‘I ask you to reconsider’: Effort to permit national graduation regalia goes before Garfield 16 school board | PostIndependent.com

‘I ask you to reconsider’: Effort to permit national graduation regalia goes before Garfield 16 school board

Grand Valley High School senior Naomi Peña Villasano speaks in favor of cultural graduation sashes before the Garfield 16 school board on Tuesday.
Ray K. Erku/Post Independent

Support from classmates, friends and family members of a Grand Valley High School senior trying to wear a graduation sash depicting the Mexican and United States flags was voiced to the Garfield District 16 Board of Education on Tuesday evening.

Last month, Latina student Naomi Peña Villasano, 18, was denied permission by Superintendent Jennifer Baugh and the district to wear her national regalia during Grand Valley’s graduation ceremony. 

Baugh in follow-up email to Peña Villasano said allowing her to wear the proposed stole could open up the door to students wearing Confederate sashes. Baugh later told the Post Independent that only students belonging to nationally-recognized organizations are traditionally allowed to wear stoles during graduation.

The district has since threatened to bar Peña Villasano from the ceremony altogether if she decides to walk with the sash.

“I’m graduating on May 27, and I asked the district for permission to wear this sash through graduation to celebrate my Mexican-American culture,” Peña Villasano said in a speech to the board on Tuesday. “The district has told me that I cannot do so.”

Grand Valley senior Naomi Peña Villasano speaks before the Garfield 16 school board on Tuesday.
Ray K. Erku/Post Indpendent

Peña Villasano said she is proud to be a 200%er — 100% Mexican, 100% American — and that Garfield 16 needs to do more to welcome students like her.

“Even teachers have harassed me at school about the situation with my sash, but I’m too afraid to speak up,” she said. “My family and I have lived in Parachute for almost a decade and I’ve not seen or felt my culture represented or celebrated by this district.”

Peña Villasano’s effort to shift the district’s unofficial graduation policy — it has no formal gradation policy on cultural regalia in place — has already gained attention from regional Latino advocacy groups like Voces Unidas, who openly condemned the district’s response so far. 

On Cinco de Mayo, Peña Villasano gave a speech at the state capitol, while Rep. Elizabeth Velasco also met 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.

Audience members during a Tuesday Garfield 16 school board meeting show support for a proposal to allow students to wear cultural graduation sashes.
Ray K. Erku/Post Independent

Yet the board was mum Tuesday, except for when board President Lynn Shore admitted the district did not have an interpreter on hand to translate for Ana Villasano for public comment. Ana is Naomi’s mother and her first language is Spanish.

“We were not anticipating that. There is not a translator available that I’m aware of,” Shore said. “Had we known in advance, we could’ve made those arrangements.”

Peña Villasano, who had multiple follow-up meetings with Baugh over the sash, still translated for Ana as she spoke in favor of her daughter’s efforts.

Ana said her daughter is proud of who she is as an American and a Mexican and that she never imagined the district would “not allow her to represent her culture and nationality.”

Garfield 16 Superintendent Jennifer Baugh listens to public comment Tuesday.
Ray K. Erku/Post Independent

“I feel like the school district needs to change this because this is a community issue,” Ana said through Naomi. “You guys should allow all our students to have cultural representation.” 

Fellow Grand Valley senior Daisy Estrada, also a Latina, said the situation has made her feel like she doesn’t belong in school.

“Being told by the school and the superintendent we cannot wear a sash that represents my culture, my race and where my parents came from makes me and my family very sad,” she said.

Naomi’s brother, Jose Peña, also spoke in support of her sister. He said students at Garfield 16 are being stripped of their free speech and First Amendment rights over barring a sash supporting their nationalities.

“The fact that it’s 2023 and us as people still haven’t figured out how we can be equal just shows how much things haven’t changed yet. We keep fighting the same fight, just different scenarios,” he said. “A lot of the families and graduates are too afraid or too worried of the consequences that they take for making a stand against the board — and they shouldn’t have to.”

“I’m here to tell everyone that we are no longer afraid and we will not hold back.”

Grand Valley senior Naomi Peña Villasano listens to a Voces Unidas speaker outside of the Garfield 16 Administrative Building on Tuesday.
Ray K. Erku/Post Independent

Jose Peña then quoted Cesar Chavez, an American civil rights activist and farm labor leader with Latino roots.

“‘The strongest act of manliness, is to sacrifice ourselves for others in a totally non-violent struggle for justice,'” Jose Peña said. “I ask you to reconsider and let them wear their sashes and represent their nationalities.”

The district has yet to take any formal action on graduation sashes.

Post Independent Assistant Editor and lead western Garfield County reporter Ray K. Erku can be reached at rerku@postindependent.com or 612-423-5273.

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