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Foodies and Funnies: A Double Header of Native Speakers at SFCC Graduation

Keynote speakers Kyle Pacheco, Santa Domingo Pueblo, and Ricardo Caté, Kewa/Santo Domingo, spoke to graduates May 14 at Santa Fe Community College.

Mise en place, the French culinary term for “everything in its place” has special meaning for 22-year-old Kyle Pacheco from Santa Domingo Pueblo, who addressed the 2016 graduates at Santa Fe Community College on May 14. For this budding chef, who completed the requirements for an Associate’s Degree in Applied Science in Culinary Arts in December, the concept offers an organizing principle for the here and now, but also holds a promise for the future.

“This term applies to me not only in the kitchen, but life in general,” Pacheco told the more than 2,500 attendees who gathered to celebrate the 300 graduates walking in the ceremony. “I am getting my mise en place together for my life, so when I am done, my life will have created a beautiful dish.”

For the recent first place winner of the New Mexico SkillsUSA competition in the culinary arts category, one of the main ingredients in his personal recipe for success is the importance of finding solid mentors. “Chef Michelle Chavez is everything a mentor should be: she molded me, filled me with knowledge, but most importantly, inspired me. And Chef Patrick Mares, who oversees the college’s East Wing Eatery believed in me, trained me to run a team, to solve problems when times are critical, to be calm under pressure. But most importantly, he helped me believe in myself.”

Pacheco, who will represent New Mexico in the national SkillsUSA competition in Louisville, Kentucky next month, was keen to share wisdom gleaned from his journey from nervous beginner to confident graduate. “The meaning of my speech is to show the world anything is possible, no matter where you come from. Life is like a walk-in freezer. Go in and gather what you need, turn on that fire, and create a beautiful exhilarating dish for your life!”

Professional cartoonist Ricardo Caté (Kewa/Santo Domingo) amplified Pacheco’s message in his own keynote speech. “Ten years ago if you would have told me I would be the only Native cartoonist in the nation published in a daily mainstream newspaper, I would have thought you were crazy. But ‘Without Reservations’ is the most popular comic in the Santa Fe New Mexican, three times more popular than ‘Peanuts.’”

Courtesy Santa Fe Community College/Mac Read

Professional cartoonist Ricardo Caté Kewa/Santo Domingo) is the only Native cartoonist in the nation published in a daily mainstream newspaper. His cartoon, “Without Reservations” appears in the Santa Fe New Mexican. He urged the graduates to persevere even when life hands them the occasional rotten deal.

Along with the birth of his three children and the creation of his first film, landing the gig at Santa Fe’s only daily paper was a defining moment, but one that brought its own challenges. He described getting a lot of what he characterized as “hate mail” when he began in 2007: messages that accused him of being racist, that disparaged his drawing skills, that said his cartoons weren’t even funny. His response was instructive: “I answered all the hate mail and soon discovered they didn’t know I was Native, it had never even occurred to them that I could be and that I could offer a different perspective.”

RELATED: Cartoonist Without Reservations: Ricardo Cate' Is One Funny Indian

Breaking barriers has become something of a raison d’être for Caté, who now has his sites set on a Pulitzer prize for editorial cartooning. “I want to be the first Native to achieve that.” He knows there are no guarantees that he’ll accomplish it, but he told the graduates that the hard work is its own reward. He also urged the graduates to persevere even when life hands them the occasional rotten deal, recalling an early disappointment of his own. “I was running track in an 800-meter race, that’s two laps around the track. The other team boxed me in and it took me one entire lap to break free.” He lost the race, the chance at the championship, and for a time his prospects looked bleak. He spoke from the heart about his bout with homelessness, alcohol abuse and despair.

Courtesy Santa Fe Community College/Mac Read

An assembly of 300 graduates at Santa Fe Community College on May 14. Graduates who identify themselves as American Indian or Alaska Natives represent 5.10 percent of the 2016 graduates.

It was his grandfather’s wisdom that helped him. “When you’re at a crossroads, listen carefully to your heart. And remember, sometimes your heart whispers.” While actively listening for that quiet inner voice, a solution presented itself; he changed dreams, and poured the time previously devoted to athleticism into gaining and refining his skills as a cartoonist. By the time he marched into the offices of the Santa Fe New Mexican with his portfolio, he’d gained the confidence to ask to have his work in the newspaper where he can “tell it like it is.”

“Life is hard,” he admitted. “We don’t know if we’ll see the light of day tomorrow, your diploma may not lead to that high-paying dream job. In fact, there are no guarantees at all. But as Saint Francis of Assisi famously said—‘Start by doing what’s necessary; then do what’s possible; and suddenly you are doing the impossible.’”