Almond Bowl T-shirt design at Chico High stirs debate Winning design opens doors for Latinx students

essay by Denise Minor

On the surface, this story appears to be about a disagreement over the T-shirt design chosen to commemorate this year’s Almond Bowl, the cross-town football game that each fall marks athletic rivalry between two local high schools.

VOCES Latinxs at Chico High produced the winning design for the school’s Almond Bowl T-shirt that includes a sugar skull-like image.

But beneath the surface, the story is really about how we, as individuals and a society, choose the symbols and imagery we find acceptable to represent ourselves to the rest of the world. And beyond that, it is about the divisions between whom we view as “us” and “them.”

Some background: Every year the Chico High School (CHS) Associated Student Body holds a design contest for the T-shirts and sweatshirts that students and fans wear to the big game against Pleasant Valley High School. This year’s game falls on Nov. 1, the traditional Mexican Day of the Dead. Given that coincidence, a club for Latino students called VOCES Latinxs came up with the idea of combining the school’s panther mascot with some typical Day of the Dead design touches. (In English, “voces” means “voices.”)

In the club’s design, the face of a white panther is painted with curlicues and flower petals, and below it on a scroll “Day of the Panther” is written in archaic letters.

On the back, the letters “CHS” are emblazoned on three squares that resemble papel picado, colorful tissue paper banners often hung at Mexican celebrations.

Soon after the club submitted its entry in late September, VOCES Latinxs learned it had won. The students’ elation at winning, however, quickly turned to hurt and frustration when members realized that the CHS Instagram was overrun with negative comments about its design. Club Co-President Saray Bautista said one sentiment she saw repeatedly read, in essence, that some students “didn’t want multiculturalism shoved down their throats.”

“I guess some students don’t see in the shirt what we see in it,” said Bautista. “For me, it felt great to help create a shirt that had something of my culture in it.”

Spanish teacher and VOCES adviser Jamie Fisher Vargas said she was shocked by what she read. “Some wrote that it was too Mexican and that it didn’t have anything to do with ‘us’,” she told me in an interview. The administration shut down the Instagram account, and public criticism moved to private social media pages.

Then club members learned that some football players were backing an alternative design with a more traditional athletic logo, and that a parent was helping them get it printed. Bautista saw the design and said it depicts a panther and reads, “CHG until the death of me.”

She was told that CHG stands for “Chico High Gang.”

Bautista was sanguine about the competing layout. “It’s a cool shirt,” she said.

I haven’t seen that design, but as I look at the VOCES Latinxs “Day of the Panther” creation, I can’t help wonder what it is about this image that stirred up such anger. A few students are going to the trouble of coming up with a lay out, purchasing T-shirts, going to a screen printer and having the shirts made, perhaps not even knowing how many to order and what sizes to produce. Less enterprising or passionate people would simply have foregone wearing a T-shirt or tracked down the shirts used last year.

I wanted to talk to the players or other students who have taken a stand against the winning tee, but my emails to teachers and administrators at Chico High to find out more were not returned. And to be fair, if I were an adult at the school and had students on both sides of the issue, I might not respond to press inquiries.

As I struggled to make sense of this, I remembered a day about a year ago when I had a small revelation. I was sitting in the Enloe Prompt Care waiting room on Bruce Road when I spotted across from me a woman who appeared, in many ways, to be like me. We were both white, middle-aged and slightly plump. We both wore jeans and athletic shoes. We both had chosen dark brown as the preferred dye for our shoulder-length hair.

But there was one important difference in our appearance that to the trained eye revealed that we were in different tribes. On my purse handle I had pinned a button that read “Black Lives Matter.” On her T-shirt was imprinted a flag whose design resembled the U.S. flag, but with a significant twist. The white stars lay on a black background and the stripes were black and white with the exception of one royal blue stripe running across the middle. It was the symbol of the “Blue Lives Matter” movement that defends police against critics who blame them for violence against African Americans.

To a visiting foreigner, my pin and her flag might have seemed unremarkable, nothing they would even notice. But to us they signified division as much as the hand signals of gang members, the colors of athletic teams or the medals pinned on the chests of military members. They told anyone in the know: One woman is a liberal. The other is a conservative. One voted for Hilary Clinton. The other voted for Donald Trump.

For longer than could be considered polite, we stared impassively into one another’s eyes until I broke the gaze. This is ridiculous, I thought. If someone asked her if she thought it was fine for police to kill unarmed black people, she most likely would have said no. If someone asked me if I thought it was fine for police to be killed in the line of duty, I would have said no. Yet, there is no way I would wear that T-shirt or that she would don my button.

Of course, my experience cannot be compared to the situation of the Chico High students. One division is political and the other is cultural. But when and how do we decide that a style or symbol can represent the big “us”? Across town from Chico High, the mascot for Pleasant Valley high is a blond Viking wearing a helmet with horns. The percentage of students at PV with Scandinavian blood is probably quite low, yet most of the student body would proudly wear that Viking image. Students do so because, during the school’s 1964 opening, people decided upon that mascot. And now, most students choose to wear an image from a culture that isn’t theirs.

As I prepared to write this essay, I looked for a more apt comparison. What if, I thought, there were a sports competition in the spring and one year it fell on St. Patrick’s Day? Would there be any conflict if the winning commemorative T-shirt design included Irish symbols, such as a shamrock and a rainbow with a pot of gold at the end?

In essence, my question is: When will designs, words or images from Latino culture cross the line and be considered acceptable for communicating “this is us” for the whole community?

We are surrounded by Spanish place names because California was once part of Mexico. We live in state where there are more Latinos than Anglos or any other designated ethnic population, and at Chico High about one third of the student body is of Hispanic heritage. When does “they” meld into “us”?

Maybe the answer is now. Just before my deadline, Fisher Vargas told me that the school sold three times more VOCES Latinxs shirts than any other T-shirt design in the contest history. Bautista was thrilled by the news. “Right now we live in a tough world. Being different is looked down upon,” she said. “But this shows that we have support. I never thought this shirt would become so popular.”

Perhaps there will be other benefits to VOCES Latinxs that come from this difficult experience. Chico State University students, instructors and professors learned of the T-shirt debate, and some have since decided to contact the CHS student club to invite it to campus to learn about future educational options. Department Chair Sara Cooper of Multicultural and Gender Studies said her students hope to meet with VOCES members, and some of them plan to attend the Almond Bowl wearing the winning T-shirts that Cooper gave them. Spanish Instructor Gerardo Mireles who is adviser to MEChA (Movimiento Estudiantil Chicanx de Aztlán) said his students also plan to connect with VOCES Latinxs. Fisher Vargas said that club members were thrilled to learn they would be “guests of honor” in meeting with college students.

“For my students, to see that other people cared about their club and what they are doing really opened their eyes,” said Fisher Vargas. “They have been trying to figure out who they are as students at Chico High. But this whole issue has shown them that they can go beyond that. It makes them want to be part of a bigger community, to share their culture and to be part of change.”

Dr. Denise Minor is an author and retired Spanish and linguistics professor from California State University, Chico.

Editor’s note: Readers have asked about the T-shirt design in past years. ChicoSol obtained these photos of the fronts and backs of the tees chosen for the past two years:

12 thoughts on “Almond Bowl T-shirt design at Chico High stirs debate Winning design opens doors for Latinx students

  1. I think it is deplorable that you turned this into a racial issue. The students were not upset that the shirt depicted the Day of the Dead, they were upset that it did not depict football. Football is what the almond bowl is about. There was no inclusion in the Day of the Dead design of the sport that is about to be played on the field. When they said it did not depict them, they did not say because it was a Latin holiday, they said it was because it was about a Latin holiday and NOT about football. Rosebowl tshirts without Roses on the them? How about a gay pride shirt without the rainbow? It is a beautiful design for the Day of the Dead….but it is not a design that represents football and their rivalry with the neighboring school. CHG stands for Chico High Gaming, not Chico High Gang, a fact that you neglected to check before publishing your deliberately charged article. You should be ashamed of using children to further your political agenda clothed in journalism. I am the parent of a Chico High Athlete, she is not a football player, I have no interest in football really and most likely will not attend the game. I am a woman who has both Latin and Caucasian heritage…and I am a human who believe that black lives and blue lives matter….and that a huge part of our problem is people like you who choose to go off half cocked, and make sweeping judgements. It is really sad to me that people would not choose to find a middle ground, but instead assume the worst of people and assign your own prejudices. I will leave you with this quote
    “I’m starting with the man in the mirror
    I’m asking him to change his ways
    And no message could have been any clearer
    If you want to make the world a better place
    Take a look at yourself, and then make a change.”

  2. As I read this article, I shake my head at the lack of a “whole story”.
    Why does so many individuals have to immediately pull out the race card?
    It doesn’t surprise me, ma’am that you wear a black lives matter pin. You, like so many others, encourage that separation. You are isolating an individual race apart from others. Do you always see races as separate?
    I don’t, I would proudly wear a shirt that says ALL lives matter. You see, I don’t like to see “color” or separation of races. The whole point of our free country was to be a melting pot.
    This shirt is a great shirt to wear to celebrate the day of the dead. What the football players tried to voice was that it failed to also represent the biggest game of their season!! Had a football somehow been incorporated into the shirt, this whole conversation would not be happening.
    THIS is what the article should have mentioned, NOT that these kids EVER looked at it with racist eyes.
    Shame on you, and shame on the adults who have tried to turn this into a racial debate.

    1. Thanks for commenting, Lisa T. ChicoSol was sent photos of the tees chosen in the two previous years, and they can now be viewed at the end of Minor’s essay.

  3. What the heck is this. As a MEXICAN senior varsity football player at chico high this is not at all what happened. For starters i was one of the people that doesnt like the shirt. Does that make me racist to my own culture? Even when i learned this culture as a kid and still practice it? Family was BORN AND RAISED in mexico. One reason the senior class, not just the football team, doesnt like the shirts is because they are poorly drawn. The panther overall is just terribly drawn. Looks like anyone couldve done it. No one got to vote for the shirts. As a senior we should get to choose the shirt. Once we said we did not like the shirt they told us to make our own, so we did. Some changes had to be made to the design due to inappropriate content. We ended up switching up a couple of words. The people printing and selling the shirts did not make the design. They do so much for the schools and are very organized with screenprinting connections. Also another MEXICAN SENIOR FOOTBALL PLAYER made the design. This is a sorry
    ass “news” site. Acting like CNN with bias news.

  4. This was totally biased and not accurate. That was not the purpose of the football team’s choice to make their own Almond Bowl T-shirts. Perfect example of media manipulation!

  5. Apparently my essay stirred up some emotions and I am happy to respond to comments in due time. But this missive is to ask adults involved in this matter to communicate to high school students that it is inappropriate to harass Co-President of VOCES Saray Bautista in person and in messages. One of her teachers said she is getting messages saying things like she is “ruining their lives by going to the press.”

    First of all, she is not ruining anyone’s life. More importantly, she did not come to me. I called her. It was clear from our conversation that she is a very respectful and polite person. She did not have one unkind word to say about those who viciously attacked her winning T-shirt design. (I’ve seen screen shots of the CHS Instagram posts.) Her only comment was, “I guess some students don’t see in the shirt what we see in it.” As for the competing design, her only statement was, “It’s a cool shirt.”

    My hat is off to Saray’s parents for raising a young woman who behaves with grace and courtesy, even when she is bullied.

  6. About this article: The generalizations made about why the woman sitting across from the author would show support for law enforcement, implying that all supporters and members of Blue Lives Matter would defend officers guilty of murder, beyond the due process guaranteed by law, is a bit much.

    I do see Football in the panther image of the winning design: 1) It says ‘BOWL’ right on there, and 2) the dark eyes of the panther, so ‘eye black’, just like the grown up football players wear!

  7. I was surprised by the strength of emotion expressed in some of the comments to Denise Minor’s essay. After careful reading and re-reading of it, I find it to be quite measured and thoughtful in both tone and content. I did not feel that Minor was attempting to turn “this into a racial issue,” as one commentator wrote, nor that she was “pull[ing] out the race card,” as another wrote. As Minor notes “[w]e are surrounded by Spanish place names because California was once part of Mexico. We live in state where there are more Latinos than Anglos or any other designated ethnic population…” That’s not pulling “the race card,” it’s just a fact of life in this country.

    One of the things I find most upsetting, however, is that the VOCES Latinxs club members took the initiative to submit their design to the CHS Associated Student Body’s contest and they won. Fair and square! Why all the drama; why all the sour grapes? Why didn’t their detractors submit their preferred designs by the contest deadlines?

    I’m glad to hear that sales of the VOCES T-shirts have been so brisk and that they have attracted so much positive attention from the wider community. So, how do I order one of the shirts?

  8. This conflict at Chico High over this creatively rendered t-shirt logo saddens me greatly. The game will be played on El Dia de los Muertos – what better way to acknowledge and embrace the Latinex culture which is so much a part of our local culture. And – as one of the other comments mentioned, this design won the contest fair and square!

    These hate-filled times are so dangerous. Let us embrace the beauty of all cultures and celebrate our unity in our diversity. I hope Chico High administrators and faculty will not stand by in silence, but take this opportunity as a teaching moment to inspire students to honor and embrace expressions of all cultures.

  9. I love the design!
    As I understand it the design rarely has anything to do with the sport.
    What I like best about living in a melting pot is seeing African Americans out on St. Patrick’s Day wearing their Kiss Me I’m Irish shirts, Jewish families with their Christmas trees, new immigrants celebrating on the 4th of July. The 2017 award winning animated film Coco woke a lot of people up to the Day of the Dead celebrations and there has been more and more momentum for including that cultural piece of ancestor appreciation to our mainstream Halloween traditions. The panther is now stylish and sharp with his curlicues and cute face. Chico High is on the cultural cutting edge with this great design and I’m glad the students chose it. ps This controversy is ridiculous.

  10. I wish I had pictures of all the Almond Bowl shirts students and staff were wearing today! It has been a very emotional couple of weeks for me and my students, and to see hundreds (or at least what felt like hundreds!) of shirts around campus today reminded me of why we decided to submit the design in the first place. The design came from our heart, a connection that we made with our cultura and our school – the pride we have for both! I know this has been a learning experience for not only my students, but for me as well. This isn’t the first or the last time that we will be faced with challenges, but I am so proud of my students for rising above and sharing LOVE!

    “Nos quisieron enterrar, pero no sabían que éramos semillas.”

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