LatinaLista

The two quickest ways to set off a firestorm among anti-immigrant critics is to do one of two things: talk about amnesty or speak Spanish at a public event. It was the latter that has one California high school valedictorian facing a barrage of criticism and forcing a school district to finally come to terms with its bilingual student body.


Newman, California’s Orestimba High School Valedictorian Saul Tello Jr. told his principal that he wanted to deliver the customary speech delivered by valedictorians on graduation day in Spanish, in honor of his parents.

The school superintendent, Ed Felt, and high school principal, Jesse Ceja, said that under the Education Code and because of a past Supreme Court decision upholding the First Amendment rights of students, they felt they could not compel Tello to present his address in English. Tello told local media that he wanted to do it in both languages, though the principal denies knowing about the request, and was told there would not be enough time to deliver it in both languages.

So, Tello took to the podium in his cap and gown, apologized to those in the audience who didn’t understand Spanish and delivered his Valedictorian speech in Spanish.

Responding to criticism from an outraged public once the local media publicized it, the principal said he felt that there was a good balance of languages at the ceremony since the salutatorian speech was delivered in English.

Needless to say the criticism has been swift and harsh. Yet, not surprisingly, the criticism isn’t being voiced by the families in attendance, as much as it is, by people outside the community who feel an address in Spanish has no place in the public sector.

I have to confess that my original reaction to the news was that it was a poor choice on the part of the student — until I read what the Superintendent said.

“We are in a community with two dominant languages, and both should be recognized. What I hope is that in the future anyone who comes to an Orestimba High graduation or Yolo promotion ceremony will have an opportunity, no matter what their language, to have a complete understanding of what is occurring during the activity,” Felt commented. “Anybody should be able to come and have complete knowledge of what is occurring. I believe that all the parents and loved ones are just as proud of and love their kids as much as the person sitting next to them.”

The key takeaway is that there exists two dominant languages in that community — English and Spanish and both populations deserve to fully share in the special ceremony. Because of what happened, the school district is adopting a policy that should have been in place long before this — printing bilingual programs where the speeches are printed in the opposite language of what a speech is delivered at the ceremony.

It makes sense and it makes sense that for a young man, whose parents primarily speak Spanish, would want to fully share his academic accomplishment with the two people who helped him the most to achieve it.