Idaho students protest ban on 'brown pride' sweatshirts deemed a sign of gang affiliation

A video that has gone viral has exposed a clash between students and school officials in Idaho over whether the term “brown pride” is a symbol of cultural pride or a sign of gang affiliation.

A video viewed by more than 1.6 million people on TikTok and later shared on other platforms shows students at Caldwell High School in Idaho protesting for the right to wear culturally significant clothing items with features like the words “brown pride.”

In the video, Latina high school student Brenda Hernandez says school officials told her to remove her “brown pride” hoodie, as it can be deemed racist and akin to wearing a "white pride" shirt.

Hernandez, a senior, said in a phone interview that the Jan. 17 protest followed an incident in early December. She was sitting in her fifth-period economics class when she was called into the principal’s office and escorted there by a school staff member.

Hernandez said she had no reason to suspect she would be in trouble. She said the staff member informed her the visit was due to her hoodie.

“He was telling me: 'You can’t wear it, because it has ‘brown pride’ on it. It’s like wearing a white pride shirt. People can find it racist,'” she said.

Hernandez said the principal described the clothing item as gang-related and she received a dress code violation.

Brenda Hernandez waves a Mexican flag at the day of the protest on Jan. 17.  (Courtesy Brenda Hernandez)
Brenda Hernandez waves a Mexican flag at the day of the protest on Jan. 17. (Courtesy Brenda Hernandez)

Caldwell High School’s dress code policy prohibits the “wearing, using, carrying, or displaying any other gang clothing or attire, or style, jewelry, emblem, badge, symbol, sign, codes, tattoos, or other things or items which evidence membership or affiliation in any gang is prohibited on any school premises or at any school sponsored activity at any time."

NBC News contacted Caldwell High School officials and was directed to the Caldwell School District’s director of communications, Jessica Watts, who responded in an email statement: “In making this decision our research shows the term ‘Brown Pride’ is associated with street gangs currently operating in the Northwest. Therefore, students are not allowed per District Policy to wear clothing affiliated with gangs. We understand that some students may be concerned with this Policy."

Char Jackson, the public information officer for the city of Caldwell, the Caldwell Police Department and the Caldwell Fire Department, said there are two primary gangs in the region they are dealing with — the Norteños and the Sureños.

Caldwell police found that the Brown Pride Sureños were a subset of the Sureños and that they became active in around the last two years, Jackson said.

A clothing brand subjected to 'stereotype'

Sonny Ligas, the director of the Idaho chapter of the League of United Latin American Citizens, or LULAC, is also the owner of Jefito Hats, the local community brand that made the "Brown Pride" hoodie and that first opened its doors in 1997.

The shop sells Chicano-style hats, apparel and accessories. The merchandise has become popular with young people and is frequently worn by students in several high schools.

“It really irritates me where they can stereotype, you know, saying that it’s gang-related," Ligas said. “I’m not gang-related — how are we going to allow these people to manchar [stain] a culture with their palabras [words] that they know nothing about whatsoever?”

Hernandez, who models for Jefito Hats, said she has worn the same hoodie to school previously and never received a dress code violation until last month.

A participant in the student-organized protest holding a
A participant in the student-organized protest holding a

Hernandez said she believes wearing culturally significant clothes comes from a place of comfort, a way to show her pride. She said she organized the peaceful protest in accordance with her school’s principal.

She estimated a turnout of 100 students that morning before classes began. They wore rosaries, bandannas and clothing inspired by Latino heritage and brown pride, and some students brought Mexican flags, she said. Ligas also participated in solidarity.

But Hernandez said tensions grew after they weren’t allowed to protest by walking inside the building — which she and the principal had agree to previously, she said — because they might disturb other classrooms. The group was moved outside, and it wasn’t allowed to return inside unless members removed their brown pride-related clothes.

Ligas and several students said they saw the school policy as a form of censorship and discrimination.

“Brown pride” is not about racism; “it’s completely different,” Ligas said. The term is associated with decadeslong Chicano and Mexican American cultural and civil rights movements.

According to the Caldwell School District’s 2022 spring enrollment figures, 62.5% of K-12 students are Latino. More than 99% of all enrolled students come from low-income families.

A quarter of Canyon County’s population, which includes the city of Caldwell, is Hispanic. Latinos account for 24% of the state’s population growth in the last decade, according to a 2021 Idaho Commission on Hispanic Affairs report.

Lilly Meinen, a Latina freshman at Caldwell High School, said the term “brown pride” was something students should be proud of. Asked whether she thought the term could have negative implications, she said, “I knew that it could, but it wasn’t worn negatively from anyone that I’ve ever seen.”

Another student, Alexxis Childers, said she was suspended for having participated in the protests. The school district said it “cannot comment on student discipline.”

Childers, who is white, said students are being racially profiled.

“If they’re going to take away rosaries because they feel like it could be affiliated with a gang, then just as people think certain other religious groups are cults, then they need to take away the cross from every other student, as well,” she said.

“I believe it was extremely peaceful,” Childers said about the protest. “The school is trying to say that these kids are all just gang members. And when you have, just, this diverse group of kids, you cannot say every single one of these kids are gang members.”

NBC News asked an area charter school, Elevate Academy, about its dress code policies after several students said it had banned brown pride-related clothing and rosaries. The school hasn’t responded.

Two days after the protest, Caldwell High School was vandalized with a "white power" tagging and a white van was vandalized with "f--- brown pride" tagging. Local authorities initially said they were investigating a possible hate crime; they later announced they believed it was an "act of intimidation between two rival Hispanic criminal street gangs from Caldwell."

Caldwell school officials’ handling of the protest is also an issue, said students, who said that they were treated poorly and that their parents and the media didn’t get the facts from the school.

Ligas and other community members, including the American Civil Liberties Union of Idaho, were scheduled to address the issues at a LULAC meeting later Monday.

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