We stand with Naomi
Inspired by her tenacity, leadership and vision for a better world for all youth, Voces Unidas was proud to host Grand Valley High School senior Naomi Peña Villasano at the state Capitol on Cinco de Mayo. During her visit to Denver she shared her story with Gov. Jared Polis and lawmakers and advocated for the right to celebrate her cultural heritage at her upcoming commencement.
High school graduation is a major milestone for anyone, serving as a particular point of pride for many Mexican American families who have overcome hardships in the pursuit of a better life for their children. Peña Villasano, who has emerged as an exemplary student-athlete and council leader at her high school in Parachute, hopes to celebrate the achievement by wearing a sash, or stole, adorned with both the Mexican and American flags around her neck as she receives her diploma.
As of today, however, she’s been told by school officials that the acknowledgment of her heritage is unacceptable. If she insists upon wearing the sash, she may not be allowed to walk with her graduation class.
“All I want is to be able to wear my Mexican-American sash and graduate with my classmates,” Peña Vilassano said. “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.”
Voces Unidas is supporting 18-year-old Peña Villasano and her family as they face school and district officials who, for now, refuse to change their position. That support includes sponsoring her trip to Denver to join Rep. Elizabeth Velasco in the state House on Friday, followed by a meeting with Gov. Jared Polis to call for legislative action to allow graduating youth to wear cultural regalia celebrating their race, ethnicity and cultural heritage.
“We stand with Naomi,” Voces Unidas President and CEO Alex Sánchez said. “Voces Unidas will provide her with any support to ensure her First Amendment right is respected.”
Voces Unidas will start working with lawmakers and other stakeholders in preparation for the 2024 legislative session, where we intend to expand upon a bill co-led by Rep. Velasco and signed into law on May 4 that requires schools or school districts to allow qualified students to wear and display traditional Native American regalia at a school graduation ceremony. While we applaud the spirit of the new law, we plan to work with Rep. Velasco and other lawmakers to expand the measure to allow all students to celebrate their race, ethnicity or heritage at a graduation ceremony.
“Wearing flags that represent bicultural heritage is a beautiful thing,” Rep. Velasco said in support of Peña Villasano. “I will work on legislation next year to ensure that right for all students.”
In a statement released after the May 4 signing ceremony for SB23-202, Gov. Polis also expressed support for students who wished to celebrate their culture and 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. A Sikh student wearing a pagri, a Jewish student wearing a yarlmuke, a Muslim student wearing a Hijab, or a Christian student affixing a cross to their graduation gown are all examples of protected speech.”
Graduation sashes, or stoles, are draped over the neck with both banner ends falling symmetrically down either the front or back of the gown, depending on the style of the stole. Some Latino students, like Peña Villasano, with ancestry in Mexico or other countries may opt to wear a stole with colorful patterns or symbols to share their pride in their accomplishments and culture. These stoles are worn on top of the official regalia.
The garment is not unique to Latino graduates. Many other cultures celebrate and incorporate their culture in their graduation regalia in different ways. Some African American graduates, for example, opt to use the kente stole because it is a symbol of achievement and overcoming hardship. It pays homage to the ancestors' sacrifices, reunites African Americans with Africa, and asserts their hope and confidence in the future.