NEWMAN (CBS13) – A Central Valley teen is in the middle of a national controversy after the valedictorian gave his graduation speech in Spanish.
Among the critics is well-known TV commentator Bill O’Reilly, and the attention has put the small Stanislaus County town of Newman in the spotlight.
The Orestimba High School valedictorian says when he chose to deliver his message in Spanish, he never thought he’d spark a national controversy.
“I actually said in advance that I would like to apologize for people who don’t speak Spanish,” Saul Tello said Tuesday.
The apology was followed by a five-minute speech only in Spanish.
The 18-year-old says he wanted to deliver his valedictorian speech in both English and Spanish but was told there wasn’t enough time at the graduation ceremony. He was forced to pick one language.
“In our school there’s a big Spanish-speaking community,” he said. “I felt that would be good.”
Saul also wanted to make sure his Spanish-speaking parents understood his words at the podium.
“I’m hearing it was me trying to make a political statement. It’s nothing of that sort. I just wanted to do my speech in Spanish.”
But the decision landed Saul and school leaders in the national news spotlight, including on O’Reilly’s Fox News show.
“In California, a high school valedictorian, very smart kid, told the principal of Orestimba High School that he wants to give his speech in Spanish,” O’Reilly said on his show. “The principal said, ‘Sure, go right ahead.’”
Superintendent Ed Felt says complaints from all over the country poured into his office and he says changes are in the works.
“Anyone entering the stadium in the future should understand what’s being said whether we put it in print or do it verbally in both languages,” Felt said.
In this small town of about 10,000 people, the district says the majority of students come from Spanish-speaking homes.
Some parents are divided on the issue.
“Doing your speech in Spanish, that doesn’t sound right at all,” Jared Joyce said.
“They could have had an interpreter for the English people who didn’t understand it, but I don’t see nothing wrong with it,” Melvin Patino said.
Saul isn’t letting the uproar bother him, but he says the ordeal has taken away from the achievements earned by the class of 2012.
“Each graduation is supposed to be this amazing experience,” he said. “Now they are blowing this simple thing out of proportion and it’s overshadowing our graduation.”
Saul says despite the controversy, if he had to do it all over gain, he’d still choose to speak Spanish.
The school board is expected to address the issue for future graduation ceremonies when it meets again.
In 2011 a school principal at Whitell High School in Zephyr Cove, Nevada came under fire for delivering a commencement speech in English and Spanish.