Immigrant and youth issues propel USF student body president to claim political speech record

04/20/11 Kate Bradshaw
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Late this morning, University of South Florida student body president Cesar Hernandez wrapped up a record-breaking speech that lasted twenty-four hours. The aspiring doctor and politician hopes to catch the eye of lawmakers in Tallahassee and Washington.

"What struck me most forcibly about the NLF was the totality as a social revolution first and as a war second..."

It was a Mr. Smith Goes to Washington-style filibuster, but unlike the film, spectators wore flip-flops and carried iPods as they stood on the lawn of a sunny USF courtyard. Some, like Vincent, a sophomore, had no idea what was compelling Cesar Hernandez to speak nonstop for 24 hours.

"He's passionate about something and for him to be out here for 24 hours shows that he wants something done. He wants something. It proves his dedication."

Hernandez sat at a folding table next to an American flag and between two PA speakers. Strewn in the grass were Red Bull cans and empty water bottles. He spent much of his marathon speech reading from Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States. By around 9:30 in the morning, Hernandez had gotten to the Vietnam War. He mused aloud as he read about the My Lai massacre.

"...the same soldiers who had fed candy to the children before were shooting them. Pushed the prisoners into the ditch. There was an order to shoot (by) Lt. Cali, I can't remember the exact words. It was something like 'start firing'. Medloe turned to me and said 'shoot?, why don't you shoot?' He was crying. I said, 'I can't, I won't'. Then Lt. Cali and Medloe pointed rifles at the ditch and fired..."

Haitian-born USF student Donald Henry joked that he was there to get a free history lesson, and said he supported the wide range of issues on which Hernandez hoping to strike a dialogue.

"To support the movement for cutting tuition. In-state tuition for veterans, and immigration reform. I'm here for everything."

Last week Hernandez told WMNF the event is intended to urge state and local legislators to pass laws protecting higher education budgets, and even called on President Obama to come to speak at USF. Hernandez feels neglecting the younger generation will cause the US to fall even further behind.

"You have other countries like South Korea that are investing in their educational system. Can we say here in the United States that we're putting our new generation at the center of our government? I don't think we can honestly say that. We need to invest in us because we're going to be running the country soon and if you don't invest in us what are you going to be left with?"

Hernandez’s record-breaking speech ended at 11 a.m. After that, several USF students were planning to speak, one after another, for an additional 54 hours. Combined with Hernandez’s speech, that would constitute 78 hours, making it the longest team speech in history. Lauren Potts hoped to speak about the genocides in Rwanda and Darfur.

"I really support everything Cesar's doing and actually just got back from Washington and I was at the Capitol building and it really does have to begin with a grass roots movement like this or no change will be enacted at the policy level."

Potts said she’s alarmed at how indifferent much of the student body appears to be toward state and federal budgets that ax higher education funding.

"One of the saddest things is the apathy because all this legislation affects us, as students, and most of us don't care. Then we complain later on when the laws get enacted and to me that's just very backwards."

She said apathy was also the reason the reason she chose to speak about African genocides tonight.

"The government basically didn't have any oil or economic interest in Rwanda so we let it happen. I was shocked by the sheer number of students that don't know anything about that event."

Student body vice president Spencer Montgomery said it’s pretty clear state and federal lawmakers don’t really care much about colleges and universities. Congress is poised to eliminate federal Pell grants for summer classes, and the state Legislature is axing a substantial chunk of higher education money from the state budget. Montgomery said this could make Florida universities less competitive in the long term.

"I know they've been getting 15 percent budget cuts and the only way to even that out is through raising tuition. You know, we still want a good product of education but we don't want to pay as much. Florida, right now, is really low cost of education compared to the other states and it's really important for Florida to stay competitive in education to keep those low costs."

As the 11 o’clock hour got closer, Hernandez said he was feeling all right despite having been awake for more than 24 hours, and that he hopes the record speech will inspire others to speak up.

"Like I told the students, this is not a show, it's not really about me. It just 'hey, if Cesar could do 24 hours the least I could do is give 10 or 15 minutes.' So the students could start speaking after me."

The team speech in the courtyard of USF’s Cooper Hall is expected to last through Friday afternoon.

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