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Perspective | An open letter to Ever López and all Latinx youth in North Carolina

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Dear Nuestra Comunidad,

On Thursday, June 3, an incident occurred at Asheboro High School in North Carolina that invoked emotional responses from our community. Ever López walked onto stage during his graduation ceremony, wearing the Mexican flag over his shoulders. As he went to shake hands with Penny Crooks, the school’s principal, she asked him to remove the flag. After the graduation ceremony, Crooks had Ever and his visibly upset family escorted out of the school building by four police officers.

This set off a national uproar about the mistreatment of Ever and his family. It also brought about debates around graduation dress code regulations, racism, and discrimination faced by the Latinx community, and the roles and expectations of school leaders.

We write this open letter to share historical context with you to better understand this incident. Our message is one of healing and reconciliation. In order for this healing process to begin, recognizing harm and tracing the roots of the resulting anger is essential.

The significance of las banderas and identity

Long before the Segregation Era, school authorities relied on Americanization as the main educational objective of Latinx children in areas where this population rose to significant numbers. According to Darder, Torres, and Gutiérrez (1997), the main effect of Americanization was “to preserve the political and economic subordination of the Mexican Community.”

Fast forward to today, we see many members of our Latinx community push back against assimilation, at times by flying the flags of their family’s countries of origin. The presence of foreign flags in the U.S. has long been a divisive topic. As Pineda and Sowards (2007) explain,

“Flag waving expresses the felt tension between immigrants’ cultural heritages and their feelings about residing in the United States or becoming U.S. citizens. To say, as anti-immigration advocates do, that one is either American or not is to demand that one’s cultural heritage be abandoned in order to assimilate into the U.S. American mainstream culture. To give up one’s cultural heritage, however, is impossible.”

Seeing Crooks ask Ever to remove the Mexican flag struck such a deep chord because, unfortunately, this is far from the first time we’ve seen behavior like this in North Carolina. Just last year in Wilmington, a Latinx family received a threatening letter due to the Mexican flag they had displayed outside their home asking them to, “TAKE THE (expletive) FLAG DOWN! OR FEEL MY WRATH.

Connect this backdrop to House Bill 324 that passed the House Education Committee a month ago and which, according to the Public School Forum of North Carolina, “incites a fear-based approach to … limit students’ engagement with history, current events, and personal health, as well as their social and emotional learning.”

Exercising relational leadership

Understanding this history is crucial when considering our role in advancing educational equity and values of inclusion and belonging. Ultimately, we have two paths: to resist behaviors, mindsets, and policies rooted in white supremacy and oppression or to collude with them. 

Both Ever and Crooks exercised their power and choice that evening. They both received heavy consequences — one being penalized for his freedom of expression, the other receiving threats in response to her actions. All these consequences are undeserved and wrong. 

Ever should have been able to freely celebrate his cultural and immigrant roots. The consequences of an on-stage reprimand, police escort, and a delayed diploma delivery demonstrate that the policy is broken — not him.

Crooks’ public request for Ever to remove his flag was done to uphold school policy as “it is grossly unfair for one individual to diminish [graduation] by violating the dress code.” However, this action signaled a racist message the Latinx community is all too familiar with: You don’t belong here.

As the daughter of an immigrant herself and leading a school where 49% of the student population is Latinx, this is likely not the message she wanted to convey. However, during that interaction with Ever, Crooks chose to be transactional over relational when exercising her leadership.

She’s not alone in this approach, as evidenced when several community members came to her defense for holding up the rules. This is how the education system is designed to work: to prioritize the system over the individual and ultimately the community.

Our intention is not to demonize rules and order at large. When co-created, rules help us maintain and sustain the wellness of our community. However, when they are enforced at the cost of our basic humanity, these rules need to go.

This is a call to action for all school leaders to think critically and collectively about their positionality to power, especially when designing equitable spaces for communities of color and immigrant families. 

The process of learning, unlearning, and relearning

The days following the graduation ceremony, an outpouring of support came through for Ever, including a press conference organized by Siembra NC outside of Asheboro High School. Four days after the incident, Ever López and his parents walked out of Crooks’ office with his diploma

Even though Ever walked out of that building with the diploma he worked so hard for, that does not change the fact that this incident caused harm that could have been avoided. 

Just a month ago in a high school in Missouri, Jaymara Madrigal draped the Mexican flag on her shoulders to receive her diploma. After shaking hands with the principal, she walked back to her seat, with both her diploma and flag on her. She’s beaming, the way Ever should have felt on his graduation day instead of being escorted out.

Advancing educational equity will never be easy. Upholding this value will challenge every fiber of our beings — mindsets, beliefs, and behaviors. For those in positions of power, it’s a wildly humbling and overwhelming process to realize that our system is broken and that we have the power to change it. 

At LatinxEd, we envision culturally sustaining education systems that recognize, meet, and honor the diverse needs of Latinx immigrant families. We understand the challenges of learning, unlearning, and relearning when cultivating thriving communities. If Asheboro City Schools or any other school district is seeking partners to ensure their Latinx students feel a sense of belonging and inclusion within their school communities, we would be honored to help co-create intentional spaces for Latinx youth leadership development.

Additionally, we offer our support to Crooks and any other school leader as they reevaluate their school policies to create inclusive, equitable environments for Latinx students in their schools so no student feels the way Ever and his family felt on his graduation day.

To Ever and all Latinx youth in North Carolina: Somos de aquí y somos de allá. We are from here, and we are from there. And we honor your commitment to maintaining your roots and advancing yourself, your family, and our community. Your experiences, culture, and identities are valid, and you matter. We understand the nuances of being Latinx in the South because that’s our lived experiences, too. Whether you’re trying to figure out how to be a first-generation college student or navigate life and school, we welcome you to join the LatinxEd familia and our movement towards justice, dignity, and healing para nuestra comunidad.

En Solidaridad,

LatinxEd

Elaine Townsend Utin

Elaine Townsend Utin — a proud Peruvian-American — is the Co-Founder and Executive Director of LatinxEd. 

Carol Bono

Carol Bono is the Communications Manager of LatinxEd and an award-winning bilingual multimedia storyteller.