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  • Writer's pictureAlex Sánchez

All students deserve the right to celebrate their culture at graduation

Spring is traditionally recognized as a time of new beginnings. That recognition carries extra weight for the graduating classes of 2024, whose collective minds are rapidly turning toward the momentous milestone that doubles as both a recognition of past achievements and foundation for the future.


At face value, graduation is simply a ceremony. But like most ceremonies, it holds different meanings for different people. For many Latino families, it is much more than a mere formality, especially among those with first-time graduates. For them, like it was for myself, this recognized rite of passage offers an opportunity to reflect upon the obstacles they’ve overcome while celebrating the cultural bonds that carried them through the journey.


Cultural identity is important. And the ability to celebrate one’s culture should not be restricted, least of all during one of the most important milestones of a person’s life. That’s why my organization, Voces Unidas, is advocating in support of HB24-1323 (School Graduation Attire), a bill introduced by state Rep. Elizabeth Velasco (HD-57) to ensure that no student is denied the right to celebrate their culture or identity on that momentous occasion.


Some may recall the plight of Naomi Peña Villasano from Parachute, an honors student, athlete, and class representative who just last spring was told by Garfield 16 School District administrators that she’d be banned from her graduation ceremony at Grand Valley High School if she wore a stole adorned with both the Mexican and American flags over her traditional gown. She took her case to court and ultimately stood up for her beliefs by wearing the stole, despite district rules, graduating without incident beyond her own emotional strife throughout the ordeal.


As a former trustee at Colorado Mesa University who also spent a decade as a school district administrator, I have attended my fair share of pre-K to college graduation ceremonies, and I understand how schools work. I’ve seen the inconsistencies across schools and school districts around policies allowing students to express their cultural heritage, religious traditions, countries of origin and other First Amendment rights to expression at graduation ceremonies, which is why clarifying state law is so important. 


Currently, the decision is left to individual school administrators, leaving the door open to rules that restrict the celebration of religion, culture and identity, prohibiting some from expressing their true selves as they embark on life’s journey. This bill eliminates that discretion and ensures that all students are afforded the opportunity to graduate as their true selves.


Mind you, this is not just about Latinos and Latino culture, and Naomi is not the first student to be told to hide her cultural identity. History is overflowing with examples of schools and school boards discriminating against or failing to meet the needs of many students.


House Bill 1323 would allow any “preschool, public school, or public college or university student to wear objects of cultural or religious significance as an adornment at a graduation ceremony.” The bill also prohibits any school from restricting what students may wear under their required graduation attire beyond what is in the school dress code.


School districts should not be allowed to restrict cultural expression simply because they don’t understand or agree with it, and the current rules allowing some to celebrate their culture and not others — often in neighboring communities — are clearly unjust. Without the state clarifying that all students can celebrate their culture or religion, the tyranny of the majority and dominant cultures will most likely outvote and fail to represent racial, ethnic, religious, and other minority communities in far too many parts of Colorado.


Like Naomi, I believe it’s essential to stand up for the rights of everyone to be able to express themselves the way they choose. And I hope you will join me in following her inspiration to support HB24-1323 when it is heard in the Colorado State Senate in the coming days.


This spring, we have an opportunity to become a more just society simply by passing common-sense legislation to clarify that Colorado embraces a culture of inclusion at graduation ceremonies, a custom that ideally will be carried forward for a lifetime.


Alex Sánchez is the founder and CEO of Voces Unidas de las Montañas and Voces Unidas Action Fund, nonprofit organizations working in 15 Western Colorado counties.


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