By Hillary Anchill & Mike Morland
Office of Diversity, Equity & Inclusion

At the 2024 Celebración Latina, one of seven multicultural graduations hosted by the Office of Academic and Multicultural Initiatives (OAMI) at the University of Michigan, graduates of Latinx heritage gathered together with their families and fellow community members to honor their achievements and contributions to the U-M campus.

Marking the occasion was invited speaker and U-M alum Robert L. Santos, director of the U.S. Census Bureau — the first Latino to hold the position. His speech reflected his personal journey and served as an inspirational message that resonated deeply with the audience.

With more than four decades of experience in survey research, statistical design and analysis, Santos recounted his beginnings as a graduate student at the University of Michigan. 

Born and raised in San Antonio, TX, he admitted feeling out of place when he first arrived in Ann Arbor in 1976, where he was one of very few Latinx students. “I was just another vato loco in San Antonio. I came here, and I was learning all these mathematical proofs and doing this and that, and I was scared. I was really scared.” Despite these initial fears and culture shock, these experiences shaped his academic and professional life. 

students sitting in a row wearing graduation caps and gowns

One of the most powerful aspects of his speech was his reflection on the support he found within the small Latinx community on campus. “There were so few of us that if we found each other, we’d race over and give abrazos. I was like, we found each other. We ended up getting together, working with each other, and helping each other out. We weren’t all in sociology or this or that — I was in statistics, we had folks in law school. We had folks everywhere, [which] instilled in me the values of nosotros, helping each other.” This sense of community, Santos emphasized, was not just helpful but crucial in helping him navigate his early years at the university. 

However, Santos also noted that Latinos “…are not monolithic in our identity. Latinos can be Mexican, Cuban, Puerto Rican, and so on. Hispanics can also be Catholic or Evangelical or Muslim; male, female, or some other gender; impoverished, middle-income, even wealthy; and, yes, monolingual, bilingual, or multilingual. I love that about us.”

Santos also discussed a significant turning point in his career while participating in a federal study. While acknowledging that his statistical training was invaluable, his personal experiences and cultural background enriched his professional contributions. This realization underscored the importance of diversity in academic and professional settings, highlighting how personal background can bring unique perspectives that enhance collective understanding and progress. “I believe our collective diversity — Latino or otherwise — makes our nation and communities stronger and more special. When we take our own journeys of identity and grow from the paths we have chosen, we’ll all be better professionals and better human beings for it,” he said. 

Santos noted that there were far more Latino students in the room than when he graduated, a fact punctuated by statistics from Census Bureau data that confirms the United States is increasingly more diverse. He encouraged the graduates to embrace their identities and backgrounds, that each individual’s personal identity will help them succeed. 

His words were a powerful reminder that true success comes from authenticity and the courage to bring one’s whole self to every endeavor, a message sure to resonate with the Class of 2024.