It was an early May fiesta at Will Rogers Elementary School, an annual event that has existed for decades.

But what had been a popular celebration of the Cinco de Mayo holiday created a deep fissure in the campus community this year, the result of a name change that shifted the focus away from its Hispanic roots in favor of a more pluralistic springtime festival.

Parents and community members flocked to the Santa Monica-Malibu school board meeting last week to decry what they saw as a lack of respect for the longtime tradition and a slight to their cultural heritage.

Their complaints came amid broad allegations of racial inequality in the district, a topic sparked by the school board’s review of data showing the achievement gap between black and Latino students and their peers.

“I’ve never felt as discriminated as I do now,” Edna Mendez, a Will Rogers PTA board member, said through a translator. “We have felt discriminated because we are Latino. We are here asking that the staff at Will Rogers treat us with dignity and respect and stop discriminating against us.”

This year’s May 1 event at Will Rogers resembled a carnival and featured face-painting, flower-making and mural-drawing as well as a bean bag toss, a dunk pond and a station for creating cascarones, or confetti eggs. Food options included pizza, hot dogs, watermelon and popcorn as well as nachos and pan dulce, sweet bread that is popular in Latino circles.

According to Will Rogers PTA president Katherine Caulfield Newall, the decision to convert the school’s Cinco de Mayo event into a spring festival followed several committee meetings.

She said the event was spearheaded by Stefanie Schlepp, who stepped up to fill a leadership vacancy that seemed to be drawing little interest.

“It’s not true to say no one was informed,” Newall said.

But the changed name of the Cinco de Mayo fiesta — a staple at Will Rogers for 42 years, according to multiple accounts — was nonetheless upsetting to the community members who testified at the school board meeting.

A former Will Rogers student, Esmerelda Hernandez, said she was sad to learn that the celebration did not focus on Cinco de Mayo, a commemoration of the Mexican army’s victory against French forces in 1862.

“I understand that many of the students don’t celebrate that event,” Hernandez said through a translator, “but this is one of the days that, as Latinos who live in the U.S., we celebrate. … Even though I don’t attend Will Rogers, I would like to see it come back.”

School board member Oscar de la Torre seemed taken aback by the change and urged the campus community to have open discussions about honoring the diversity of students and their families.

“This is very offensive that we’re changing events without having a real dialogue,” he said. “I don’t want any parent group to feel marginalized in our community. Cinco de Mayo has never been exclusive – how did it become that? That dialogue has to happen with the parents at Will Rogers.”

Newall said the tweak was not intended as offensive but added that she now sees a clear need for further conversations about the Cinco de Mayo event and other cultural observances at the school.

“We need to make sure people are included,” Newall said. “This is an opportunity for us to take a look at a problem that is being felt by our fellow parents. It’s an opportunity to work together and see what we can do make things right.”

Contact Jeff Goodman at 310-573-8351, jeff@www.smdp.com or on Twitter.

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