A strip of cloth with the red, green and white of Mexico’s flag on one half, and the red, white and blue of Old Glory on the other, has become the latest symbol in a battle over how Colorado students can display their ethnic pride at graduation ceremonies.
Naomi Peña Villasano wore her serape to the state Capitol on Friday on a day that was a mashup of a Cinco de Mayo celebration, a capping of a successful legislative effort to allow Native Americans to wear traditional regalia at graduations, and an acknowledgement that the First Amendment right to students’ freedom of cultural expression needs to be expanded to other ethnicities.
Peña Villasano, who is set to graduate from Grand Valley High School in Parachute on May 27, has been told by school officials that she cannot wear the multicultural sash when she receives her diploma because it violates school policy.
She said they told her it could open the door to other, possibly offensive, graduation gown decorations like Nazi symbols or Confederate flags.
Peña Villasano, whose parents immigrated from Mexico before she was born and who lives and goes to school in an area that is one-third Latino, said she has no plans to back down.
“This is something I have set my mind and heart to do,” she said. “I am grateful for both countries.”
“I am not just fighting for this for myself and for the Mexican culture. I want everyone else to be able to freely express their pride in their culture.”
Meeting with Gov. Polis
Peña Villasano, 18, visited the state Capitol on Friday morning and also met privately with Gov. Jared Polis in his office a day after he signed a new law that guarantees Native American students the right to wear traditional regalia at graduation ceremonies.
In a written statement to the Colorado Senate on signing Senate Bill 202, Polis wrote that he takes an expansive view of protecting free speech for other students:
“While this bill spells out one specific form of protected speech in statute, I want to note that these types of First Amendment protections exist for all students who wish to display sacred symbols of faith or culture during a graduation ceremony that do not cause a substantial disturbance or materially interfere with the ceremony, and this bill does not diminish that right for any students wanting to honor their faith and heritage during a momentous occasion.”
Sen. Sonya Jaquez Lewis, a Boulder County Democrat and a member of the Latino Caucus and a sponsor of the regalia bill, said she was glad to be able to elevate Peña Villasano’s case by having her appear before the legislature. It was especially notable on a day when the colorful Mexican cut-paper decorations called papel picado fluttered in the west foyer, a mariachi band played traditional Mexican songs, and a Mexican breakfast buffet drew savory attention to an important minority in Colorado.
Rep. Elizabeth Velasco, another member of the Latino Caucus, whose district includes Parachute, introduced Peña Villasano to her fellow lawmakers and expressed her intention to introduce a bill in 2024 that will expand on heritage expression rights at graduations, beyond what Senate Bill 202 did for Native Americans. Velasco is a Glenwood Springs Democrat.
It is guaranteed to have some bipartisan support.
Rep. Matt Soper, a Western Slope Republican who backed Senate Bill 202 and publicly stood up for a controversial mural depicting the Mexican and American flags when he was student body president in Delta in 2002, expressed disbelief that a school would deny students’ rights to express their cultural identity on “one of the most important days of their lives.”
Many schools fail to protect free speech, critic says
Alex Sanchez, the president and CEO of Voces Unidas, said he is glad the governor’s statement clarified his position that all students should have the right to wear symbols at graduations.
Sanchez, a former school administrator who serves on the board of trustees at Colorado Mesa University in Grand Junction, said seeing symbols of heritage at CMU’s graduations is one of his favorite parts of the ceremonies. Sanchez, who came to the United States from Mexico when he was 9 years old, wears a serape celebrating his Mexican heritage when he is on the stage for CMU graduations.
He said he sees hundreds of students cross the stage with cloths or other ethnic symbols that highlight backgrounds, including Latino, Hawaiian and African American.
“It is beautiful to observe,” Sanchez said.
He said Voces Unidos has been investigating the issue with Peña Villasano and found that many schools, not just the Parachute high school, are failing to protect students’ First Amendment rights.
“This is not an isolated case by any means,” he said of Peña Villasano’s quandary. “That’s why it is so important.”
School officials say they want to promote unity
Superintendent of Schools for Garfield County School District 16 Jennifer Baugh wrote Friday morning in an email response to questions from The Colorado Sun that her district does not plan to back down, even if other high schools do allow sashes and symbols on graduation robes.
There is no written policy at Grand Valley High School that bans students from wearing a symbol of heritage at graduation. The school has a dress code which nixes anything “profane, vulgar, lewd, or legally libelous.”
Baugh noted that since 2020, Grand Valley High School has had a policy that allows students to express themselves at graduation by decorating the tops of their mortar boards. Students are allowed to put flags on the tasseled boards to represent their heritage and nationality.
Baugh wrote that the school district’s policy prohibiting symbols on gowns is designed to promote unity among graduates.
“The issue was never about a flag from a specific country. The issue is that moving away from our rules opens the door to all manner of expression with graduation garb, which we believe would discourage the unification of our graduates and distract from the celebration of our students’ great academic accomplishments.”
“I find that silly,” Peña Villasano said.
The District 16 School Board could take up the matter, but nothing could change in time for the graduating class of 2023. The next school board meeting is May 16. Three meetings would be required to make any official change.
Petition brings scrutiny to high school policy
With the option of change at the district level off the table and statewide legislation a year away, Peña Villasano is consulting with attorneys for Voces Unidas about what she can do at her graduation in three weeks. She has started a petition on Change.org that has gathered more than 2,500 signatures from those who believe students should be able to display their cultural heritage at graduation.
She said she is standing up to other students and to some in her community who have criticized her by telling her she should leave her Mexican heritage behind and simply be an American.
She said part of her resolve is the pride she has graduating as the daughter of parents who never attended high school. She brought her mother, Ana Villasano, along to the Capitol on Friday.
Peña Villasano has four older brothers who have graduated from high school, two of them from Grand Valley, and who were able to wear sashes. One of those brothers gave her the sash she plans to wear.
Peña Villasano has been accepted to attend Metropolitan State University of Denver, where she plans to major in social work and hopes to go on to earn a master’s so she can work in child welfare.
She doesn’t know yet what she will do if school district officials refuse to let her walk across the stage to receive her high school diploma.
“That’s to be determined,” she said.
But she returned from her day with the governor and legislators exhilarated that her dual-heritage serape was a symbol of pride for many.
It hangs to her knees and has traditional Mexican-style fringe on the bottom. Her Mexican heritage is displayed on the right where an eagle standing on a cactus crushes a snake in its beak — a Mexican flag symbol dating back to the time of the Aztecs. Her American pride is on the left in bold stars and stripes.
“I feel like I have gained much more support, much more hope,” Peña Villasano said. “I know there is now an army behind me.”