A California school district is defending its decision to allow a valedictorian to deliver his graduation speech entirely in Spanish even though many people in the audience only spoke English and felt excluded from the ceremony.
Jessie Ceja, the principal at Orestimba High School in Newman, Calif., said the valedictorian had earned the right to deliver the speech any way he saw fit.
“The student earned the right as valedictorian, I feel, and if he felt that way I decided to give him that opportunity,” Ceja told Mattos Newspapers.
The student, Saul Tello, Jr. said he wanted to deliver a Spanish and English language version of his speech – but the district said there was only time to deliver one.
He told the local newspaper he had no intention of making a social statement by delivering his speech in Spanish. He said he did so to honor his parents.
Prior to his speech, Tello apologized in English to the non-Spanish speakers attending the graduation ceremony.
However, that decision resulted in telephone calls to the school – and concern among some school trustees – who believed at least some of the speech should have been delivered in English.
“I think that there has to be some acknowledgement that English is the official language of the state, that you have to be proficient in English to graduate an that a sizable portion of the audience does not speak Spanish,” trustee Tim Bazar told the newspaper.
Local residents were also disturbed by the speech and some called for the school board to address the matter.
“I don’t blame the student for this; however, the administration should have stopped it way before graduation night,” wrote Bill Mattos in a column for the newspaper. “If you want to provide folks who only speak Spanish better information, then provide the speech in Spanish with handouts, or have the students include some Spanish in a mostly English speech. But the entire speech should have never been given in only Spanish.”
Mattos said English is the first language of the nation “and in my opinion there was no place for this sort of change, especially in Newman.”
Another local resident noted, “Thinking of all the money spent teaching students how to speak, read and write English only to have a valedictorian speak to his classmates and families in Spanish seems a mighty big waste of money.”
School superintendent Ed Felt defended the student’s speech and the principal’s decision.
“We are a community with two dominant languages, and both should be recognized,” Felt told the newspaper.
He said the school did not have a right to order the student to deliver his speech in English – citing First Amendment concerns.
“We could request a student deliver a speech in English, but we would have little to enforce that if the student chose not to,” he said.
Principal Ceja said the speech was a perfect way to cater to English and Spanish speakers, noting that the welcome was delivered in both languages – and the salutatorian address was delivered by an English-speaking student.
Tello told the newspaper that he was upset by the controversy his speech received, calling critics “close-minded.”
One letter-writer noted: “I do not believe the OHS student intended to be divisive, but certainly his decision to deliver the speech in Spanish, excluding non-Hispanic attendees from the joy of listening to the top student, created a division.”