TIME Race

Cinco de Mayo Marked by Competing Protests in California Town

In the small town about 20 minutes south of San Jose, a controversial court case upholding a high school’s right to ask students not to wear shirts with the American flag, on the holiday meant to celebrate Mexican heritage, is still causing tensions

On Monday afternoon, the superintendent of the Morgan Hill Unified School District stood on the grounds of Live Oak High School waiting for the motorcycles to arrive. This Cinco de Mayo is the first since the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a ruling in a case that divided the small town of Morgan Hill, population 39,420, affirming the school’s right to ask students not to wear shirts displaying American flags on this holiday, which is a celebration of Mexican heritage. And people on both sides of the issue, a crew of which arrived by Harley-Davidson trailing Old Glory, were out to have their say.

Before school started at 8:15 a.m., protesters associated with a local Tea Party group took their positions on the sidewalk in front of the school, where a construction fence had been erected to clearly demarcate the grounds. Each holding a large pole flag, about three dozen people in red, white and blue stood silently as kids went to class, preoccupied with Advanced Placement tests that begin this week and the impending summer holiday. “People are very passionate about what either free speech or the American flag or patriotism means,” says Superintendent Steve Betando, who inherited this controversy when he took the job last July.

The protesters said they were there to promote free speech and celebrate America. “We think that the American flag is a symbol of freedom, and it should be displayed 365 days a year, and it shouldn’t be banned,” organizer Georgine Scott-Codiga told local broadcast reporters. Betando says some locals interpreted the demonstration as “a statement that Latinos or Mexicans are not welcome.” Another group, organized under the name We the People Morgan Hill, had initially planned to hold their own demonstration celebrating Mexican culture and multicultural unity at the same time on the same spot, but after students expressed concerns about their safety, the organizers moved the rally to a community park. “We fly the American flag as well,” says the group’s founder Juan Lopez, describing the morning’s protesters as “racist individuals who are coming to our community and bullying kids to make them feel like they don’t belong.”

The controversy started when school administrators heard threats of race-related violence on Cinco de Mayo four years ago. A group of students had pointedly worn shirts displaying American flags on the holiday, to a school that had a history of violence, some of which erupted along racial lines. The year before, similar symbolism had led to an outburst of expletives between students holding their respective American and Mexican flags, and school officials moved to quash rising tensions by asking the students to turn the shirts inside out or go home. Parents of three of those students sued, alleging that the school’s actions impinged on their children’s constitutional rights. But the court found that “the threat of a potentially violent disturbance was real,” and so the administrators were within their rights to act as they did.

Since the ruling came down in February, the town has been preparing for the possibility of more violence on this Cinco de Mayo. The students of Live Oak High, almost none of whom were there when the brouhaha occurred in 2010, meanwhile put signs of solidarity on display. On the construction fence they hung a sprawling banner decorated with handprints of gold and green, the school colors. Along the top in all capitals was the message “We Are All Branches of the Same Tree.” Students also met with protesters who both supported and opposed the ruling, asking them to keep their demonstrations peaceful and not put the students in harm’s way. “Isn’t that why it’s Great to be an American,” student Samantha Sadoff wrote on Twitter Monday afternoon, “to learn about and acknowledge the glory and history of our culturally diverse nation?”

Betando says though some students at the school of roughly 1,100 wore American-flag paraphernalia to school on Monday, there had been no fights or violence at the school. By evening, it appeared that everyone had managed to peacefully have his or her say. Many locals would simply like to move past a controversy that continues to haunt the town. Near the school, the Guglielmo Winery was closed because of the planned protests. “It did polarize things,” says owner Gene Guglielmo, the only person present on Monday at an otherwise empty business. “But that’s behind us now.”

Your browser, Internet Explorer 8 or below, is out of date. It has known security flaws and may not display all features of this and other websites.

Learn how to update your browser