María Antonietta Berriozábal gives an address to OLLU graduates.
“Each of us shares the duty of creating a better world,” María Antonietta Berriozábal told new OLLU graduates Thursday. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

Activist and former City Councilwoman María Antonietta Berriozábal delayed her own college education after graduating from high school in 1959. She took a job as a secretary and supplemented her parents’ income so her sisters could go to Our Lady of the Lake University. She studied nights and 20 years later earned her bachelor’s degree in political science from the University of Texas at San Antonio.

On Thursday evening, the 78-year-old received an honorary doctorate from the school that her sisters went to, that she donated her City Council papers to, and for which she helped raise $2.8 million to improve the Sacred Heart Conventual Chapel.

University President Diane Melby said the doctorate of humane letters would make Berriozábal an official alumna of OLLU.

“This is a rare honor and one we reserve for those who have made a significant difference in our university and community,” Melby said.

Berriozábal grew up mere blocks away from OLLU, and said her parents instilled in her the belief that education was paramount.

“My father and mother had very limited education themselves, but they inspired their children to study hard in school,” she said. “[They wanted us] to have an easier life than they had had.”

Berriozábal’s parents were sharecroppers during a time where lynchings still happened in rural Texas, as well as signs that said “no dogs, no Mexicans.” Her father told her at a young age that God had given her a good head.

“[He said,] ‘Go to school, study. And when you complete your studies help your neighbor, particularly the one has less than you do,’” Berriozábal said. “Our gifts are to be used for others. It was the message of social justice and of service.”

Berriozábal has dedicated her life to social justice and service. She rose to distinction as the first Latina to be elected to City Council, serving as the District 1 representative from 1981 to 1991. She ran for mayor in 1991, narrowly losing in a runoff election to now-County Judge Nelson Wolff.

She continued be a champion for others, advocating for human rights, labor issues, and more. She recently organized a civil rights conference at OLLU last November that marked 50 years since the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights met at the university to examine the challenges Mexican-Americans of the Southwest faced. She also served on the mayor’s Housing Policy Task Force.

She warned that the world faces perilous challenges today – school shootings, income inequality, health and housing crises, climate change, and more.

“The light at the end of the tunnel is that, through our nation’s history, we have moved through difficult periods,” she said. “Each generation has met the challenges in their own unique way. … Your generation is becoming known for your generosity, independence, compassionate entrepreneurship, and creativity in finding new solutions to old problems.”

Berriozábal also took a moment to recognize Kendrick Castillo, the 18-year-old who stopped a shooter at a school in Colorado on Tuesday from killing more and gave his life up in the process, and Greta Thunberg, who at 16 has become one of the most well-known climate change advocates in the world. These two young people had the courage to change the world, she said.

“Each of us shares the duty of creating a better world,” she said. “The load is made lighter when many hands carry it.”

She urged graduates to examine their own lives and identities, as there is great power in knowing who you are and loving yourself.

OLLU graduates decorate their hats with inspiring messages.
Graduation candidates’ decorated mortar boards display a mélange of color and messaging. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

“Never give up that power by having anyone make you feel less because of your culture, language, race, ethnicity, religion, lifestyle, or anything else that people think different,” she said. “Our response should always be pride and certainty in who we are. Standing in that knowledge, we will have no need to take anything away from anyone else because of who they are.”

Berriozábal closed her address to the graduates with a blessing, wishing them a life filled with love, joy in service, and good health.

“May your lives be a gift to the world,” she said. “Class of Our Lady of the Lake University of 2019, adelante! Forward!”

Jackie Wang covered local government for the San Antonio Report.