TAMPA — He sat at a flimsy folding table, an American flag waving nearby, tapping at his microphone and clearing his throat.
This, Cesar Hernandez said in a rambling introduction, is his generation's moment. Time to introduce the country to its future leaders. Time to make your voice heard.
And so he promised he would — for 24 hours straight.
The University of South Florida student body president vowed to stay at his shady post outside Cooper Hall until this morning, giving an uninterrupted speech to raise awareness for students' rights.
It began at 11 a.m. Tuesday, with a smattering of curious students looking on. Hernandez, 24, a biomedical science senior who wants to be an anesthesiologist and some day run for political office, wore a crisp gray suit with his hair slicked back.
"Okay, so what's the purpose of this?" he said into the microphone, pacing a little. "What's the need for me to even start? For me to sacrifice 24 hours of my life?"
The reason, unclear in his prologue, was explained in a news release sent out to local media: Hernandez wants legislators in Tallahassee and Washington, D.C., to keep students in mind when making budget cuts and changes to immigration laws. He also hopes the filibuster-like oratory will persuade President Barack Obama to visit USF's campus to talk to students directly about higher education decisions.
Hour one began with a short story of Hernandez's Guatemalan heritage, his upbringing in Brooklyn and an assertion that we're all "citizens of the world."
He touched on legislative issues: tuition increases, funding cuts for student organizations and Arizona-style immigration laws.
Then, for most of the next several hours, he read from Howard Zinn's A People's History Of The United States.
From time to time he took a break from the book, telling students about his time spent playing college football in New Mexico and the four days he was homeless, living in a New York City transit station after a family argument.
He talked about staying positive, making a decision that "You know what, man? My life is great."
When Hernandez got hungry, his friends brought him smoothies. When he needed a bathroom break, he promised to keep right on talking.
The speech was streamed live on WMNF community radio. For any skeptics out there, Hernandez said it was recorded, too. No lapses. No naps. Hernandez said the speech-making should set a world record for the longest political address, but he said that wasn't why he was doing it.
He said it wasn't an ego thing, either. Never mind that the sign-off on Hernandez's e-mail about the event included a quote from himself: "The University of South Florida is at the cusp of being the greatest institution in the nation!" — Cesar R. Hernandez.
"I'm just a student body president, but I represent my entire generation," Hernandez told people as they headed to the nearby campus Subway restaurant.
Criminology junior Vanessa Fuentes, 22, stopped to listen for a few minutes.
"Obviously he's doing it for a good cause and everything," Fuentes said. "I've got to give him props."
Derek Dyer, a 29-year-old senior majoring in English, called it "a powerful statement."
"I hope it gets across the state," he said.
Under a nearby tree, Jeanette Qablawi, a biomedical science junior, and Taghrid Alrajouler, a journalism senior, said they planned to stay for most of the speech, even pledging to come back after nightfall with a tent and popcorn.
"I believe in what he's doing," Qablawi said.
"He's really inspirational," said Alrajouler.
They would have to come and go, of course, for class and work and study sessions, but as personal friends of Hernandez, they wanted to make sure he had an audience.
"It's cool to be a part of something like this," Qablawi said, whispering as Hernandez detailed Columbus' voyage to America.
Freshman Adam Kral, 19, was riding by on his bike when he noticed the speech. He stopped, trying to figure out what it was all about, growing more confused as Hernandez read about the roots of the slave trade.
Finally someone clued him in.
"Oh, okay. I thought it was one of those guys preaching, but it actually seems interesting," Kral said. "I think it'll definitely get people talking."
A test looming, Kral pedaled off after a few minutes to study. Other students left, too. New visitors stopped by.
And Hernandez kept on talking.
Reach Kim Wilmath at email@example.com or (813) 226-3337.