personal progress, more and more people are creating their own paths by walking them, reclaiming their own definition of the good life and creating the conditions to live it.

"Suppose you had the revolution you are talking and dreaming about", Paul Goodman once said. Whatever revolution: social, economic, cultural, moral, technological revolution... "Suppose your side had won, and you had the kind of society you wanted. How would you live, you personally, in that society? Start living that way now! Whatever you do then, do it now. When you run up against obstacles, people, or things that won't let you live that way, then begin to think about how to get over or around or under that obstacle, or how to push it out of the way, and your politics will be concrete and practical".

I am learning that many people in Vermont, as well as all over the world are instinctively following Goodman varieties of wisdom. Millions are rising to the challenge brilliantly formulated by James Hightower ten years ago: "Our historic challenge is to add, stir, spice, knead, and otherwise blend ourselves together, over time, into a genuine people's political power".


Your graduation comes at a time when we can genuinely "celebrate our joint power to provide all human beings with the food, clothing and shelter they need to delight in living", We can "join together joyfully to celebrate our awareness that we can make our life today the shape of tomorrow's future."

I am quoting Ivan Illich, the central thinker of my generation. His radical critique of economic society, his timely revelation of the counterproductivity of most modern institutions, changed the life of millions of people around the world. Literally. He was the light in a time of darkness, urging us to go beyond development, towards hospitality, in recreating contemporary arts of living the good life. Illich offered us all the hope of a convivial world, in which these can be recovered and recreated. Illich lived Gandhi's suggestion: be the change you wish for the world. Illich did this by keeping himself open to surprise. This sounds easy, but goes radically counter to the engineering of the modern mind: for people trained to be achievers, keeping up with, or better yet, outsmarting the Joneses.

Peasants continue to teach me, as did Illich, how to escape expectations in this time of uncertainty. Campesinos teach me how to nourish hope. Abrigo esperanzas, we say in Spanish. Hope is not possessed. Instead, it is nourished; and, in turn, nourishes you; protects you. Traditions of hope offer us an alternative to modern expectations. Hope is a virtue. Expectation, a modern vice. Modernity starts with a break with the past, to escape towards the future. Instead of breaking today with the past, full of expectations about the future, with the arrogance of pretending that you know it and you can control it, you can explore in your own past the sources of inspiration and hope, and fully open your mind and heart to surprise; embracing it as your friend.

The Mahabharata, the ancient sacred book of India, places hope at the beginning of all time.

Whence, however, does Hope arise? Hope is our sheet-anchor. When hope is destroyed, great grief follows which, forsooth, is almost equal to death itself...I think that Hope is bigger than a mountain with all its trees. Or, perhaps, it is bigger than the sky itself. Or, perhaps…it is really immeasurable... highly difficult of being understood and equally difficult of being conquered.

When hope is destroyed, the grief is like your own death...

Thirty years ago Ivan Illich wrote, towards the end of the book that made him famous, Deschooling society:

The Promethean ethos has now eclipsed hope. Survival of the human race depends on its rediscovery as a social force.

This is exactly what the Zapatistas have done. They reclaimed the gift of hope and imagination. It is today our most vital, vibrant and powerful social force...


Immigration into the US is currently hotly contested. But it is not a new phenomenon. Mayas, living in the south of what today is México and in Central America, came to visit their Navajo friends of the North a thousand years ago. It was a walking adventure of seven years, during which the women were having their babies en route. They had no means of transportation. They brought some gifts, but no products. It was not trade or tourism, but an intense desire for cultural exchange.

The interaction among our peoples of North and South is ancient and has been very intense. Many Mexicans now have family and friends in the United States. From a tenth to a fifth of our people are said to live here. That contributes to explain some of our reactions. As you know, after 9/11 many Americans were trapped abroad: they could not come back to the United States for many days. In Oaxaca, in those days, we started to stop in the street anyone with an American look, to embrace him or her and express our solidarity. Something special happened: all the hotels, hostels and homestays gave room and board free of charge to those Americans trapped in Oaxaca. As long as necessary.

In these years, after 9/11, we all have heard many sensible calls to tolerance, stimulated by unacceptable reactions of intolerance. But despite the olive branch, this call for tolerance has also the thorny pricks of intolerance. Tolerance stings. It wounds.

Tolerance can never embrace. It suffers differences, instead of being hospitable to them. Though more gentle or discreet, tolerance is merely a different form of intolerance. "Toleration," Goethe observed, "ought in reality to be merely a transitory mood. It must lead to recognition. To tolerate is to insult".

Hospitality, in contrast, embraces the radical pluralism of reality: the incommensurable otherness of the other. Hospitality means opening your arms and the doors of your heart to those who are radically different.

As never before, the presence of the other is now very close to each of us. The reality of our daily life makes it impossible to avoid mutual intertwining, intermeddling. The challenge of pluralism is thus urgently posed to every one of us. Our current situation throws us into the arms of one another. Are we going to open our arms hospitably or are we going to arm ourselves?

In these days, it is legitimate, even imperative, to reflect on the economic interests defining the policies of globaphiliac governments or how corporate rather than peoples' interests determine them. Globaphiliacs continue to maintain that everything small, local, private, personal, natural, good and beautiful must be sacrificed in the interest of the so called “free market.” Great corporations will bring unprecedented security and happiness to "the many", economists proclaim. This notion of political economy demands a political faith for which any justification is impossible.

If fear, weakness, and hate packed in a set of beliefs are the breeding grounds for terrorism, we need their opposite. Through our hope, strength, and love, we can create the soil for growing neighborliness.

How to be good neighbors? How do we extend hospitality? How do we embrace the other?

The time is ripe for recovering good sense, common sense. And what does it mean to say we need to recover common sense? Looking at its root meaning, we discover that common sense literally means the sense one has in community. With common sense and a hospitable spirit, we can once again celebrate each other and express our common rejections, our common NOs creating room for diverse, even incommensurable "YES'S." Well rooted in our own places, we can be hospitable to the radical otherness of the other, instead of constructing enemies.

Yes, friendship is our only hope today. Applied to nation states or to abstract entities, friendship becomes its negation: a flag defining allies before a common enemy, a pretext to define enmity. At home, in our own places, it is time to escape enmities; to express affection, mutual sympathy; thereby recreating a world in which many worlds can be embraced.

A world embracing hospitality, not mere tolerance.

A world localized, not globalized. Localization is our alternative to both globalization and localism.

A world where hope replaces the expectations generated by globaphiliac experts.

A world of common sense, the sense you have in community and which is
lost in the global economy.


Twenty five years ago I organized, in México, a campaign against diplomas. I wanted to oppose the discrimination against the people with no diplomas: the majority of people on Earth, whose wisdom and skills are devalued or marginalized because they do not have the social recognition of credentials.

Here I am, at the tail end of my life, visiting Vermont to receive a diploma and to participate in this magnificent ritual granting diplomas to a new generation of graduates. I trust I am not betraying my convictions or changing sides.

I am here to celebrate with you our common hope, which has taken the place of a future alienated by ideologies or illusory expectations; to celebrate with you the opportunity to live your own life, in your own way, escaping the standard prescriptions of the market or the state.

I am Mexican, as perhaps you have noticed. You have been suffering with patience my Spanglish and my Mexicanese; and not the threatening voice of Samuel Huntington, the conservative political scientist, proclaiming not far from here that we, Mexicans, not Bin Laden, are the main threat for the United States. You are not succumbing to his alarming announcements of panic: the Mexicans are coming! Voices like his are building walls of cement and hate and mistrust between our peoples.

President Fogel, friends: I am taking back to my home, to that little village in the south of México, your magnificent gift of love and hospitality. Back there, I hope to share with my friends, at the grassroots, what I am breathing here in Burlington. The Vermont air of which I breathe deeply today expresses of course the treasure of the Green Mountains, but also the spirit and courage of hospitable people, well affirmed in their cultural and physical roots; peoples who have the courage to challenge globaphiliacs like Wal-Mart.

Thank you for your gift: a magnificent source of hope and surprise in this stage of my life. Humbled, I embrace your gift: an unforgettable special lesson in surprise and hospitality.

Gustavo Estava Commencent Speech, Burlington, Vermont May 21, 2006

Last modified June 04 2006 10:37 AM

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