From high school to college and beyond, graduations are important ceremonies to commemorate student achievements and the culmination of years of hard work. They hold special importance for the Latinx community, many of whom are first-gen students and are often the first in their families to graduate from high school. Unfortunately, they can also be places for discrimination as seen recently in the case of Naomi Peña Villasano, an 18-year-old senior at Grand Valley High School in Colorado who requested to wear a sash with images of the U.S. and Mexican flags over her gown to honor her dual-cultural identity. The school district denied her request, despite not having a specific policy about what regalia could and couldn’t be worn during the ceremony. In response, Villasano decided to sue the school, the district, and her principal Kelly McCormick, citing discrimination and breach of her First Amendment rights. Within the lawsuit, she alleges that she’d been told that “The district didn’t permit flags on regalia because it didn’t want to open the door to a student wearing a Confederate flag pin or flag that would cause offense,” according to NBC News.
In a news release from the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF), which helped file her lawsuit in collaboration with the Greenberg Traurig, LLP, law firm, Villasano said, “I want to make this change happen not just for Latinos, but for all future graduates so that nobody else has to go through what I’ve been through. It is important for me to represent my culture not only for myself but for my family.”
Prior to the suit, Villasano had been meeting and exchanging emails constantly with the school district and the school board for weeks leading up to the graduation ceremony. There, she was told that she could only decorate her cap and to work with her senior class and the District Board of Education to find a solution. Instead, she argued for the board to craft a policy explicitly stating what regalia would be allowed and emphasized the importance of representing her country of origin as the daughter of Mexican immigrants. 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 Jared 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 was also told that she’d be stopped from walking the stage if she wore the regalia.
But Villasano took perhaps the most important action of all by wearing her Mexican and U.S. flag sash to her graduation ceremony anyway. Though it was covered with her high school’s yellow sash, it could still be seen for the most part and yet no one tried to stop her, and she was able to successfully accept her diploma.
“Wearing flags that represent bicultural heritage is a beautiful thing,” Rep. Elizabeth Velasco said in support of Peña Villasano, VocesUnidas reported. “I will work on legislation next year to ensure that right for all students.”
Consequently, the school board has agreed to review the policy for the following school year. Her petition on Change.org asking for students to be allowed to wear sashes representing their heritage is still up and running with 6,846 signatures with a goal of 7,500. “I will not allow my culture, heritage, and nationality to be shut down from being represented,” she stated in the petition.
Unfortunately, Villasano’s story isn’t unique. Similar incidents have happened in the past few years, including a transgender girl in Mississippi who was forbidden from wearing a dress at graduation and a Native American girl who had a sacred feather removed from her cap before her ceremony by school district officials. We hope to see positive changes made to benefit future graduating ceremonies and allow everyone to celebrate their achievements with pride and authenticity.