K-12 Education

Channeling My Story through Oratory

August 18, 2020  • Esmeralda Reyes, Rising Sophomore at Stanford University & Education and Society Program

I joined Speech and Debate primarily because of my older sisters. Through competing, they got the opportunity to travel the country and advocate for social justice issues within those spaces. I eagerly arrived on the competitive circuit, ready to find an outlet to talk about political issues that mattered to me. As a competitor from a team with only Black and Brown students, however, I felt like an outsider for my first two years of competition. I was waiting to find the same empowering platform that my sisters had told me about. In my junior year, I switched to Original Oratory, a competitive event where students write their own speech about a social or ethical issue and persuade audience members of their position. The writing process challenged me to think about my past and the various obstacles my family and I had to overcome. The first topic that came to mind was immigration. In fifth grade, my father was deported due to a mix up, and it changed everything in my life. But, the last thing I wanted to do was be vulnerable in front of a white-male dominated space. Why should they know this life-changing event? What gives them the right? 

As I became more involved and earned the opportunity to travel to tournaments, I saw Black and Brown competitors command the stage like never before. I saw them act, perform, and debate about topics ranging from BLM to immigration to poverty & inequality. Throughout my K-12 public education, most of my teachers were white. The role models I was exposed to did not have the same color skin as me. Seeing these Black and Brown artists command that stage unapologetically made me question why I had not been exposed to role models that had similar experiences to me in the classroom. Through their art, these performers inspired me to use my speech as a vehicle for social justice, making audiences aware of the issues that mattered to my community. 

Inspired by those performances, I revisited the topic of immigration for my speech. Initially, I had no intention of sharing my father’s deportation mainly out of fear of being too emotional. At the same time, why should I sugarcoat my family’s story or the harsh reality other families face? At tournaments, I sat in rooms with people who would pursue careers of power. They have the obligation to hear all the stories. With the help of my coach, I wrote a ten-minute speech explaining the role of echo chambers in spreading a negative portrayal of immigrants, ultimately influencing people’s opinions and who they vote for. The first time I shared this speech was at Yale’s Annual Speech and Debate Invitational tournament. In my first round of competing, my hands were sweating, and I started to feel my face get red. I had practiced several times before, but it felt as though it was my first time that I had delivered this speech. I spoke low, unsure if they were listening. As I got closer to sharing my father’s story, though, I found myself speaking with more passion. In that moment, I was compelled to persuade my peers that the negative portrayal of immigrants can result in life-altering consequences, like family separation. Following that round, my first thought was not “I hope I placed well,” but that “I hope they learned something new.” I left that room feeling uplifted and had every intention of sharing my family’s story to counter xenophobia. I finally felt the same magical connection that my sisters had shared to Speech & Debate. 

I continued to talk about immigration and went on to compete in National Tournaments in  Colorado, Texas, to Florida as a nationally-ranked competitor. During my senior year, I was selected as one of the six finalists for the National Speech & Debate Association’s National Student of the Year Award due to my advocacy work and competitive success. Speech and Debate helped me find my voice, and I am no longer afraid to use it. The various tournaments made me aware of the multiple oppressive systems in place and crystallized my knowledge that people my age have the power to fight back. Even though I’ve completed my time on the speech & debate circuit, I will continue to use my voice: to advocate for communities’ rights and to fight towards a more equitable society.