Photo by Alexander Schimmeck on Unsplash

On the Mexican Flag at American Graduations

You may have heard about Ever Lopez, the Asheboro High School (NC) student who was denied his diploma for draping the Mexican flag over his graduation gown on Thursday (June 3rd, 2021). Lopez and his family stayed after the ceremony to discuss the matter with the Principal, Dr. Penny Crooks. Crooks claimed that wearing a flag was a violation of the school’s dress code. The family claimed that there was no mention of flags in the school dress code, and there was no mention of flags in the dress code issued specifically for graduation. They further asserted that Lopez deserved his diploma for the 12 years of schoolwork that he had completed. The conversation did not go much further, as Crooks had police officers escort Lopez and his family off campus.

Thanks to TikTok, Twitter, and the many video accounts of the graduation ceremony, this story was able to reach local and national news outlets within days.

After public awareness of this incident, the school and school district received backlash. So the district published this official statement:

First and foremost, we strongly support our students’ expressions of their heritage in the appropriate time and place. Our graduation dress code is clearly shared with students ahead of time, and the wearing of a flag of any kind is a violation of the dress code. In the past two years we have allowed students to decorate their mortar boards as a nod to their individuality and creativity. We are very clear with students that this was the ONLY acceptable deviation from the standard cap and gown regalia. Unfortunately, we will now be reevaluating that decision for future senior classes in light of the situation that occurred last night.

Asheboro City Schools’ statement was not well-received. Students and social media content creators argued that there was no mention of flags in the dress code. To back up their claims, they proceeded to share screenshots of the school district’s dress code, the school dress code, and the graduation dress code.

While a few online commenters agreed with the decision to deny Lopez his diploma over a dress code violation, a vast majority of people felt that Crooks’ response was inappropriate and discriminatory.

So another statement was issued by Asheboro City Schools, stating that the incident had “been misrepresented across a number of social media platforms.” The statement reiterated the narrative that Ever Lopez violated the dress code, and in doing so he diminished the dignity of the graduation ceremony.

Content creators then pointed out the dress code violations that went unpunished on Thursday, in particular the wearing of sandals by Dr. Crooks herself. Videos and screenshots provided proof of inconsistency in dress code enforcement. Petitions were circulated to support Lopez and also to terminate Dr. Crooks. Unfortunately, school and school district officials began receiving violent threats.

So now that you’re all caught up:

The high school finally gave Ever Lopez his diploma today. (Monday, June 7th, 2021)

See TikTok post by Lopez’s cousin, Adolfo (note the carefully selected sound accompanying the video):

Ever Lopez’s family said in a press conference today that they appreciate the support, but they do not condone any violence. Lopez’s mother, Margarita, said that she is proud of her son. “What happened on Thursday isn’t just about my son, it’s about our entire Latino community.”

The Latinx community across the U.S. has experienced a rise in racism and discriminatory treatment in recent years. Speakers at the press conference noted that North Carolina’s leaders continue to perpetuate anti-immigrant policies and sentiments. You can watch the press conference here:

Commenters across social media expressed dismay that the situation had to escalate this much in order for Ever to receive his diploma.

As a descendent of colonized immigrants, I can relate to the deep gratitude and pride that Ever Lopez must have felt walking up to that stage. Back in the 2000s, I worked my limited Tagalog (with a heavy American accent, mind you) into the beginning of the commencement speech I made at my own high school graduation. It took only a few seconds, and it was a simple, respectful way to honor the hardships that my grandparents endured, and to say — hey, we did it!

After a wave of environmental and global emergencies (pandemic, anyone?), in addition to having to focus on schoolwork during a disturbing anti-Mexican political climate, Latinx students in the classes of 2020 and 2021 deserve a moment of pride and celebration. Waving a non-offensive flag only takes a few seconds. Wearing the Mexican flag could have taken 0 seconds at Asheboro High School, had the principal not halted the entire ceremony.

TikTok user jalvarezclark sums up why denying a diploma to a Latinx student for trivial reasons is an example of white supremacy in the U.S. education system:

“What have Latin Americans within the United States faced? Barriers. Linguistic, cultural, socioeconomic barriers. And in education, specifically. Graduation rates have risen from 53% in 1995 to 72%, but the Latinx community still lags behind its white counterparts and other ethnicities.

And what this [the original video of Ever Lopez’s graduation] video shows about this school district and especially this [school] administration is that they know nothing about the Latinx community within the education system. Because if they did, they wouldn’t have let a harmless act such as carrying a flag around [at graduation] prevent a Latinx, a student of color, from receiving a diploma.

(See National Center for Education Statistics to explore cohort graduation rates of White and Hispanic public high school students by state: 2018–19)

I was relieved to hear that Ever finally got his diploma. However, I was disappointed to see that Asheboro City Schools’ latest official statement showed no signs of remorse or accountability for the humiliation they inflicted upon Ever and his family.

Not surprisingly, this is not the only discriminatory graduation-related incident to occur this year. For example, Ashley Saucedo was banned from participating in the Southwest Legacy High School (TX) ceremony after waving the Mexican flag. She was kicked out of the ceremony and threatened with arrest if she tried to return.

Similar to Ever Lopez’s case, the administration claimed that it was a matter of dress code/code of conduct violation, and being “fair” to all students. Let it be noted that this same school retweeted the problematic Blue Lives Matter flag just last month (the same flag that violent insurrectionists waved and used to beat police officers at the U.S. Capitol on January 6th).

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My hope is that U.S. schools might learn from the successes of Ever Lopez’s story, and also from the failures of Asheboro City Schools. Additionally, I hope to provide example language that any concerned community member may use when calling, emailing, petitioning, etc.

Below is the email text that I sent all the members of Asheboro City Schools’ Board of Education. I expressed similar sentiments in a voicemail to Asheboro High School. Feel free to sample as you see fit, as you advocate for the people that you care about. Take care. And CONGRATULATIONS, CLASS OF 2021!

_________________________________________________________________

Subject: Redact Offensive Statement, Apologize to Ever Lopez

I understand that Ever Lopez has finally received his diploma. Ever still deserves a public apology from Asheboro High School and from Asheboro City Schools.

In addition, I noticed that your website still hosts your previous statements, which contain offensive and clearly discriminatory wording. It is in your best interest to learn that words matter for the future:

“ The heart of the issue is the fact that the student did not follow the established dress code for the event and detracted from the importance and the solemnity of the ceremony. Our dress code is in place to ensure the dignity of the event is upheld and is fair to all students. Graduation is a milestone event and it is grossly unfair for one individual to diminish this event by violating the dress code.”

The “heart of the issue” was not truly about dress code and rules. Videos from multiple angles of the event demonstrate that Asheboro High School picks and chooses which codes to enforce. For example, sandals and flip-flops are also against the dress code, and yet Principal Penny Crooks, the teacher next to her, and several students violated this bit of the dress code. In addition, North Carolina Executive Order 215 states that masks are still required in schools. The well-documented violation of this state health requirement did not appear to “diminish the event”, or else half the students and the Principal herself would have been escorted off the campus by police.

With all the above code violations in mind, the true message of your previous statement is actually that wearing the Mexican flag at one’s own graduation is undignified and thus diminishes the importance of graduation. It should be noted that when Dr. Crooks told Ever Lopez to remove the flag, he began to remove it. Immediately after, however, many people in the auditorium began booing, clearly communicating that they believed Ever removing the flag and the principal humiliating a student are what diminished the event.

I would like to offer a perspective. Perhaps one that even Dr. Penny Crooks could understand. Crooks’ Ph.D. dissertation from 2014 has an entire page dedicated to her family for making her achievements possible:

Dedicated to my grandparents, the late Carol Mason and the late Clarence Kobylarczyk.

“Education, Education, Education.”

Because of you, this was possible.

(Crooks, 2014)

This is exactly what wearing a non-US flag during graduation means to descendants of recent immigrants, especially those who did not have anywhere near the same financial and educational opportunities. It’s not the same as a person wearing an American flag or the flag of their favorite sport’s team or political party. It’s more than “pride in one’s heritage” — It’s a way to express gratitude, humility, and to deeply honor the support and sacrifices of our families. It is so important for students to be proud of completing high school when all the odds have been stacked against them. For Ever to complete his graduation requirements despite the circumstances (4+ years of debilitating anti-Mexican sentiment, systemic racism, a global pandemic, and parents who don’t speak English) is truly awe-inspiring. Showing deep gratitude to one’s family for making this important day possible was perhaps the most dignified aspect of the graduation ceremony at Asheboro High School.

— — — — — — — — — — — -

Perhaps it is time that you revisit Asheboro City Schools’ Mission Statement:

“We are committed to providing students with opportunities that will enable them to become confident, self-directed, lifelong learners and productive citizens.”


-Teachers, administrators, parents, and the community share responsibility for advancing the school’s mission.

-The commitment to continuous improvement is imperative if our school is to enable students to become confident, productive, self-directed, lifelong learners

By not issuing an apology, you are violating your own mission statement. I implore you to view this as a learning opportunity. Take responsibility for your mistakes and the harmful implications of your earlier public statements. The well-documented dress code and state health violations demonstrate that you pick and choose which rules matter most. If this is the case, then consider the choices you have made thus far. Consider the choices you will make in the future.

Choose commitment to building the confidence, independence, and academic curiosity of your students — ALL your students.

Thank you.

Why hello there. 🌈✨🦋💙💜💖🙃

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