Salinas gave the keynote address to the entire university Sunday morning, was presented with an honorary doctorate, and spoke some words in Spanish to the parents of graduates. The student body is 40 percent Hispanic, and she felt the speech was well-received; several students thanked her afterward for addressing their parents in their native language. University leaders had encouraged her to say a few words in Spanish, she said; the school is a national leader in the number of Hispanic graduates it produces.
But when she spoke to the College of Communications in a separate ceremony later that morning, the reaction seemed quite different.
Salinas’ speech was well-received until it became a little too Latino-centric for some and blatantly anti-Trump. The Univision broadcaster began specifically congratulating Latino journalism graduates for what seemed like a large chunk of her speech. She then began speaking in Spanish … This left non-journalism grads and non-Latinos/non-Spanish speakers feeling excluded. Parents in the audience and even students in the ceremony began demanding Salinas switch to a more inclusive tone by shouting phrases such as, “What about us?!”
Tensions worsened as Salinas began offering advice to journalism students to use the tools of media to rebut political figures such as Donald Trump. That’s when folks began yelling things to Salinas such as, “Get off the stage!” and “Trash!”
On Tuesday, De La Cruz said she has gotten a mixed reaction to what she wrote, with some who were in the audience saying they didn’t feel any tension or hostility from the crowd, and others who appreciated her writing about a very awkward moment.
“I would say it was tense throughout the speech,” De La Cruz said. “I looked around and a lot of graduates were visibly upset — some were muttering criticisms.
“There were probably hundreds of graduates there, so I can’t speak for everyone there,” she noted, “but definitely … the row where I was seated there were upset people and you could hear heckling from the crowd.”
On Tuesday evening, a spokesman for the university wrote in an email, “I did not attend the ceremony for our College of Communications, but I am aware that some in attendance had concerns about comments made by Maria Elena Salinas.
“We believe that higher education thrives when diverse perspectives are shared and discussed, including views expressed by guest speakers. The University’s inclusive environment demands that an array of viewpoints be voiced, and that resulting discourse is honored and supported. It is our hope that as graduating Titans continue to celebrate their well-earned success, an openness to diverse ideas stays with them for a lifetime.”
Trump’s campaign rhetoric about building a wall along the Mexican border to stop illegal immigration and other blunt comments — such as saying Mexican and Central American immigrants are bringing drugs, murder, and rape to the United States — have made him a divisive figure. Supporters welcome his ideas as straight talk, and opponents hear bigotry.
A spokeswoman for the Trump campaign did not immediately respond to a request for comment Tuesday.
Salinas said Tuesday that she could hear some yelling but she didn’t know what the people were saying. A student told her later that some were upset. She said the dean of the college told her beforehand that they had just started a student-run Spanish-language newscast, and that students would love it if she spoke Spanish. She only spoke for a few minutes, and switched to Spanish briefly to encourage students interested in going into Spanish-language media and to tell them she has a scholarship for them, and the rest of the remarks were to all students, she said.
In a video, a varied response can be heard from the crowd.
Salinas said: “… they blame us so much for so many things, that now they’re even blaming us, the media, for creating Donald Trump. Imagine that.” Yells can be heard from the crowd. “Isn’t that terrible? But we didn’t, right? Who did it?” she asked rhetorically. “I don’t know. Who did it? But they’re to blame.”
More yelling can be heard.
“If you allow me to say a few words in Spanish,” she said, and someone called out, “No!”
When she spoke in Spanish, wishing students well on their “future in this country,” her words were followed by cheers and applause. She expressed pride in their accomplishment, then switched back to English and said it’s wonderful to speak two languages, to more cheering.
Then she asked if they would allow her to do something important. Someone yelled, “No!” and another voice yelled, “Get off the stage!”
She took a selfie — stopping to urge the crowd to smile — and said she was “excited to take with me today this very positive energy from each and every one of you.” She closed with Spanish, to more applause and yelling.
She said Tuesday that she is sorry if a few students felt left out. “But that provoked other people to go on social media and say very nasty things,” Salinas said. “It’s a shame.”
Salinas wondered if she had given her speech two years ago, would there have been the same reaction,”or is it just that the atmosphere is so heavy right now?” she said. “What I have seen on Twitter is really going out of control. A lot of insults. That really does come from the presidential race. When you have people insulting you and #MakeAmericaGreatAgain, you have to wonder,” she said, referring to a Trump campaign slogan.
Since the speech, she said she has received a lot of ugly comments on social media, including people telling her to go back to Mexico (she was born and raised in California) and worse.
“It’s really sad that people can turn such a special moment into a racial war,” she said. “Because it seems like that is what has happened. I don’t think I insulted anyone by saying a few words in Spanish to the parents. The whole speech was directed to everyone. … I think the message is, we have to cool down the intolerance right now, we really do. This is ugly, what’s happening in the country.”
Salinas just did a two-part series on xenophobia that aired Thursday and Friday. “It all came down to the campaign, and the negative rhetoric of the campaign. … Two days after my xenophobia series aired, this happens. It’s really sad, what’s happened to our country.”
On social media, one graduate wrote that it wasn’t racism — they were upset that she was talking to just one ethnicity rather than addressing the whole student body.
Another said that students were annoyed that she was inserting divisive politics into a speech meant for all graduates.
One tweeted, “when @MariaESalinas is delivering a beautiful keynote speech at a graduation & racist white people r flipping her off & yelling obscenities.”
Salinas retweeted it with the comment, “That’s not the ‘America’ we want”.