NEWMAN -- Graduation is supposed to be a time of rejoice and celebration.
Yet for Orestimba High School graduate Saúl Tello Jr., the celebration turned sour after he gave his valedictorian speech in Spanish a week ago.
"I wanted to do something that no one else had done before in their valedictorian address, and so I chose to give my speech in Spanish," Tello, said in his speech, according to an English translation provided to WestSideConnects.com. "By being the first Hispanic valedictorian at our school to give my address in Spanish I am showing you that change is possible."
But that change came with a great amount of criticism from parents, community leaders, school administration and local residents.
"I was in the audience listening to him and unfortunately I could not understand a single word he said. It made me feel very uncomfortable and I just wish they would have provided us with a translation," Newman resident Patrick Mendoza said.
Mendoza, who is of Latino descent but is not fluent in Spanish, said he feels sorry for the student for being stuck in a position that school officials should have monitored closer.
"I don't blame the kid, he wanted to read it in Spanish for his parents -- that I do understand -- but schools officials failed him by not thinking about how the rest of us who don't understand the language would feel. I do think school leaders failed to do their job."
According to the Mattos Newspaper website, Tello said he offered to give the speech in both Spanish and English, but was told to stick to one language because of time constraints.
Orestimba High School Principal Jessie Ceja told the publication he received several phone calls about the speech.
"The student earned the right as valedictorian, I feel. And if he felt that way I decided to give him that opportunity," Ceja said.
Calls to Ceja from Vida en el Valle went unanswered.
Dale Butler, who lived in the Westley and Newman area for many years, expressed his concerns for the situation.
"I understand why school administrators didn't want to violate the students' first Amendment rights by prohibiting him from giving his speech in Spanish. However, since they did not allow him to give his speech in both English and Spanish, they could have made copies of his speech in English for non-Spanish speakers, thereby avoiding much of the criticism they now face. By doing this, I believe, all would have been reasonable accommodated," Butler said. "In my professional and community life, I have always advocated inclusiveness, and unfortunately, that did not happen in this case."
Butler added that the student "should not be blamed in any way for how this matter was handled."
According to California Department of Education data, out of 761 Orestimba High School students, 522 are of Latino descent. And, the school district is implementing a Dual Language Immersion program at Von Renner Elementary beginning with kindergarten in 2012-13.
Despite the array of negative comments, some residents expressed joy about Tello's speech.
"I felt that he was not only honoring his parents but the rest of us who don't understand English. Many times they forgot about us when we go to ceremonies like these," said resident María Candelaria González. "Why don't they provide translations for us?"
Jack Mayer, assistant superintendent, did not attend a board meeting the Monday following the graduation ceremony were some concerns were vocalized from parents.
In an e-mail sent to Vida en el Valle, he said: "My understanding is that some people feel the speech being done in Spanish was disrespectful to those who don't speak Spanish. The District understands that concern. On the other hand, even if the District directed the student to do the speech in English, free-speech rights protect the student's right to do the speech in Spanish."
According to Mayer, the district intends to develop a policy regarding this issue before next year's ceremony.
"The policy likely will include providing a written translation of each speech in every graduation program, in both languages, so that all attendees can understand what is being said," he said.