Latina Grad Helps Pass State Bill Permitting Use of Cultural Regalia in Graduation Ceremonies

Naomi Peña Villasano, alongside state officials, have passed a bill to protect the use of cultural regalia for graduation

Cultural regalia graduation

Photo: Instagram/@ vocesunidasorg

Academic graduations are important ceremonies to commemorate student achievements and the culmination of years of hard work and it’s an especially significant moment for first generation grads. That was the case for Naomi Peña Villasano, a Mexican American graduate from Grand Valley High School in Colorado. Last year, she made headlines when, as a senior, she sued her school district and principal for denying her request to wear a sash with images of the U.S. and Mexican flags over her gown to honor her dual-cultural identity, citing discrimination and breach of her First Amendment rights. Though the lawsuit was later dismissed, she didn’t give up.

Over the past year, she worked with Colorado state representatives to introduce a state bill to protect students who wish to wear cultural and religious regalia during graduation. This past month, House Bill 24-1323: School Graduation Attire was passed and signed by Governor Jared Polis, because of Villasano and state representatives who sponsored the bill including Rep. Elizabeth Velasco, Rep. Tim Hernández, and Sen. Rhonda Fields. It will not only allow preschool, public school, and college students to wear regalia, but it will also prohibit schools from restricting what regalia students can wear during graduation.

“I feel honored, fulfilled, and ready for this new journey and beginning after HB 24-1323 has passed in Colorado,” Villasano tells HipLatina. “This is only the beginning for many students. I am extremely grateful that students will be allowed regalia in all graduation ceremonies as this will not limit their power. This enhances each student’s accomplishments while representing their most authentic selves. It was a long, bittersweet, and disenchanting journey but I realized you have to go through the storm for the sun to come out. I really just want people to see that with sacrifice and dedication, accomplishments can and will be made. I put my heart and soul into this issue, and I hope future students feel happy, seen, and heard.”

Last year, Villasano met with the school district and school board for weeks leading up to her graduation ceremony. Repeatedly, she was told that she could only decorate her cap and that she’d be stopped from walking the stage if she wore the Mexican-U.S. flag sash. Along with Voces Unidas, a local Latinx advocacy group, she visited the Colorado State Capitol to bring the issue to light with local legislators and Governor Polis. They also filed a temporary restraining order against the school district in case anyone tried to prevent her from getting on stage and accepting her diploma while wearing her sash, which was denied by the court. She wore her sash without official permission but no one tried to stop her and she was able to cross the stage.

In the year since, she has spread awareness about the issue to her state officials, whom she worked with to craft and revise the bill. Thanks to her advocacy work, House Bill 24-1323 passed through the legislature, with most Democrats supporting and all Republicans opposing. In the version that passed, the bill outlines four main stipulations including: 1) that all preschool, public school, college, and university students in Colorado are allowed to wear cultural and religious regalia during graduation; 2) that all schools and universities are prohibited from restricting what students wear under the required graduation attire; 3) that all schools and universities are allowed to restrict a student from wearing regalia that could “cause substantial disruption of, or material interference with, a graduation ceremony, but the prohibition must be the least restrictive means necessary”; and 4) that all schools and universities must adopt a policy that satisfies the requirements of the bill before the 2024-25 school year.

“I am excited to introduce this legislation that will protect students’ freedom to showcase the traditions and backgrounds that have molded them into the strong graduates they are today,” Rep. Velasco, who co-sponsored the bill, said when it was first introduced to the legislature. “By allowing students to embrace their heritage and identities during graduation, we are not only promoting individual expression but also cultivating stronger dialogues and insights within our educational institutions. It is a step towards building a future where every graduate can walk across the stage with pride, knowing that their identity is not only acknowledged, but celebrated.”

Ultimately, Villasano hopes this will positively impact students all across the state to freely express themselves and celebrate such a huge accomplishment on their own terms.

“I am a 200 percenter. I am both American and Mexican and that is something no one will ever take away from me,” she tells us. “I am blessed to have had the bravery to face so many obstacles that interfered in my way. This was not only important to myself but also many others including students, family, and friends. A big factor was because my parents didn’t graduate so being able to not only represent myself but also their culture is something so close to home for me. Many of my family members didn’t graduate either. I have always believed and been taught about equality and speaking up for what is right. I hope no students have to go through what I went through nor any other similar issues. However, I would do it all over again if I had to.”

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