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Secretary of Labor Thomas E. Perez
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Secretary of Labor Hilda L. Solis

Remarks for Secretary Hilda L. Solis
Peace Corps Hispanic Heritage Month Celebration
Washington, D.C.
Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Good morning. Buenos dias.

Thank you, Director Williams, for that introduction and for inviting me to be here with the Peace Corps to celebrate Hispanic Heritage Month.

All of us in the DOL community understand what a special year this is for the Peace Corps. For 50 years, your volunteers have gone out in the world as idealists and ambassadors, committed to making a difference.

1961 was an incredible year in American history. It was the year President Kennedy created this special organization, and it was the same year he challenged every American to "ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country."

That's one of my favorite quotes. I use it in a lot in my speeches. But maybe it's time for an update, because we're all living in a global village today. We're living in a time when events that happen outside of our borders have an enormous impact on our lives here in the United States. That's true whether we're talking about natural disasters in Japan, the debt crisis in Greece, drug wars in Mexico or the global HIV/AIDS epidemic.

If President Kennedy were still with us today, maybe he'd say: "Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for mankind."

Because we know that in the age of globalization and the Internet, national borders can't really separate us. We're connected — our cultures, our political systems, our economies, and our futures.

For me, Hispanic Heritage Month is a time to reflect on how far Latinos have come, but also on the challenges that still confront us. This past spring, I got to participate in an inspirational press conference on Capitol Hill. I joined members of Congress and the Latino community to endorse a plan to build a Smithsonian American Latino Museum on the National Mall.

It's true: Latinos have accomplished a lot here in the land of opportunity. Latinos are on the Supreme Court, in the President's cabinet, in Governors' mansions, and in the leadership of Congress. We're CEOs of Fortune 500 companies and leaders of the American labor movement. We've even seen a Latino farm worker become an astronaut. He went into outer space and Tweeted — in Spanish — about the world below.

For me, our success as American Latinos only sharpens our responsibility to help the millions who are still struggling. I know what that struggle feels like. I had a humble upbringing. I was raised by wonderful parents, who taught me the meaning of dignity, love and respect.

Growing up in the San Gabriel Valley in California, the air was not always fit to breath. We had a Superfund site, 17 gravel pits, and 5 polluted landfills — including one in the backyard of an elementary school. Meanwhile, Hollywood — and all the glamour that comes with it — was just a few miles away.

In area code 90210, there were zero landfills, zero gravel pits and zero chemical plants. As a child of the '70s, I remember feeling helpless seeing so many young men from my neighborhood go to Vietnam and never come home. I had a strong sense at a young age that there were haves and have-nots in this world.

My father taught me to channel my anger and energy into helping others. I was a good student in high school, but I didn't think about college. No one in my family ever had. In high school, one of my school's counselors told me I wasn't college material. He told me I was best suited for office work and suggested I become a secretary.

As it turns out, he was half right: I was suited to be a Secretary.

The Secretary of Labor!

After I went to college, I got my master's. For several years, I worked in a job helping other children from minority communities become the first in their families to go to college. That led me to want to make a difference on a bigger stage. So I ran for office and was elected to the California Assembly.

As a state legislator, I remembered all of my neighborhood friends who got sick breathing in that pollution and those toxic fumes in La Puente. So I wrote an environmental justice bill that would protect vulnerable communities against toxic chemicals being dumped in their back yards. We had to overcome a lot of entrenched interests. We even had to go around a Governor's veto. But we finally got our initiative put to the voters in a referendum, and we won!

It was the first environmental justice bill of its kind to become law in the United States. One of my life's great honors was becoming the first woman to be given the JFK "Profiles in Courage" award for enacting that law.

It was President Kennedy who said, "Our problems are man-made, therefore they can be solved by man. No problem of human destiny is beyond human beings." I believe those words with all of my heart.

During my career, I've made it a priority to fight for the rights of women and children. I know some of you have been involved in Peace Corps activities in Mexico. As a member of the House, I made a lot of noise about an injustice that took place in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico. I authored and passed a resolution condemning the senseless slaughter of more than 400 women in that town.

I knew that bilateral cooperation between the U.S. and Mexico was the only way to bring closure for the families of the victims. I was proud to put the issue on Congress' radar. I felt I had a moral responsibility not to stand idly by as brutal murders of women and girls happened in a city that was just minutes from the U.S. border.

My parents taught me that — to fight for vulnerable people in need. My father is of Mexican descent and my mother is Nicaraguan. I grew up in a home where both of my parents were union members.

They taught me the value of a hard day's work. My mother worked at a toy assembly plant and raised me and my six siblings. My father worked in a battery recycling plant and was a Teamsters shop steward.

When I was in ninth grade, my dad would come home at the end of the day and ask me to sit with him at our kitchen table. From his pockets, he would pull pieces of paper with writing in Spanish on them. They were notes given to him by his co-workers. There were all sorts of things scribbled on them: grievances about health and safety practices at the plant, questions about paychecks that didn't add up, and ideas about how to improve the productivity of the line.

He'd ask me to translate them into English for him. At first, I didn't understand what they were. When I asked, he explained: "Hilda, they are the voice of the workers." He told me the paper scraps started a conversation between the union and management. He told me it was a way to get them together "at the table." As the attacks on workers rights have carried on throughout the country, I've often recalled those talks with my father.

The recovery of our economy and our nation depends on good jobs that can support a family by increasing incomes, jobs that are safe and secure, and jobs that give workers a voice.

For me, that means all workers. Last year, I traveled to Central America and met with ambassadors from a number of Central American and Caribbean nations. We began a dialogue about how we can partner together to protect the rights of workers in Central America and North America.

In Nicaragua, where my mother grew up, I had the opportunity to meet with President Ortega. We discussed steps we could take to address poverty and protect the rights of children. During that visit, we announced Nicaragua's participation in DOL's "Better Work" initiative.

"Better Work" is our international program that inspects factories around the world, publishes the results, and helps factory managers comply with international labor rights. Suppliers improve working conditions in their factories — and international buyers shift orders to these factories because it safeguards their brands' reputations. As these factories grow, investment flows to participating countries and whole industries prosper.

Just yesterday, my International Labor Affairs Bureau announced $33 million for new projects to combat child labor. Our latest grants are focused on combating child labor in the Philippines' sugarcane industry and a project to safeguard children forced into domestic work across the globe.

No one has the right to threaten the health, education, and well-being of children by involving them in inappropriate work. Every child has the right to an education and a childhood free from exploitation. God-given potential is present in every child born into this world, no matter how poor and no matter his or her race, class, or geographical origin. It is our common responsibility to ensure that all children — everywhere in the world — be given the opportunity to realize that potential

Since 1995, the Department of Labor has funded over 250 projects to remove children from abusive work environments in 85 countries across the globe. We're proud of those numbers. And we're just as proud of our efforts here at home to fight exploitation of migrant workers.

Over the past year, we've signed partnerships with six Latin American countries to protect the rights of migrant workers who come here in search of a better life. We know they can be vulnerable to abuse because of language barriers or immigration status. As the Labor Secretary, I'm committed to ending this abuse.

I've signed agreements with the embassies of Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Guatemala, Mexico and Nicaragua. I plan to sign other agreements with other countries in the near future. We're making it easier for immigrant workers to come forward and report mistreatment by partnering with the institutions where they are most likely to go for help — their own country's consulates. The consulates are helping us communicate with workers who are forced to work in unsafe conditions or not paid what they're legally owed. I've heard from many business leaders who depend on the talents and work ethic of migrant workers. Despite the rhetoric of some politicians in Washington, we know our country relies on their contributions as well.

I know the Peace Corps shares these values. I know because we have so many RPCVs (returned Peace Corps volunteers) working for my department. It makes a lot of sense. You go into the Peace Corps with a commitment to service and to help people. Those are the same qualities we're looking for at DOL.

Just like your agency, we pride ourselves on being a place where our employees can make a difference. During my tenure, I've hired hundreds of new investigators to go out into the field and ensure workers are treated fairly. I've placed a special emphasis on hiring investigators with multicultural and multilingual skills, so we can help migrant workers from other countries.

We know we have to earn their trust and respect their cultures to make a difference in their lives. As Peace Corps ambassadors, you've gone all over the world to spread the message that America is a welcoming place that's full of opportunity. You have inspired our neighbors to come here in search of the American Dream. At the Department of Labor, we're working every day to make sure that dream can become a reality.

We pride ourselves on offering a helping hand to vulnerable people, because we know with a little help, they can do a lot.

So thank you for letting me spend this morning with you, and thank you for your commitment to making this world a better place.

Que dios los bendiga... gracias.

God bless you.

Si se puede.