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Grand Valley senior advocating for right to wear sash with Mexican and American flags to graduation

Naomi Peña Villasano poses with the sash she wants to wear at the Grand Valley High School graduation on May 27, which dons the Mexican and American flags. She says the sash reflects her heritage as a Mexican American student.
Naomi Peña Villasano
Courtesy Photo
Naomi Peña Villasano poses with the sash she wants to wear at the Grand Valley High School graduation on May 27, which dons the Mexican and American flags. She says the sash reflects her heritage as a Mexican American student.

Naomi Peña Villasano, a senior at Grand Valley High School in Parachute, wants to wear a sash with the Mexican and American flags on it to her graduation ceremony this month.

But Jennifer Baugh, the Garfield County School District No. 16 superintendent, said she won’t allow it.

In an email to Peña Villasano on April 13, Baugh said allowing her to wear the sash to graduation would require the district to allow other students to wear flags as well, some of which are considered offensive, like the Confederate flag.

In an email to Aspen Public Radio, Lynn Shore, the president of the Garfield-16 school board, said it would not be making any statements until a final resolution of the issue is achieved.

The Colorado legislature passed a new law on May 4 allowing Native American students to wear cultural regalia to all public high school and college graduation ceremonies, but it does not protect Hispanic and Latino students.

Peña Villasano will speak at Tuesday’s school board meeting, which begins at 5:00 p.m., to gain support from district officials before her graduation ceremony on May 27.

Halle Zander spoke with Peña Villasano on May 11 about the dispute and her recent conversations with the district.

Halle Zander: So tell me about the sash. What does it look like and what does it mean to you?

Peña Villasano: One side is the Mexican flag, and I believe that's my left side. And then the right side is the American flag. It represents my identity. It represents who I am, where I come from. My parents are immigrants. They migrated here to have a better life. I'm obviously Mexican-American. I was born in the States, and not only am I representing just my roots, my Mexican heritage and culture and, like, being proud of who I am and what my parents gave to me, but also being grateful for this country and the opportunities that it's not only given me, but also my family. I just hold it heavy, close to my heart.

Zander: Now, walk me through your initial request to wear the sash. What happened exactly?

Peña Villasano: So this all roughly started around the last few days of March. And for graduation, there are certain national organizations and certain honors that you have to go through an application process for. I told my family, I was, like, “Hey, guys. Like, I just finished applying for my key club honors chord and then for community service honors.” And then my brother is like, “Oh, like, that's cool. Hey, are you going to wear anything to represent our culture or anything like that?” So then I went to the office, showed them a sash, but that's more of a sarape, and that was completely different to what I have now. So the sarape that I had shown the school secretary, I think it had, like, the Mexican flag, a few butterflies, because I'm, like, obsessed with butterflies. So I was just like super, super cute. You know, I showed her, and she's like, “No, you can't.” And I was like, “Well, why not?” And she said, and I quote, “It opens too many doors. It's too much.”

Zander: OK, but that didn't stop you. So what happened next?

Peña Villasano: My sister-in-law was like, “OK, like, I'm already on file. I'm just going to email them and simply ask the principal, you know, like, what's going on? Why can't you wear this?” So she was just like, “Hey, Mr. McCormick, why was Naomi just told that she can't wear this?” So he calls her, I believe, that next day, they had a talk, and he pretty much was like, “No, because then it opens the door to people wearing the Nazi flag, the Confederate flag.” And my sister-in-law was like, “How are you going to sit here and compare, you know, the Mexican flag to the Confederate flag? The Nazi flag?” So then I believe, within those few days, I started a paper petition. And then the following day after starting the paper one, I started the online petition. So then it just started growing and growing and word started spreading and spreading. Like, right now I have over, I think, 6,400 signatures online. A lot of them are from people, one, that don't even live in Parachute, and two people that don't even live in the state — in Colorado.

Zander: After speaking with the principal, you met with the superintendent, Jennifer Baugh. What happened in that meeting?

Peña Villasano: I printed pictures of a graduate in the past that wore an American flag, a student who wore the Confederate flag on his cap, like on his mortarboard. And I was like, “How come you're not saying anything about this? I'm not sitting here wearing anything that's offensive. To me, that just was like an act of discrimination.” And so she's like, “Well I can't control what happened in the past because I wasn't superintendent then.” And I'm like, “OK, but you can control what's happening now. And there's nothing in the school policy where it states that I cannot wear my sash.” I was like, “You don't have anything written in the handbook, nor the dress code, nor the graduation exercise in Section I of the IKF board policies. This is my First Amendment right, and you're violating it without having any justification.”

You know, we have the governor’s support. I went to the state Capitol last weekend, spoke to the governor, had a meeting with him, and [the school district is] still opposed. And at this point, I'm scared of not walking with my class because I've worked so hard. I've gone to school for 12 years. And for what? For me to not walk with the class that I've grown up with? It saddens my heart that it all has to get to this point. But then again, I’d do it 100 times over again. I would do anything just to let not only me and the Latino community wear our sashes and represent our cultures, but all cultural regalia.

Zander: As I understand it, the district gave you some other options about how to represent your culture at graduation without wearing the sash. What were those options and do any of them feel like a good compromise to you?

Peña Villasano: We are allowed to decorate our cap. I don't see the difference of wearing the flag on our heads, but not wearing it on our chest. It doesn't fit to me. It doesn't sound right, and I know that other schools even do both.

Zander: You traveled to the state Capitol a few weeks ago to discuss your experience with Gov. Jared Polis. Did anything come out of that meeting?

Peña Villasano: Yes. You know, behind the scenes, there are some things in the works, and I do know that Governor Polis, he found it pretty upsetting of, like, what's occurring. You know, I'm pretty hopeful that there will be a new state law for next year that allows all students to wear cultural regalia.

Zander: Are you planning on taking any sort of legal action at this time?

Peña Villasano: That is to be determined. I don't know. I just had a meeting today with some lawyers. I don't know yet what they are going to do, and so they're just going to inform me with that and we'll see how that goes. I'm hoping, you know, that there is no legal action just because it just seems something simple of like, “Yes, Naomi, you know, just wear it.” We'll see how that goes, though.

Zander: What do you plan on doing if the school administration does not allow you to walk with the sash?

Peña Villasano: I know that there will be some press at the graduation, so I'm just playing it out to see how they react. It would kind of look worse on them at this point, even more and just add more fuel to the fire if they don't allow me or even other classmates to walk. But if they do, I mean, like I said, I’d do this 100 times over again.

Zander: And finally, how has this dispute colored your high school experience?

Peña Villasano: I don't know. I mean, it is kind of upsetting. I've had issues with this school before, but for some reason, I always thought that Parachute was my home, and I feel like this has just shown me and proved to me that our world is very ugly and it's super cruel. And I know that that has always been a thing, but I feel like once you're the subject of it, once you're living in it and in your shoes are in it, it hurts a little more. So it's made me realize what kind of system we're in.

Zander: Naomi, thank you so much for sharing your experience with us today. I appreciate it.

Peña Villasano: Thank you so much.

Copyright 2023 Aspen Public Radio . To see more, visit Aspen Public Radio .

Halle Zander
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