After Outcry, Pomona To Fly Puerto Rican Flag At Commencement

Controversy over the flags flown at the Pomona College Commencement ceremony culminated with Pomona College agreeing to fly the flag of Puerto Rico alongside flags of other graduating students’ home countries. (Courtesy of Pomona College)

Pomona College has agreed to fly the flag of Puerto Rico alongside flags of other graduating students’ home countries at this year’s commencement. The decision follows an outpouring of student support after Pomona initially declined a Puerto Rican student’s request to have the U.S. territory’s flag displayed.

Pomona began flying the flags of graduating students’ home countries at commencement last year, but during the class of 2018’s senior dinner March 23, at which the flags were also displayed, Victoria Anders PO ’18 noticed that the flag of her home country, Austria, was missing.

Anders, a head mentor for the International Student Mentor Program, reached out to her class on Facebook to compile a list of other missing flags of students’ home countries to be flown at commencement.

“I got about 10 to 15 requests, mostly from non-territory states,” Anders wrote in an email to TSL. “I got two requests that did not fit this normative/classic description, from students belonging to Indigenous tribes who wanted their tribes' flags flown, and from a Puerto Rican student.”

Anders presented the list to the Dean of Students Office, and said she was told that the requests for the Indigenous nations’ flags were being considered, but that President G. Gabrielle Starr had denied the request for the Puerto Rican flag because Puerto Rico is not a sovereign nation.

The Dean of Students Office notified the Puerto Rican student who initially made the request, and the student reached out to ASPC President Maria Vides PO ’18 for help.

The student in question could not be reached for comment.

Vides and the Latinx Alliance executive board drafted a petition addressed to Starr and acting Dean of Students Janet Dickerson April 9 to fly the flag. The petition garnered 369 signatures (a little over half of which were from Pomona students, with most of the remainder coming from the other 5Cs) in two days, and was presented to Starr and Dickerson by the Latinx Alliance April 11.

Dickerson said she and Starr had continued to discuss the issue after the initial decision, and had decided to reverse it and let the flag fly before they received the petition.

“It was not intended to be a controversy or have anyone feel excluded,” Dickerson said. “[Starr] was not unsympathetic to the argument in the first place.”

Although she was upset with the administration’s initial decision, its reversal is a step in the right direction, Vides said.

“I am simply excited to know that … we will be honoring and celebrating our Puerto Rican community, their resilience, and culture by flying the flag,” she wrote in an email to TSL. “I believe the administration was successfully able to take a step back, engage student responses, and act in a way that honors the experiences of our community and the college's commitment to diversity through representation, even if only symbolic.”

The petition argued that the administration’s initial denial of the student’s request was a disrespectful act that built on colonial history.

“Choosing not to represent our peers visibly with the flag that they most identify with is both an act of disrespect and erasure,” it read. “The College contributes to the ongoing erasure of a distinct national identity that has maintained itself over 120 years of colonization through historically violent repression by the United States government.”

The petition also said that, given the recent event of Hurricane Maria and the federal government’s “inadequate response” to the disaster, the administration's action was particularly disrespectful “at [a] time when Puerto Ricans already feel unheard.”

Vides thinks the administration’s reasoning for its initial decision not to fly the flag is unjustified because “we were presented with the idea that we can only fly the flags of ‘sovereign’ nations without any critical analysis of what that means in the context of Claremont and the world beyond.

“Understanding sovereignty requires conversations on historical construction and colonialism, its legacy, and modern manifestations — all of which I believe were devoid in the [administration's] response,” she wrote.

Dickerson said the decision to fly the flag of Puerto Rico raises larger questions about Pomona’s flag policy.

“Would we fly [the flag of] China and [the flag of] Taiwan if they don’t recognize one another? Is Scotland under the Union Jack, or does it have its own independent flag?” she said. “You could think about ways to ask the question in a broader and broader situation.”