For many, seeing Latina high school student Naomi Peña Villasano don her undeservedly controversial cultural stole before walking across the stage to receive her diploma from Grand Valley High School in Parachute last Saturday felt like a happy ending.
Despite multiple refusals by school district officials — and one federal judge — she’d asked for permission to wear a stole honoring her Mexican-American heritage during the graduation ceremony, she stood her ground and wore it anyway. No one was hurt. No one was offended. And the most forceful act of the day was a friendly fist bump from her principal. Everyone was smiling, especially Naomi and her family.
It took some time to get to that point, however, with no shortage of strife for a young woman who otherwise might have spent the final months of her high-school experience celebrating her achievements as an honors student, athlete, and student council leader with friends and family. Instead, she spent that time meeting with school district officials, state legislators, and even the governor to plead her case for what should have been a very straightforward First Amendment right to express pride for both her heritage and homeland in front of those friends and family members.
If we learned anything from Naomi’s experience, it’s that her commencement did not establish a happy ending. It was merely a happy beginning.
We emphasize the “happy” here because things surely could have gone much worse. And, in fact, they have. History, be it recent or longstanding, is overflowing with examples of schools and school boards discriminating against people of color, especially in rural regions. Brown v. Board of Education may have been settled in 1954, but that was far from an ending, either. The battles for equity continue to this day.
Voces Unidas was created to elevate the voices of Latinas and Latinos, create opportunities where Latinas and Latinos can advocate for themselves, and increase Latina and Latino representation and participation in decision-making tables. And while Naomi’s recent experience with Garfield County School District 16 certainly checks all the boxes in our mission statement, this is not just about Latinos and Latino culture.
Yes, she stood up for what she believed in and accomplished her objective, but the goal has always been bigger than her. There’s no guarantee that others will enjoy the same outcome tomorrow.
That’s why we will continue to advocate for legislation clarifying that all students have the right to wear cultural regalia at any public graduation ceremony. Like Naomi, we believe it’s essential to stand up for the rights of everyone to be able to express themselves the way they choose, and we encourage every supporter of that First Amendment right to add their name to our online petition advocating for such legislation next year.
Most people fail to recognize that the “traditional” graduation attire of caps and gowns are an expression of European culture dating back to the 12th century and making its way here in the wake of colonization. Given the colonial history, it shouldn’t be surprising that so many Native Americans and people of color may not see their own cultures and traditions reflected in the “regalia” of these ceremonies. It’s only natural for Native Americans, African Americans, Mexican Americans, and others to look to their origins for historic symbols of cultural expression, just as the Europeans did and European Americans continue to do today.
School districts should not be allowed to restrict cultural expression simply because they don’t understand or agree with it, and the current rules that allow some to celebrate their heritage by wearing cultural regalia and not others — often in neighboring communities — are clearly unjust. Without the state clarifying that students can celebrate their culture, the tyranny of the majority and dominant cultures will most likely outvote and neglect to represent racial, ethnic, religious, and other minority communities in rural Colorado.
And so we congratulate Naomi for her courage and leadership and invite everyone to join us in celebration of this happy beginning. 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. Now that would be a happy ending.
Alex Sánchez is the founder and CEO of Voces Unidas de las Montañas and Voces Unidas Action Fund, two Latino-created, Latino-led non-profit organizations working in Summit, Lake, Eagle, Pitkin, and Garfield counties.