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  • Writer's pictureAlex Sánchez

A profile in cultural courage

On Saturday, in my role as a trustee at Colorado Mesa University, I will don a cap, gown and sarape-themed stole before watching from the stage as graduates receive their diplomas and commemorate a major life milestone.

The ceremony is not only an opportunity to celebrate their accomplishments, but also to highlight the experiences and cultures reflected in our journeys.

And that is why I will bring Naomi Peña Villasano as my guest. I want her to see the dozens of students celebrating their journeys with respectful additions to their graduation regalia. I want her to see that it is not unusual to include cultural regalia in a milestone event like graduation.

Of course, Naomi already knows this. Unfortunately, school administrators in Parachute can’t seem to grasp what is obvious to just about everyone else.

Naomi, an exemplary student-athlete at Grand Valley High School, hopes to celebrate her May 27 commencement by wearing a sash, or stole, adorned with both the Mexican and American flags. But she has repeatedly been told by administrators in the Garfield 16 School District that a school rule prohibits her from wearing it, and that she risks not being able to participate in the graduation ceremony should she try.

Before returning to the Roaring Fork Valley, I worked as a senior administrator for large school districts in three different states, and part of my role was to participate in high school graduations. I started wearing a cultural stole after noticing a number of graduates who wore cultural sashes, stoles and symbols during their ceremonies. At first it was a small number — but it kept growing.

When I was appointed to serve as CMU trustee and attended the first graduation, I also noticed a significant number of college graduates wore cultural regalia.

Not every Latino or African American or Native American graduate wears cultural symbols on their regalia, but some do. I want to make sure they see someone on stage who sees them back, so I make it a point to wear regalia celebrating my culture as well.

At schools across the country, caps and gowns are being accessorized with expressions in the form of sashes and other regalia: from veterans to first-generation college students, to LGBTQ students. But not — for the moment — at Grand Valley High School.

That must change.

Inspired by Naomi’s leadership, Voces Unidas hosted her at the state Capitol on Cinco de Mayo. During her visit, she shared her story with Gov. Jared Polis and lawmakers and advocated for the right to celebrate her cultural heritage at her commencement.

At Voces Unidas, we are already preparing for the 2024 legislative session, where we intend to build upon SB23-202, which specifically allows Native American students to wear traditional cultural regalia at graduation ceremonies. We plan to work with bill co-sponsor Rep. Elizabeth Velasco (whose district includes Parachute) and others to expand it to allow all students to celebrate their race, ethnicity or heritage at a graduation ceremony.

In a statement released upon signing SB23-202, Gov. Jared Polis made clear that all “graduating students have First Amendment protections at their graduation ceremonies.”

And many people are now standing up for Naomi’s First Amendment right, including thousands of people who’ve signed a petition to allow her to wear her sash and editorial boards of this publication and the Glenwood Post-Independent.

It is time for school administrators to realize they are on the wrong side of this argument and that they are headed for rebukes, whether that is in a courtroom, or upon passage of new legislation. The right — and fair — thing for them to do is change course before Naomi’s commencement ceremony.

Regardless, I hope that everyone who advocates for First Amendment rights, who celebrates cultural diversity, and who values education as a gateway to a better life joins me in applauding Naomi’s courageous stance — as well as all of this year’s graduates.

Alex Sánchez is the founder and CEO of Voces Unidas de las Montañas and Voces Unidas Action Fund, nonprofit organizations working in Summit, Lake, Eagle, Pitkin, and Garfield counties.


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