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Houston High School Principal flies Mexican Flag at School
Mexican flags divisive topic as principal shows his support for student protests

Houston Chronicle | March 29, 2006
By JENNIFER RADCLIFFE

Reagan High School Principal Robert Pambello was ordered to remove a Mexican flag Wednesday morning that he had hoisted below the U.S. and Texas flags that typically fly in front of his school — a symbol he agreed to fly to show support for his predominantly Hispanic student body.

At nearby Hamilton Middle School, a child was asked to wipe off Mexican and U.S. flags painted on his face. Hundreds of other students carried Mexican flags during walkouts Wednesday — acts of protest that they vow to continue until Congress rejects legislation that would further restrict immigration.

"There's no other way to be heard ... It's not the best way or the right way, but it's our way," Reagan freshman Jose Lopez, 14, said of the effort.

The Mexican flag has become a lightning rod in the immigration debate that's consumed the city and the nation this week. Students say the flag represents their pride in the contributions Mexicans make to this country. Critics, though, said watching young Hispanics in the streets with the red, green and white flags is more than they can stand. These youngsters are in the United States and should — at the least — carry the U.S. flag, they argue.

"The whole thing just makes my blood boil," said Bruce R. Wing, a 52-year-old Missouri City resident. "I want them all out of here."

Wing said the Houston Independent School District should fire Pambello.

HISD leaders said no decision has been made about possible discipline against the principal, who declined interview requests Wednesday.

"It is appropriate to fly the flags of the United States and Texas over schools in the Houston Independent School District, since we are a public entity of the state," HISD spokesman Terry Abbott said. "It would not be appropriate for the school district to advocate allegiance to a country other than the United States. Therefore, it is not appropriate to permit use of school district flagpoles for the purpose of flying flags representing other countries."

Raul Ramos, a professor of Texas history at the University of Houston, said most Mexican-Americans see no contradiction in flying the Mexican flag alongside those of Texas and the United States.

"Most students at Reagan High School have relatives or ancestors from Mexico," said Ramos. "The flag represents Mexican heritage as much if not more than citizenship."

Historical research

Ramos noted that there is a long Texas history of both flags flying. He has found Mexican and Texas flags interwined during Mexican Independence Day parades in such cities as Laredo, El Paso and San Antonio dating to 1910.

Calling HISD's decision a reaction to cultural anxiety, he said, "it's important for the school to make efforts to identify with the student body," not vice versa. "The school, after all, reflects the ethnic identity of the students sitting in its classrooms."

Nearly 60 percent of HISD's 200,000-plus students are Hispanic.

Plan to raise flag today

Some Reagan students said they will try to raise a Mexican flag again today. They said they want it to fly at least above the Texas flag on the pole.

"Just because you're in the country doesn't mean you can't show your culture," said Lewis Ramirez, 16, a sophomore at Reagan High.

Carina Muriel, a junior at Channelview High School, said she doesn't think it's appropriate for her rallying classmates to carry Mexican flags.

"If they really want to show devotion, they should be carrying U.S. flags," she said.

Muriel said students at her school are walking out, wearing white shirts and carrying Mexican flags.

"More than half don't even know why they are doing it," she said. "It seems to me that they just want to be part of something big, but they don't know what it is. They've never before cared about politics, or what was going on with our government. The reason they care now is because it gives them a chance to cut class."

Jose Cantu, 18, a junior at Reagan, said he read the 54-page bill Wednesday so he could understand why he's protesting. "It got confusing," he said. "So I wanted to see the whole thing."

Districts ponder problem

School districts, meanwhile, are trying to figure out how to allow children to learn about the issues and express their feelings while also disciplining those who continue to walk out of class in protest.

"I so appreciate the fact that young people are getting excited about what's going on in their country. What could be more inspiring than seeing children wanting to have their voices heard in their political process?" said HISD trustee Natasha M. Kamrani, who represents the neighborhoods that feed into Reagan. "But there's a way to protest and then there's a way to organize to make change."

To accomplish that, students need to be in class learning and preparing for college, she said.

About 300 students from North Shore and Galena Park high schools staged protests outside their schools Wednesday — the first organized protests to be held in that district.

"It picked up today for us," said Staci Stanfield, spokeswoman for the Galena Park District. "I think they're watching it. We've seen kind of copycat protests that have cropped up throughout the entire country and area."

Baytown march

In Baytown, about 50 students — some waving Mexican flags — skipped class to march from one of the town's two high schools, Robert E. Lee, where nearly half of the 2,511 students are Hispanic.

About 200 Alvin High School students participated in an early-morning march. Though most of the students had returned to school by 10 a.m., a group of about 40 students made a 10-mile trek to Pearland High School, Alvin ISD spokeswoman Shirley Brothers said.

Students demanded to meet with Alvin Mayor Andy Reyes, who eventually agreed to meet with a delegation of students today.

Oscar DeLeon, a parent of three children in the protest, left work to watch the march.

"I support them. They've got their rights," he said.

Alvin High School Principal Kevon Wells, who also watched the group, said the students will be treated as truants. Punishment can include after-school detention and being assigned to an alternative school campus, he said.

Text messages spread word

Students said the makeshift rally was publicized through text messages.

A text message sent by an HISD student Wednesday encouraged more walkouts.

Part of it read: "Do ANY of you know how much money our schools make for each student that attends everyday ... Imagine how much money they would lose if we didn't go."

HISD Superintendent Abelardo Saavedra has vowed harsher punishments for students who continue to miss classes to protest.

The 50 Marshall Middle School students who made their way to City Hall on Wednesday, for example, could be suspended for up to three days, officials said.

The district had to spend $5,500 Tuesday to transport 30 busloads of students from City Hall back to Austin, Davis and Sam Houston high schools.

"Any student who engages in this kind of activity today can be suspended for up to three days, and may be removed from school outright," Abbott said. "There also are severe academic consequences."

Chronicle reporters Todd Ackerman, Alexis Grant, Cindy Horswell and Richard Stewart contributed to this report.

KHOU Channel 11 also contributed to this report.


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