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Michelle Obama Tests Her Appeal to Mexico's Young People

5 years ago
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MEXICO CITY -- If the young people listening could not find inspiration in her life, then First Lady Michelle Obama cited others in her speech here Wednesday -- Benito Juarez, Abraham Lincoln, Joan of Arc, Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela and even Mother Teresa -- to make the point that people can make a difference.
Mrs. Obama's roll call came on the second day of her first solo international swing, and she was speaking -- slowly -- to some 3,000 area high school and college students invited to the speech at the Universidad Iberoamericana, a Jesuit institution in the Santa Fe part of town that is home to new high rises with corporate offices and condos.
Watching Mrs. Obama from the front row was Mexican First Lady Margarita Zavala.
Mrs. Obama was introduced by Jose Jaime Enrique Reynosa, a second-year law student at Ibero who was stirred by Mrs. Obama's biography: "It motivates us that despite negative circumstances, Michelle Obama, who came from a humble household on the South Side of Chicago, succeeded through charisma and determination," he said in Spanish before Mrs. Obama strode to the stage. "We are motivated because, despite being a woman and a minority, Michelle Obama rose to the top." Mrs. Obama came to the campus, he said, "to bring us inspiration."
And that she did.
She exported to Mexico her message (and President Obama's), honed in the U.S., that "leaders and government" alone cannot solve all of society's problems.
"Ordinary citizens must share the responsibility as well -– and that includes young people," Mrs. Obama said.
"And it's not just enough just to change laws and policies. We must also change our perceptions about who can and who can't succeed. We have to confront the wrong and outdated ideas and assumptions that only certain young people deserve to be educated; or that girls aren't as capable as boys; or that some young people are less worthy of opportunities because of their religion or disability or ethnicity or socioeconomic class -- because we have seen time and again that potential can be found in some of the most unlikely places.
"My husband and I are living proof of that. We both came from very modest backgrounds. Our families were not wealthy. My parents never went to college. My husband never really knew his father and was raised by a young single mother who struggled to pay the bills.
"And like many kids with backgrounds like ours, we faced challenges: the sting of low expectation; the constant doubts about whether we could succeed, and whether we were even worth the effort. You see, back when we were young, no one could have predicted that one day we would become the President and First Lady of the United States of America," she said.
The crowd, squeezed into a courtyard decorated with giant U.S. and Mexican flags, did not react much, probably because of a language barrier. Anticipating that problem, the White House brought in big-screen TVs that ran Spanish crawls over Mrs. Obama's image. The crowd really stirred only when Mrs. Obama tried out a few words of Spanish -- "Mexico, por supuesto!" ("Mexico, by all means!") was the line that got her biggest, and maybe only, applause.
When Mrs. Obama wound up her speech with "Si, se puede -- yes, we can," the rousing slogan of the Obama 2008 presidential campaign that always brought the house down (and a line Obama borrowed from Cesear Chavez), well, it just didn't translate here the way it did back home.
This was the launch of Mrs. Obama's international "youth engagement" agenda, and where it's going, what it is about, what she wants kids to do, even she is not sure. After the speech, she did a media blitz: brief interviews with ABC, CBS, NBC and CNN. (Fox News did not send a reporter to cover her on this trip.) After the broadcasters, Mrs. Obama then settled in for about 20 minutes with six print reporters, including me.
Taking questions from print reporters for daily outlets is very rare for Mrs. Obama; this was only the third since she has been first lady that she faced a mini-press conference.
Asked how she was going to develop her youth agenda, she said, "We're thinking it through. And it's going to look different and feel different everywhere we go, because the challenges are similar, but there's a unique voice and a unique sort of tone in every country and every nation.
"So . . . given the pretty active domestic agenda that I have and still lots to do on 'Let's Move' and with military spouses, we're stilling rolling out some of the initiatives there. A lot of it is going to be timing and how to coordinate that with the joint travel that I do with the president."
Thus far, Mrs. Obama has not had any independent agenda-setting chores when she's made foreign trips with her husband. Now that will change, she said.
"I'm going to be looking for ways to engage with schools, with young people, as an offshoot of what we're doing when we travel together. But . . . we're going to need to flesh it out."
What Mrs. Obama did not address in her speech was the biggest issue between the two nations, escalating drug violence, which has its greatest impact on Mexican youths under 30. She did discuss drug demand reduction programs in a private meeting with Mrs. Zavala at Los Pinos, the presidential residence.
Some 23,000 people have been killed in drug war-related incidents since December 2006 as drug cartels battle it out on the Mexican side of the border.
I asked about drug issue in the interview and Mrs. Obama said she is more focused on the overview than on specific programs to cure addictions and drug demand.
"I think that the issue of youth empowerment, of education, of opportunities, of choices is -- it is a big-picture approach," Mrs. Obama said.
"But ultimately, if young people don't have an alternative in their lives, whatever country they're in, they are going to choose drugs. They're going to choose drug trade. That's the way they're going to make money. If that's what they know, that's what they're going to choose.
"But if there are other alternatives, my experience shows that young people will make different decisions. . . . And we have to ensure that that's the case for more and more young people, regardless of where they live and what their race is and what their gender is."
Reactions to Mrs. Obama's speech varied among those in the audience, but all were upbeat.
Silvya Ramirez Alcantara, 16, a second-year student at a culinary high school in Mexico City, said, "It's an honor that she came to this country because she's an important celebrity. It's a privilege for Mexico because we know that the United States is a first-world country. Her coming is like saying that we are meant to understand there's an alliance."
Jimena Kuri, 18, is the niece of Mrs. Zavala and in her final year at Oxford Preparatory, a private high school in Mexico City. She was invited by her aunt to attend the speech.
"I would have liked to have heard her talk about the advancement of women and programs for young people in the United States and what she proposes for Mexico. On the subject of drug violence, it would really be valuable to hear about the position of the First Lady of the United States, and what suggestions she has to combat it," Kuri said.
Ana Cecilia Septien, 24, studying education theory at Ibero, said, "I liked the speech very much. I like to help others, that's what I'm studying pedagogy, and I felt like it was for me.
"It's good to have this kind of speech in order for the students to hear what they have to do, because there are many of us that want to do something, but the majority of the students, they're more selfish and only want to earn money and they are not concerned by others. I would have liked to have heard alternatives or suggestions of things to do, but since she's not from here, it would have sounded like she was telling us what to do, which wouldn't be right."
Luis Fernando Barrios, 20, an international relations major at Ibero, said, "We didn't know what she was going to focus her speech on, but I loved her way of speaking, and I was very satisfied with what she told us. It was a rather solid speech that took up themes in a manner that was understandable for the audience. The majority of us are young people, and she used words we'd understand. I also really appreciated that she tried to speak a little Spanish."
Mrs. Obama did seem to touch Maria Carmen Fernandez, 19, an international relations major at Ibero.
"It really was a very motivational speech that left us motivated to make things better for ourselves, to keep trying. I really appreciated her words. She involved us in what she was saying by using language suitable for young people, and she treated us like we are nations that are friends, sisters who should work together to progress."

Contributing: Emily Schmall

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