Remarks at a White House Luncheon for Representatives of the Hispanic Community

September 16, 1981

Thank you very much, and buenas tardes. I had to say that because the reason I was late today -- and I apologize to all of you -- is because I had a very distinguished visitor in the office. And he had a presentation to make, and it did run over the time, but it was the Patriarch of Antioch -- I'm trying to think again exactly what his title is -- but of the Maronite Christian people in Lebanon. It was fascinating, the story that he was telling. But what fascinated me the most was that he conducted the almost 30 minutes of message to me in our language, in English, and he had simply just sat down and learned English in order to make this trip. And I had to confess that if I was going to Lebanon -- [laughter] -- I couldn't do what he did. But anyway, it couldn't be interrupted, so I was late.

But as a Californian, it's a special pleasure for me to welcome you here to the White House. And I know it probably wouldn't be technically proper for me to say mi casa es su casa, because this is already su casa -- [laughter] -- I just am a temporary tenant here. But all of us from the West have a special place in our hearts for Hispanic culture. Incidentally, as long as I was talking about language, the day after tomorrow, I'm going to be speaking to an audience in Denver, Colorado, and I was going to tell them a little story that happened to deal with a visit that, when I was Governor of California, I made to Mexico on behalf of the then administration in Washington.

I made a speech, and I sat down to rather unenthusiastic and scattered applause, and I was a little embarrassed; I didn't know that I might have said that was wrong, and I was doubly embarrassed when the next man up, speaking in Spanish which I didn't understand, was getting enthusiastic applause every other sentence. So to hide my embarrassment I was clapping before anyone else and clapping after everyone else had finished, until our ambassador leaned over to me and said, ``I wouldn't do that if I were you -- he is interpreting your speech.'' [Laughter]

But coming from the West and having Hispanic culture in our hearts, it's so much a tradition in the Southwest that moving here to Washington was a bit of a culture shock. I understand that whenever there's Federal business to be done in any of the Southwestern States there is fierce competition among the Californians on my staff to get the assignment. It has something to do with enchiladas and refried beans and the fact that you don't just get those every day in Washington, D.C. In fact, I don't know where you can get them. Somebody, I'm sure, will tell me there is a place when I leave here.

But seriously, all of this has given me a deep appreciation for Hispanic culture, including its music, food, and qualities, but more than that, the qualities of character that it engenders, especially the sense of personal honor and integrity.

In the past election, I talked about five important values -- family, neighborhood, work, peace, and freedom. Campaigning in Hispanic areas, I never felt more comfortable about those values. During the last two decades, when our traditions and values were under attack as never before, Hispanic Americans held firm to their beliefs like a solid rock amidst a stormy sea. They demonstrated a commitment to family, a reverence for God, as well as the pride and self-respect that comes from hard work.

Today, all of us are rediscovering those values, but the Hispanic community never lost them. And this dedication is beginning to bear fruit. Progress made by Hispanics can be described as nothing less than phenomenal. After years of adversity and, yes, discrimination, there is no doubt that Hispanics are taking their rightful place in American society. In my own administration, they're playing an invaluable role. Eighty Hispanics have already received appointments at all levels, and 18 of them in major positions. And I'm happy to say in looking back over the records to see how we're doing, that these first few months tops anything that has happened in the entire administrations that have preceded us. But across this land, in the private sector you're making your way into positions of influence and leadership. And all of this is a tremendous source of pride for a people that have worked so hard to overcome the obstacles before them.

A most admirable quality is the sense of honor and duty that is rooted so firmly in that culture. Few others can claim the patriotism demonstrated by our Hispanic citizens. Consistent with this, they've received awards for heroism and bravery far in excess to their proportion of the population. Two of my first ceremonial functions as President were, interestingly enough, directly related to heroism of Hispanic Americans.

First, I was honored to welcome back the hostages from Iran, and two of the Marines had been especially heroic. Both of them were Hispanic Americans. One of them, Jimmy Lopez, is remembered not only for risking his life to help several Embassy employees escape but also for his spirit of defiance in captivity. Before they left to come home, he wrote on his cell wall, in Spanish, which the Iranians did not understand: ``Viva la roja, blanca, y azul.'' [Long live the red, white, and blue.] His devotion will not be forgotten.

And then on February 24th, we discovered that there had been neglected for several years the presentation of a Congressional Medal of Honor, given only for service above and beyond the call of duty. And it was to go to a brave man, Master Sergeant Roy Benavidez, raised on a farm down near the border in Texas. His heroism in Vietnam earned him that highest award, the Congressional Medal of Honor, and I had the honor to present it to him. I had the honor to sit and visit with him for awhile about this, and let me just say a word or two about it. If you tried to put it in a television show, no one would believe it.

He was manning a desk when helicopters came in from an attempted rescue mission of a patrol surrounded by the enemy. The crews were shot up; the helicopters were shot up. They were readying others to go back in and try again. And he just walked away from his desk and climbed in the first helicopter, and he was the first man to -- he's the only man to drop down from the only helicopter to get in. And he went 75 yards through heavy fire to get to this patrol of 12 men, 4 then dead and 8 wounded. And one by one, he carried the 8 out through that fire -- wounded, shot four times. And after he'd been shot four times, he had to put down one of the men he was carrying and draw his bayonet and engage in hand-to-hand combat with a Vietnamese, who had clubbed him with a rifle and then was trying to stab him with a bayonet. And I think you would appreciate this when I tell you that he said, ``I know we're taught to pary the bayonet by shoving it aside.'' ``But,'' he said, ``you don't always think of that.'' [Laughter] And he said, ``So I grabbed it and held it against him.'' And in the sawing effort to get it loose, his left arm was totally disabled. But what I loved most of all was -- he had been shot, remember, four times when this happened -- he said to me, ``That's when I got mad.'' [Laughter]

Well, the proclamation that we celebrate today about the strength that the Hispanic people have given to this country -- all of this is based on the strength of character which I spoke of earlier. Recognizing this, I am proud to have proclaimed this ``National Hispanic Heritage Week.'' In doing so, I hope that all Americans will reflect on how lucky we are to have such a wonderful people as a part of our country and a part of ourselves.

I could confess something, and my people of my own background wouldn't hold it against me: I think that if the country were just left to us Anglos, it would be kind of dull. [Laughter]

Thank you all very much, and God bless you.

Note: The President spoke at 1:05 p.m. in the State Dining Room at the White House.