Debate continues over graduation speech
NEWMAN – A valedictory speech delivered entirely in Spanish has stirred debate, and the language issue in general could lead to changes in future graduation programs aimed at helping all in attendance follow the proceedings regardless of the language spoken.
Orestimba High Principal Jessie Ceja said he has heard both positive and negative feedback regarding graduation changes in general and the delivery of the valedictory address in Spanish by Saul Tello Jr., the top student in the Class of 2012.
Ceja said the school had received half dozen or so calls following the Thursday evening commencement.
Ceja told Mattos Newspapers that the valedictorian asked to give the speech in Spanish and was given approval to do so.
“The student earned the right as valedictorian, I feel, and if he felt that way I decided to give him that opportunity,” Ceja explained.
Ceja suggested that the decision also allowed the program to better cater to speakers of both dominant languages in the community. Welcome remarks were given by two students in English and Spanish, Ceja pointed out, and the salutatorian address was presented in English.
Tello, however, told Mattos Newspapers Tuesday that he had asked to present his address in English and Spanish, but was told that there would only be time to present the speech in one language.
Given that choice, Tello said, he decided to speak in Spanish – and before presenting the valedictory address apologized in English to non-Spanish speakers in the audience.
Tello declined to specify who told him he could not present his speech in two languages, saying “it was not that person’s fault.”
Ceja told Mattos Newspapers he was aware of no such request. “If he had come to us and said he wanted both, that would have been fine,” he commented.
Ceja said that a teacher and administrator suggested incorporating some English into the address when a draft version entirely in Spanish was submitted. The possibility of presenting the address in English and Spanish was never discussed in light of the specific request to address the audience in Spanish, Ceja indicated in an email.
Superintendent Ed Felt said that, under the Education Code and a past Supreme Court decision upholding the First Amendment rights of students, he does not believe a speaker could be compelled to present an address in a specific language.
“We could request a student deliver a speech in English, but we would have little to enforce that if the student chose not to,” the superintendent commented.
Moving forward, Felt said, his goal will be that those attending Orestimba and Yolo programs in the future be able to follow the entire proceeding, regardless of whether their primary language is English or Spanish.
He said he has spoken to site principals about having all speeches printed in both English and Spanish and inserted into the graduation program so that everybody in the audience can follow what is being said regardless of the spoken language.
“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.”
Two board members reached Monday suggested they wanted to look more deeply into the issue before taking a position.
Board President Kerry McWilliams declined to comment until after speaking with administration.
While acknowledging the controversy, Trustee Paul Wallace said, it is important to remember that the district represents all of its students and constituents regardless of language.
Wallace said he was not going to make a “snap judgment” about an issue that has many complexities.
Trustee Tim Bazar told Mattos Newspapers he would have preferred that at least the majority – although not necessarily all – of the speech be delivered in English.
“I think that there has to be some acknowledgment that English is the official language of the state, that you have to be proficient in English to graduate and that a sizable portion of the audience does not speak Spanish,” he commented.
Board member Janice Conforti said that if the speech was not to be repeated in English, translated copies should have been distributed to those in attendance.
As it was, she believes, the essence of the valedictorian’s message was lost to a large portion of those gathered to celebrate graduation.
Board member RoseLee Hurst said she believes the speech should have been interpreted.
“I imagine it was a good speech, but I could only pick up a few words of it,” she commented. “It was great for him to do it in Spanish for the Spanish-speaking, but generally it is done in both languages.”
Tello, meanwhile, acknowledges that the situation has stirred controversy.
He said he chose to speak in Spanish to honor his parents – not to make a social statement.
The response has included a flurry of comments on Facebook, he said, some of which were very negative.
Tello said he was “a little upset” at the response, but added “I knew what I was doing, so I knew there was going to be negative feedback. It is sad that some people can be so closed-minded about it.”
An English-language translation of his valedictory address, provided by Orestimba High School, appears on Page 4.
The programs for Yolo and Orestimba featured a new format this year, with both sides of the stadium used to accommodate the large crowds. Rather than facing one bank of seats, the graduation ceremony was aligned so that guests seated on both sets of bleachers were looking down on the proceedings from the side.
“We want to accommodate as many people as possible,” Ceja said. “We are trying to keep graduation from being a tickets event, which other schools are doing.”
He said the school will look at improving the public address system next year, and may also locate the staging area back a little further to improve the view of guests.