Four student-athletes exposed raw feelings about race and immigration in a Morgan Hill high school this week when they made the provocative choice to wear shirts and shorts bearing the stars and stripes of the American flag to school on Cinco de Mayo.
Now their actions — which an assistant principal at Live Oak High School labeled "incendiary" — are spilling across the small town's borders, igniting a national debate on cable television's 24-hour talkfest.
Wednesday, as the school's Latino pupils — nearly 40 percent of the Live Oak student body — were celebrating the Mexican army's victory against France in 1862, many wearing Mexico's colors of red, white and green, the boys showed up dressed in the American flag. Assistant Principal Miguel Rodriguez told them to wear the clothes inside out or go home. At least two of the boys left campus because they found the other option to be "disrespectful" to the flag, and the others remained in school without changing, their parents said.
Rodriguez could not be reached for comment — the school referred all calls to the district office — but parents said he indicated to them that he was concerned about the boys' safety. The Morgan Hill Unified School District later said what happened was "extremely unfortunate" and that there is no ban on "patriotic" clothing. The new immigration law in Arizona, giving police broad power to detain anyone suspected of being in the United States illegally, formed the backdrop for the school drama.
"We're happy about Arizona's law, and you bet we're fired up," said Julie Fagerstrom, whose son, Dominic Maciel, wore one of the shirts. Dominic's father, who is no longer in his son's life, Fagerstrom said, is a first-generation Mexican-American.
But the boys' action riled a number of the those who had celebrated Cinco de Mayo.
By Thursday morning, Mexican-American students began texting each other in class, and soon as many as 100 of them were standing in front of the school. A few minutes later they were marching down the road to Morgan Hill's city hall. "When we were marching, they would pass in their trucks and were flipping us off," said Gerardo Cabralas, a junior, referring to some non-Latino classmates. "And to be honest, sometimes we flipped them back."
A group of about a dozen Latino students expressed their dismay Thursday directly to the school's white students — particularly the boys who wore the flag clothing. "We respect them on Fourth of July," said sophomore Biana Coreas. "We don't go with our Mexican flags waving it up that day, so why can't they respect us too?"
The struggle for respect went on most of the day Thursday, and no one was certain when it would end.
"School was pretty crazy today," Dominic told the Mercury News. "I don't think I'm a villain; I was just representing my country. But I don't know if I would do this again. People took our message the wrong way. We weren't trying to start anything at all."
He said he can't remember whose idea it was to wear the garb and when the decision was made.
Another boy — Matthew Dariano — also is of Mexican heritage, Fagerstrom said. The other two, Daniel Galli and Austin Carvalho, do not.
"These are really great kids," Fagerstrom said. "They wear American flag clothes all the time. For the Fourth of July, for Memorial Day. They want to show their patriotism."
Diana Dariano, whose son Matthew wore a U.S. Constitution T-shirt, acknowledged that the friends wore the clothes to make a point: They love their country and believe in legal immigration.
"They heard that the Mexican kids were going to wear their colors so they wanted to wear the colors of the American flag," she said. "You can never tell someone in this country not to wear the American flag. It's America!"
Just as the school's administrators declined to punish the flag wearers, the Latino students said they had not suffered any disciplinary consequences for their march.
One free-speech expert said the boys should have been able to wear their country's colors to school.
"In the 1960s, students expressed themselves by desecrating the flag," said Peter Scheer, executive director with the First Amendment Coalition in San Rafael. "Flash 50 years ahead and the students are now demonstrating with the flag to show their patriotism. The same laws that protected the burning of the flag also protect wearing it."
That wasn't the only symbolic protest on Cinco de Mayo. About 20 students showed up at Pioneer High School wearing "Border Patrol" T-shirts. By the end of the day, administrators asked them to remove the shirts, which they apparently did with no problems, according to Karen Fuqua, spokeswoman for the San Jose Unified School District.
But Scheer, while defending the rights of the boys, also said there are times when a school principal can regulate students' dress.
"If the principal believes there will be a riot, then he can ban the shirts," Scheer said. "But if he thinks students are just going to be angry, it's not good enough."
Fagerstrom said the parents met with an assistant superintendent Wednesday evening who wanted to hear all the sides. At an earlier meeting, Principal Nick Boden and Rodriguez indicated to her that they were worried about the safety of the American-flag boys. "They said they heard from some students there was going to be some drama," Fagerstrom said.
District Superintendent Wesley Smith issued a statement Thursday: "The Morgan Hill Unified School District does not prohibit nor do we discourage wearing patriotic clothing. The incident on May 5 at Live Oak High School is extremely unfortunate. While campus safety is our primary concern and administrators made decisions yesterday in an attempt to ensure campus safety, students should not, and will not, be disciplined for wearing patriotic clothing. This matter is under investigation and appropriate action will be taken."
Meanwhile, the school's junior-senior prom is Saturday. "I'm kind of nervous about it," said senior Marina Schlaefli. "I'd rather this whole thing had never happened. It's making our school look bad, and it's not a bad school."
Contact Lisa Fernandez at firstname.lastname@example.org.