The long, cloth graduation sash represents everything Naomi Peña Villasano loves about her family history.
On one side, it’s marked with red, white and blue — the colors of the American flag. On the other, green and red stripes with the image of an eagle holding a snake in its beak represent the Mexican flag. Her parents immigrated to the United States from Mexico. Pena, 18, was born in Colorado.
After one of her brothers gifted the sash to her in April, she asked her principal at Grand Valley High School whether she could wear it to her graduation in late May. When the administrator said no, Pena was shocked.
“I’m involved in student council. I’m a student-athlete,” she said. “I’ve always been giving back to the community and then to receive this from the school, it’s upsetting.”
The denial — and Peña Villasano’s ongoing fight to wear her sash — has catapulted the teen into a larger debate over donning cultural regalia during school graduation ceremonies that has made its way to Colorado’s state Capitol.
Gov. Jared Polis this week signed new protections for Native American students who wish to wear cultural regalia at graduations and some of the Democrats behind that law say they’ll look to pass a broader policy in the future.
“(At graduation) you're trying to show what you have done and what you hope to achieve and what your aspirations are,” said Democratic Senator Sonya Jaquez Lewis of Longmont. “By a school saying that they can't wear something that's important to their family or to their culture, it makes no sense to me.”
Peña Villasano’s supporters argue students should be allowed to express their personal heritage in a respectful manner during ceremonies, while some administrators fear loosening dress code policies could open the door to offensive garments and distract from the “unity” of school events.
In a statement, the district noted that students are allowed to personalize their mortar boards — the traditional graduation caps — with cultural symbols and other expressions, but said allowing further decorations “would discourage… the unification of our graduates and distract from the celebration of our students’ great academic accomplishments.”
Garfield County School District defends its policy
Earlier this week, Peña Villasano met with the Garfield County School District 16 Superintendent Jennifer Baugh about the disagreement, but both sides remain at a standstill, Peña Villasano said
The high school senior said she made it clear that she intends to wear her sash regardless of the district’s policies.
“‘I really can't stop you and I hope we can move past this,’” she recalled Baugh saying in response.
“I was like, ‘We can never be at the same level if you can't understand my rights. I just feel like this is a matter of being a human being,’” said Peña Villasano in return.
Peña Villasano provided CPR with an earlier email she says she received from Baugh on April 13, explaining the district’s policy. In it, the superintendent said allowing students to wear flags could “create a set of other issues.”
“As an example,” Baugh wrote, “if I were graduating this year and I wanted to wear a Ukrainian flag pin, since I am a first generation graduate and Ukrainian, then another student would be able to wear a Confederate flag because that student was from a Southern state. To some people, the Confederate flag symbolizes much more than just the Confederacy at the time of the Civil War. If people get offended, we would not be able to tell that student that he/she couldn’t wear that pin because we cannot discriminate against that student, regardless of whether or not we agree or disagree with the symbolism.”
Baugh did note the school allows Native American or Pacific Islander regalia.
Officials with Garfield County School District 16 declined an interview for this story. A statement from the district provided by Board President Lynn Shore, said “this issue was never about a flag from a specific country” but about a concern of unintended consequences.
“Students are provided with guidelines and suggestions for decorating their mortar boards, and nothing prohibits a student from including a flag that represents their heritage and nationality,” the statement reads. “Garfield 16 has emphasized its traditional regalia for graduation. While it does acknowledge that some school districts in the region have allowed for other forms of personal expression, we believe our rules promote unity among our graduates.”
Alex Sánchez is the president and CEO of Voces Unidas de las Montañas — an organization founded in nearby Glenwood Springs to advocate for the Central Mountain’s Latino and Latina population. He said the district must change course on their decision, and found the idea that allowing Peña Villasano’s sash would open the door to displays of the Confederate flag or other offensive symbols absurd.
“It’s appalling that Garfield 16 School District has chosen to compare Naomi’s culture and heritage — which, by the way, represents about 45 percent of the student body — compare that to symbols of hate like… the Confederate flag. It is not the same. Our race, our ethnicity, our heritage, our culture is something to be proud of,” Sánchez told CPR News.
Peña Villasano has contacted the ACLU and other legal organizations about her situation, she said. And Colorado lawmakers have also taken notice of the dispute.
At the Capitol, some lawmakers think students need broader protections
On Friday, Peña Villasano was at the state capitol to take part in ceremonies marking the Cinco de Mayo holiday, which celebrates the victory of the Mexican army in the Battle of Puebla in 1862. She came at the invitation of her state representative, Democrat Elisabeth Velasco.
Peña Villasano and her mom, Ana, dined in the grand rotunda on scrambled eggs and horchata. A Mariachi band sent tunes echoing through the Capitol halls and the Consul General of Mexico in Denver addressed the assembled audience.
“It feels bittersweet to be here,” Peña Villasano said to her mom, who nodded back.
Peña Villasano’s fight comes as the state is taking steps to ensure Native American students can wear traditional regalia during graduation ceremonies. Gov. Polis signed a bill to that effect just a day earlier, on May 3.
“It shouldn't be about what nationality you are or what you wear. It's about respect. Respect and honor,” said Melvin Baker, the Chairman of the Southern Ute Tribe.
He said many of these items students wear are passed down from elders.
“That special day and out of, you know, 12 years of their life, getting to that graduation point is a milestone for young individuals,” Baker said.
Rep. Velasco, a Democrat, cosponsored that bill. She grew up in Mexico and her district includes Grand Valley High School.
Velasco called the situation in Garfield county “very troubling.”
“We have a lot of people who are new immigrants and who really treasure and want to preserve their traditions and come as their most authentic self for a day of celebration,” Velasco said.
She said she wants to expand on protections for Native American students to do something next year to include broader safeguards around all sorts of cultural expressions.
“We want that to be a reality for everyone in Colorado,” Velasco said.
Speaking at the signing for the new law, Polis said it made sense to clarify that Native American students have the right to show pride in their heritage. He noted that the First Amendment protects the right of students to display the sacred symbols of their faith.
“Some graduating seniors might want to wear hijabs. Some might want to wear yarmulkes. Some members of the Sikh community wear their traditional turbine, and of course, members of the Native American community should be able to wear their traditional regalia.”
‘We are a nation of many immigrants’
After the Cinco de Mayo observance, Peña Villasano and her mom sat on a bench along the edge of the House floor, watching lawmakers pour in to begin their work day. The 18-year-old wore her sash and watched as leaders gaveled into session.
Rep. Velasco walked up to the podium to welcome Peña Villasano to the hall and express her support.
“My guest is being told that she cannot honor who she is when her family and community comes together to recognize her accomplishments,” she said, looking at Peña Villasano.
“Wearing both flags represents her bicultural heritage and it’s a beautiful thing,” Velasco said. “We are a nation of many immigrants.”
Velasco noted that graduations are important milestones with deep meaning and that “our cultural heritage is also deeply meaningful in those special celebrations.”
Peña Villasano smiled and stood as lawmakers applauded her efforts.
As she walked out of the House floor, she said she felt hopeful about graduation coming up on May 27.
“I'm doing this not only just for the Latino community, but just for (equality of all) cultural regalia,” Peña Villasano said. “Because in no way, shape, or form does any other student deserve to go through what I've been going through.”
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