Grand Valley Latina student kept from wearing graduation sash takes to state capitol on Cinco de Mayo in call for legislative action
Naomi Pena Villasano, the Grand Valley Latina student told she couldn’t wear a sash with the Mexican and U.S. flags on it for graduation, joined a state legislator and a Garfield County Latino advocacy group on a visit to the Colorado State Capitol for Cinco de Mayo.
Villasano joined Rep. Elizabeth Velasco, D-Glenwood Springs, and Voces Unidas in meeting with elected officials and Gov. Jared Polis to call for legislative action to allow graduating youth to wear cultural regalia celebrating their race, ethnicity and cultural heritage, a Friday news release from Voces Unidas states.
“All I want is to be able to wear my Mexican-American sash and graduate with my classmates,” said Vilassano, 18. “More importantly, I want to make sure that the school district changes its policies, so that no other student has to go through this experience simply because they take pride in their heritage. We all just want to graduate as our full-selves.”
Although there is no formal policy prohibiting students from wearing cultural regalia, including flags reflecting national heritage, Garfield 16 School District Superintendent Jennifer Baugh told Villasano that wearing a sash adorned with the flags of Mexico and the United States could prevent her from joining the graduation procession. In an email to the student, Baugh compared it to other students possibly wearing Confederate flags, an acknowledged symbol of racism. More than 40% of students in the Garfield 16 School District are Latino.
“Wearing flags that represent bicultural heritage is a beautiful thing,” Velasco said in support of Villasano. “We are a nation of many immigrants, and Garfield County is lucky to have such rich cultural diversity. Just yesterday, a bill that I co-primed was signed into law, upholding the rights of Native Americans to wear their traditional regalia at graduation. The same should be allowed for all students sharing their cultural pride in moments of community celebration! I will work on legislation next year to ensure that right for all students.”
The bill Velasco co-led, SB23-202, requires schools or school districts to allow qualified students to wear and display traditional Native American regalia at a school graduation ceremony. While applauding the spirit of the new legislation, Voces Unidas President and CEO Alex Sánchez amplified the call to expand the measure to allow all students to celebrate their race, ethnicity, or heritage at a graduation ceremony, noting the prominence of racial discrimination in Colorado’s rural communities in particular.
Polling from the 2021 Colorado Latino Policy Agenda published by Voces Unidas revealed that 38% of Latinos on the Western Slope had experienced being called an offensive name or told to go back to another country because they are Latino.
“Far too many rural school districts are preventing young people and their families from wearing cultural symbols and colors in public ceremonies like graduation. It is offensive to compare a person’s pride of their dual nationality or the colors of a country’s flag with recognized symbols of hate like a Nazi or Confederate flag,” Sánchez said in a statement. “Students of color in rural Colorado should not have to seek legal counsel to defend their right to express and celebrate their culture and heritage in one of the most important milestones in their lives.”
In a statement released after the signing ceremony on May 4, Gov. Polis expressed support for all other students who wished to celebrate their culture and also made clear that all “graduating students have First Amendment protections at their graduation ceremonies.”
His statement read, in part: “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 that 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 student wanting to honor their faith and heritage during a momentous occasion.”
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