By AUDREY FISCHER
If the validation of a great idea is its sustainability and continuity, then the Peace Corps is truly a great idea. So said Gaddi H. Vasquez, the 16th director of the U.S. Peace Corps and the first Hispanic American to hold the office in its 42-year history. Vasquez delivered the closing keynote address for the Library's 2003 Hispanic Heritage Month celebration.
"The Peace Corps puts a face on America," said Vasquez. But it is not always the face that people in its host countries expect to see.
"You don't look like an American," Vasquez said, quoting one such acquaintance, referring to his brown skin. But as a member of the largest and fastest growing ethnic minority in America, Vasquez is truly representative of America.
Vasquez discussed his "journey" from Texas—as the son of migrant farm workers of Mexican descent—to Washington. He credited family and teachers for his success.
Vasquez said that today's parents, himself included, "use psychology, mediation, self help books, and even incentive packages to motivate their children." In contrast, he recalled the incentive of a parent coming at him with a tree branch. "I didn't consider myself abused but rather 'highly motivated,'" he joked.
"If you work hard and chase your dreams, you can achieve," said Vasquez, recalling how he was raised. "My mother said, 'You are not going to repeat our lives. You are going to make something of yourself, and you are going to do that by education.'"
At first that route did not seem promising. But one seventh grade teacher took him under her wing and involved him in a speech contest. At first an unlikely candidate, Vasquez went on to become the California state oratorical champion in a contest sponsored by the American Legion. This qualified him for several scholarships.
"That experience taught me that if I'm going to be somebody, I have to desire more than simply standing by and being a spectator," said Vasquez. "To be successful, I had to be a participant."
As head of one of the nation's largest volunteer agencies, Vasquez practices what he preaches. Along with other Latino leaders, he established the Hispanic Education Endowment Fund in Orange City, Calif. Now in its tenth year, the organization has raised $2 million to meet the educational needs of this underserved population.
He challenged the audience to consider joining the Peace Corps when
"I know a retired couple, now on their fifth tour of service—a total of ten years—who call the Peace Corps their RV."
He also challenged the audience to mentor.
"To whom much has been given, much is required," said Vasquez. "I wouldn't be here today if not for my teachers. As a nation, we can do better. We must take ownership and reach out with the passion that the times require."
Audrey Fischer is a public affairs specialist in the Public Affairs Office.