PARACHUTE — As Naomi Peña Villasano stood in front of the Grand Valley High School graduation assembly, steps away from her turn to receive a diploma, she looked pointedly at her family lined up in the front row.
Subtle signals from her four brothers and her parents — head nods and hand gestures — gave the 18-year-old the OK, a permission she had failed to wrest from school officials and a federal court judge. She pulled a Mexican/American stole from under her graduation robe and draped it over her shoulders so the red, white and green colors of the Mexican flag swung from one side and the red, white and blue of the American flag dangled from the other.
She strode to the podium when her name was called, fist bumping her school’s principal as a school counselor announced Peña Villasano’s personal graduation message: “Viva la Raza.” Then, her diploma was in her hands and a page was turned on what has grown into a major First Amendment rights controversy — one that has reverberated from this small Western Slope community to the statehouse to the governor’s office to a federal courtroom.
“We are pleased the school district did the right thing and did not keep a student from graduating,” said Alex Sanchez, executive director of the Latino rights organization Voces Unidas, who attended the ceremony to support Peña Villasano.
There were fears leading up to the graduation ceremony that Peña Villasano would be removed from the football field where the ceremony was held, or that her diploma would be withheld if she disobeyed school rules and wore her ethnic stole.
In the end, in spite of Peña Villasano putting on and taking off the stole several times during the ceremony, it was anticlimactic. Two other students had already whipped out Mexican flags that fluttered in the wind after they received their diplomas. When Peña Villasano arrived at the podium there were no boos or heckling. Neither was there any eruption of cheers except from her family members.
“I was pretty confident,” Peña Villasano said of her politically charged action that had been made even more contentious after a federal court judge late Friday denied a request from attorneys representing the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund to issue a restraining order against the school district and allow her to wear the stole that was a gift from one of her older brothers.
Attorneys for the district had argued in a court filing that to allow Peña Villasano to wear the stole “would diminish the experiences of the class of 2023 and impinge upon the community’s local control of the graduation ceremony.”
School district lawyers argued that the rules are in place to avoid “opening doors to speech that could offend others during a solemn, important ceremony in many families’ lives.”
Garfield County School District 16 Superintendent Jennifer Baugh had told Peña Villasano that if she were allowed to wear her stole, with symbols from the U.S. and Mexico flags, other students might try to wear symbols like Confederate flags or Nazi pins.
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Peña Villasano’s request to wear her stole revealed that School District 16 has mostly unwritten rules for what seniors can and can’t wear at graduation. Rules recently publicized by the district state that students are allowed to decorate the tops of their mortarboard caps, but not their gowns. Only school-issued cords and stoles denoting academic achievement, community service and military service are allowed to be worn on graduation gowns.
Controversy distracted from others’ achievements
While reporters and photographers focused on Peña Villasano before, during and after the ceremony, and a contingent of local law enforcement stood by, some of the other 76 graduates grumbled that it all took away from a day that was supposed to celebrate an entire class.
“I think it’s unfair that she can sit there and make a huge scene that affects everyone else,” said graduate Tiara Walker, who was not able to wear a fresh-flower lei given to her by her boyfriend’s family. “It was very disappointing to me.”
She said that in past years she could have worn the lei, but after the brouhaha with Peña Villasano, the district cracked down on any of the gown decorations that had previously been allowed.
Graduate Molly Rhinaman said she was a victim of that crackdown. She was awarded a gold stole from Colorado Mountain College for completing college courses while she was still in high school. She was not able to wear that.
“I am the only one in the class with a CMC degree and I didn’t get to show that,” she said. “I also put in 230 volunteer hours with 4-H and I couldn’t wear the cords for that.”
Rhinaman said a lot of students supported Peña Villasano in the beginning of her quest to show off her Mexican heritage, but not by the end. She said even some of the 25 students with Hispanic surnames in the class, did not support her effort to wear the stole. She said no one expected the matter to go so far — Peña Villasano being invited as a special guest of Hispanic legislators to the Capitol, having a private meeting with Gov. Jared Polis and sparking a federal lawsuit.
“I think this thing with Naomi was just taken too far,” she said.
Peña Villasano admitted that her stole battle also detracted from her graduation.
“I had to focus on standing up for my rights for the past month instead of celebrating my upcoming graduation,” she said.
The battle is over, but the fight is not
Peña Villasano and her family and supporters said they think her fight has not gone far enough. It is not over yet.
Her brother Agustin Peña, a deputy district attorney in San Diego, said he believes the school district’s policy is illegal and needs to continue to be litigated.
“First Amendment speech can’t be stopped at the schoolhouse gate,” he said. “What they are doing is inconsistent.”
Several Hispanic legislators have vowed to introduce a bill in the 2024 session that would extend the right to display cultural symbols to ethnic groups beyond Native Americans. Native Americans in Colorado were recently guaranteed the right to wear cultural symbols at graduations. That law was passed and it was signed into law around the time Peña Villasano’s quest became widely known.
“I am not just fighting for this for myself and for the Mexican culture,” Peña Villasano told the Sun on May 5, the day she was invited to meet with the governor. “I want everyone else to be able to freely express their pride in their culture.”
Peña Villasano, who graduated with scholastic and community service honors, had said she plans to attend Metropolitan State University of Denver to major in social work and go on to earn a master’s so she can work in the child welfare system.
Following her graduation, she said that other opportunities have opened up, so those plans may change.
“She is an amazing, accomplished young woman,” Sanchez said, a smile passing between the two. Sanchez sits on the board of trustees at nearby Colorado Mesa University.
CORRECTION: This story was updated May 28, 2023, at 9 a.m. to correct the name of a graduate misidentified in a photo caption. Naysa Minena Fuentes Alvidrez is the student who unfurled a Mexican flag after collecting her diploma.