When Ever López walked across the stage at his North Carolina high school graduation, he became the first of his immediate family to graduate high school.
But the Asheboro High School student, who had the Mexican flag draped over his shoulders as he walked the stage, says he was denied his diploma on graduation day for wearing the flag.
López’s cousin, Adolfo Hurtado, captured moments of the ceremony on June 3 when López’s name was called. In the video, López is seen waiting in line with his classmates to cross the stage and is stopped by the principal when he receives his diploma holder.
The two exchanged words, as a crowd booed behind them, after which López returns to his seat with his fist raised in the air.
After the graduation, when the students went to another gym to receive their diplomas, López was told he would not be allowed to take his because he “disrupted” the ceremony, according to Hurtado.
The Asheboro City Schools school district in a statement Friday said the withholding of the diploma was “not about the Mexican flag,” that the student “did not follow the established dress code for the event and detracted from the importance and the solemnity of the ceremony.”
López picked up his diploma at the school on Monday and held it above his head as he left the building. He was greeted with cheers from family members, friends and supporters, who’d gathered for a news conference outside the school.
“I don’t regret nothing,” López said during the news conference , CNN affiliate WRAL reported. “I did what I had to do – represent, wear my flag and show my colors.”
When López, his family, and fellow students tried to ask for the diploma after the ceremony, they were turned away and escorted out of the school by police, as seen on another video, Hurtado added.
“The Mexican flag wasn’t worn as a political statement, rather a symbolic gesture in appreciation to those who worked hard to give him a life he would be proud of,” Hurtado told CNN.
“Our parents left most of their family, and their own lives, behind and it was a difficult decision to make, and to see him on his big day giving appreciation was supposed to be a moment of celebration, not just to our family, but the other 50% of the Latino population at the school, that was sadly interrupted.”
An issue that goes beyond the diploma
The news conference was led by Kelly Morales, the North Carolina immigrant rights program director at American Friends Service Committee. She was joined by the López family.
“I’m grateful I got what I deserved,” López said after receiving his diploma, CNN affiliate WRAL reported. “It means the world to me, because [my parents are] the ones that really wanted it for me. Like I said, I did it for them and I feel real grateful now that I have it because I fought for it [and] they fought for it real hard.”
In a statement on Monday acknowledging that López had picked up his diploma after the press conference, Asheboro City Schools said, “As with all graduates, we wish him well and we will continue to serve our community in ways that help all young people meet their full potential.”
The school district in its Friday statement said the incident had been “misrepresented” on social media.
“Our dress code is in place to ensure the dignity of the event is upheld and is fair to all students,” according to the statement. “Graduation is a milestone event and it is grossly unfair for one individual to diminish this event by violating the dress code.”
The district said students were “encouraged to express their identity by decorating their mortar boards. A number of students followed the protocol and had the Mexican flag and other representations appropriately displayed during the ceremony.”
The problem was not just López being denied his diploma, Hurtado says, but rather the “disrespectful message” the incident sends to Asheboro’s Latino community.
“We don’t accept that excuse,” Hurtado said. “The school can’t determine what is discrimination or not. They are not in Ever’s shoes, they don’t have the life experience that the Latino community had to go through all their lives. If a Latino considers something discrimination, it’s discrimination.”
Morales translated for Ever’s mother, Margarita López, who said her family was looking for an apology and explanation from the principal as to why she handled the situation this way.
Margarita said she and her husband came to the graduation ceremony last week filled with so much pride, but got choked up when she saw the principal stop her son on the stage.
Local instances of discrimination is why students of color should be encouraged to express pride in themselves and their heritage, Morales said during the news conference.
“But Ever isn’t intimidated. His friends aren’t intimidated. All of us who have just lived under four years of this last president are not intimidated,” she added. “We should applaud students like Ever who take this risk of being openly proud of who they are and where they come from.”
The family says they do not support anyone threatening or harassing the principal or school employees.
CNN’s Hannah Sarisohn and David Williams contributed to this report.