Brenda lives in Caldwell, Idaho with her mom and she recently graduated from Caldwell High School. Brenda’s Mexican and Native roots are very important to her. Her mom’s family has Aztec ancestry, and her dad is Apache.
As Brenda shared, she is a quiet student and had never been disciplined in school. But one day, Caldwell High staff pulled her out of her class and told her she had to remove her hoodie because it contained what her school alleged to be racist words: “Brown Pride”. School personnel later told her the words were “gang” related.
Brenda organized a protest that received national media attention. Despite the community’s stance against the school’s dress code policies, the school did not change anything. Brenda described feeling like she was not welcome in her own school, and she faced further surveillance by staff since the incident with her hoodie and the protest.
As Brenda described it, racial profiling is not an isolated incident and happens to other students throughout Canyon County, including middle schoolers. Brenda hopes to continue her advocacy so that other Latinx, Chicano, and Hispanic students do not have to face these issues.
*The following interview has been edited for clarity.
Have you ever been impacted by Caldwell School District’s dress code policies?
It was December 2022, the last week of the semester. I was stressed about finals. So, I wanted to dress comfortably and wear my Brown Pride hoodie, my Dickies, and my [Nike] Cortez. I had worn this hoodie many times before, so I was confused when they pulled me out of my economics class. I got nervous because I am not a trouble student, I am pretty quiet in class. I have never gotten a suspension, not even any write ups during elementary school. My friend joked that they were calling me down because I was Mexican.
The staff who pulled me out of class asked me “I assume you know why you’re being called into the office?” And he told me it was because of my “Brown Pride” hoodie. “It says Brown Pride on it, you cannot wear that. It’s like wearing a white pride shirt. Others can find that racist.” At that moment, I was dumbfounded. At the office, the principal said the same thing, “it’s like wearing a white pride shirt,” and told me to take it off or turn it inside out. I decided to take it off because turning it inside out felt like I was offending my culture. It just didn’t seem right.
I told my friends what happened, and we started to organize a protest. I also started a petition and collected 405 signatures. The next day, I was pulled out of class again and the staff started to ask me about my hoodie. What words were on the back? What did the Aztec symbol mean? What about the low riders? At that point, they encouraged me to keep going with the petition and the protest and told me that students participating would be excused from first period. But the day of the protest they started to tell me that I couldn’t walk in the building as we were planning to walk out of the building and starting to change our plans.
Brenda also shared that in the past, she has seen other students wear Blue Lives Matter hoodies. She also mentioned that during the Trump election, a student displayed a Confederate flag on his truck.
What happened to you and other students at the protest?
My friend made signs for us and one of the quotes stood out to me: “We refuse to lose and let our culture die.” We walked through the school because I wanted people to see us, especially students and staff, and a lot of people and media joined us outside, even people outside of the Latino community. A lot of students joined us as they were being dropped off, but the school turned off the lights in front of the school so people would stop seeing us. Still, when I started to tell people at the protest what was happening, and what other schools were doing (like Elevate Academy removing Catholic rosaries), they were shocked.
When the protest was over, the staff told us we had to change out of our clothes otherwise we could not go back in the building. But we did not want to take them off because this is what we were fighting for, this is something that represents our culture. So, we were locked outside. It had been about two hours and we were cold, we had not had water or food, and we had to use the restroom. They also refused to call our parents.
One student got suspended because she told them she would have to go to the bathroom outside. Another student got suspended because he was trying to get to class since he was not participating in the protest. But the staff kept pulling the door shut on him and pushing him out so he would not go in.
Have you been able to continue advocating about this issue with the Caldwell School District?
Even till this day I do not feel welcome in that school. They are always staring me down to see if I wear something that has “Brown Pride” on it. The administrators have also been stalking my mom’s TikTok and joining to see my Instagram stories.
I feel like a lot of people at the school have abused their power. I have wanted to speak at the school board. I even asked them three times, but they are refusing to let me speak. Apparently, they don’t want to speak with me because they are working with their legal counsel, and they don’t want to talk about this. One of the trustees even lied to me and said my mom had already requested a meeting via email, but my mom doesn’t even use email.
How do you feel after this incident?
I’ve had support from organizations all over the country, including Brown Issues. And I’ve been on podcasts and interviews talking about my experiences. But it was very stressful, and the bad part is, it did have a big effect on my mental health. I honestly hate going to school now. Every time I get called down to the office, I get anxiety and I think what are they going to do to me? Are they going to suspend or expel me? What if they start interrogating me? I still feel that constant fear and I do not feel safe in school.
Brenda also shared with us three separate instances where she felt she was being targeted by administrators because she expressed her ethnic heritage and organized the Brown Pride protest. In one instance, administrators completely pulled her from her favorite class, orchestra, because she missed one recital. In another instance, she commented on someone’s joke about the principal’s senior prank through a senior group text and administrators suspended her for a week, barred her from attending prom, and threatened she would not walk the stage at graduation. And during her final week in high school, they censored her artwork depicting Aztec warriors and the words Brown Pride.
The second to last day of school, I walked into the library and noticed that my artwork was no longer being displayed. I had submitted a painting depicting Aztec warriors and the words Brown Pride. Anyone could submit artwork, and the school displayed them for a few days during the last week of school. But on the last day, mine was removed while everyone else’s was still up. I asked the librarian if she knew who had removed it, but she did not know, so I headed to class to study for my finals.
I was taking my chemistry final, and administrators pulled me out of class. I was shaking because I did not know what they were going to tell me, but I tried to stay calm. When I walked into their office, I saw my painting there. The administrators told me they were glad I was showing my pride, but I had to be careful. I asked them what they meant by having to be careful and they ignored my question. They also ignored me when I told them it was racist to take down a painting that showed my ancestors. Ultimately, they told me if my painting had not said Brown Pride, they would not have taken it down. According to the administrator, the meaning of words change, and she tried to compare Brown Pride being gang-related now, with how “gay” used to mean happy and now it means something else.
Has your family experienced racial profiling in other ways in schools in Nampa?
My other little cousin is also in middle school in Nampa. She is in seventh grade and wears Dickies and graphic t-shirts, and the police officer called her out of class one time and asked: are you a Hispanic gang member? And they also started interrogating her about being in a gang and what colors she represented. When they called her mom, she went off on the police officer and told him: do not call my daughter a Hispanic gang member. She is Mexican American. And they have backed off a little bit because her mom threatened to sue, but they are still targeting her. She is just a kid, and they are racially profiling her.
Brenda also shared an experience where another student was asked to remove a shirt that had a Zoot suiter on it. The administrators saw this as gang-related, missing the importance of the Zoot suiter riots in Chicano history.
What change would you like to see from the Caldwell School District?
If it was a white kid dressed like this, Chicano, that kid would be perfectly safe, and he would not be told anything. But a Chicano would be profiled as something he isn’t. And I don't think people realize there's a big difference between us and our struggles. In a way, the school board doesn't understand our culture, either. Why are they so afraid to talk about this? It shouldn't be something to be afraid to talk about. It's a big issue everywhere. We all feel the same thing, even though we have different experiences, we feel retaliation, and we get discriminated against and racially profiled. We get stared down. It's something that needs to be brought up, but they don't.
We don't have a lot of teachers that look like us. We don't have those type of role models. All the role models that we have are white teachers. And I'm not gonna lie, some of the white teachers are racist.
If I were able to talk to the school board, I would also tell them what the administrators and teachers at my school have done. And that I don’t think they belong in a school because they have no right to treat anybody the way they treated me.
Towards the end of our conversation, Brenda recited parts of a song that resonated with her. Below is an excerpt of those lyrics:
They hate your brown skin and they hate my brown eyes
And they hate that we'll represent those three colors with our lives
“Oh you was born in America you gotta choose a side”
“Pero tengo sangre Azteca” and I say that shit with pride
You in love with our culture and you in love with our music
You're screaming “build that wall!” but you in love with taco Tuesday
I'm an alien in your country but in mine your just a tourist
And don't think we forgot you closed your border to Honduras
What happened to humanity, you forgot how that felt?
Cause when New Orleans was under watеr Mexico rushed over to hеlp
But they don't care about us Mexicans they don't even teach our history
Cause then we'll realize that this land belongs to you and me
. . .
Y'all was brought up on hatred and racism but y'all not ready for that conversation
The Education Equity for Latinx Students project started in the fall of 2022 as part of our efforts to expand racial justice work on behalf of Idaho students, beginning with Latinx communities.