As the sun set over Anselmo Valencia Tori Amphitheatre on Thursday night, the graduating classes of Toltecalli and Envision high schools, led by Pasco Yaqui tribal member, keynote speaker and social worker Maria Molina Vai Sevoi, performed a rite of passage ceremony.
Acknowledging the land they stood on and recognizing their roots, Vai Sevoi asked everyone present to close their eyes and breathe in light, love and pride, then breathe out the water, breath and fire that was carried in their ancestors' body and peace. Then she asked them to raise a fist in the air.
"This represents resistance," said Vai Sevoi. "This represents resistance as indigenous people, as people of color, the ways that we've survived in a society that said you don't belong here. When you get your diplomas that's one of the ultimate forms of resistance. When you succeed, that's resistance. I want to see some fists up in the air. That represents your resistance, and that represents that we're not afraid and that we're going to take space, and that we're going to be the caretakers of today and of the future."
In her speech, Vai Sevoi described the graduating class as flourishing flowers and their seeds as everything that comes from their ancestors.
"You're the seeds that sprouted that your ancestors prayed for, that your mothers carried in their womb, that your caregivers nurtured," said Vai Sevoi. "You flourished to this beautiful flower. Everything that they taught you. Those are flowers. Every paper you've ever written, every song you ever jotted down, any artwork, anything that you've ever done. Those are your flowers, and they have seeds."
Graduating senior Cassandra Sanchez is one of those flowers. At the age of 16, Sanchez graduated last week from Toltecalli High School and will attend the University of Arizona to study marine biology.
As a graduating senior from one of the Chicano Por La Causa Community Schools, Sanchez had a flexible, tuition-free learning experience where she could make up for failed credit, utilize on and off-campus resources and even graduate early.
Despite the pandemic and remote-learning woes, Sanchez pushed through to graduate.
"That was definitely difficult in the beginning but towards the end it got a lot easier," said Sanchez. "My grades started going up so much but then we went back to school and then they went up even more."
The possibility of graduating early and the knowledge that she could do other things after high school inspired Sanchez to graduate. She admits she is scared about starting university when she is much younger than her peers, but is grateful and inspired for the possible opportunities after high school. She was awarded the Wildcat Recognition Tuition Award and thanked her school for the help and resources they gave her to accomplish this.
"Toltecalli has really done a lot for me, and really just brought my spirits up and everything and I'm really grateful for the school," said Sanchez. "They've definitely given me a lot of support, more than I've ever gotten from any other school, like they have supported me in creating clubs, getting into new things and going after what I really like."
While at Toltecalli, Sanchez created a travel club and participated in the Student Council. Sanchez also thanked her mom for her support during her graduation speech while choking back tears.
"But mostly, I want to thank my mom for helping me throughout high school and pushing me to be my very best," Sanchez said. "I know I've made a lot of mistakes throughout high school, and especially at home but I've learned from Toltecalli and from you that the most important thing you can do is learn."
Like Sanchez, Envision High School graduating senior Caitlyn Esquivel thanked her family and school for their support through a pandemic that made school harder.
"Over these last four years, or three, we have all had experiences of learning from the good and the bad, to laughing and the crying, or from the late night to the early mornings. I'm not going to stand here and tell you it was easy either, because it wasn't. Some of us had to deal with loss, anxiety, relationships, grades, tests and figuring out our futures. Some of us did that while working and all of us did that during a global pandemic," Sanchez told her graduating class on Thursday night. "It is through both our struggles and perseverance that we are walking the stage and getting that diploma with our heads high and our futures on the horizon."
She specifically thanked her dad for pushing her to graduate as well as everyone present at the ceremony who "helped us graduates get to where we are now and for that we are forever grateful. Whether it was family, friends or teachers we thank you, not just for helping us in our journey but for putting up with us."
Esquivel accomplished a part of her plan when she graduated early from Envision High School at the age of 17 and plans to attend Pima Community College in the Fall to study business management.
Toltecalli High School Principal Angel Sobrino asked the students to remember who they are and their unique experiences.
"Most importantly, guys, and I say this seriously, never forget where you come from," said Sobrino. "It's your personal experiences that have brought you guys here today, as many of you guys said."