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Fremont High students Hannah Leeper, right, and Mandy Montante Gonzalez, left, talk in the commons area of Fremont High School.


In a Nebraska town that’s been a battleground over illegal immigration, two Fremont High School girls delivered a graduation speech that embodied racial cooperation.

Their message was not so much in what Hannah Leeper and Mandy Montante Gonzalez said at the Midland Events Center, but in how they said it.

They tag-teamed the graduation speech, Leeper addressing graduates in English, and Gonzalez in Spanish — the first dual-language graduation speech at the school, according to Chuck Story, former principal and special populations coordinator at the high school.

“Fremont is primarily white and Latino,” said Gonzalez, 18, who is of Mexican descent. “Me and Hannah kind of represented that.”

This past school year, enrollment at the school was about 68 percent white and 29 percent Hispanic.

Gonzalez said she was born in the United States, the oldest of five children. Her father is from the Guanajuato province in Mexico and her mother from Veracruz, she said.

Leeper and Gonzalez earned the opportunity to speak at graduation by finishing among the 13 top-ranked students in their class.

The girls, in their speech, did not specifically address race — not in their words.

They worked on the speech together, building it around an allegory from “The Alchemist” by Paulo Coelho.

The pair learned of the story in Advanced Placement English literature class.

The story tells of a boy who must explore a beautiful castle while carrying — and not spilling — a spoonful of oil. The challenge of the tale is how to stay focused on the details without missing the beauty all around.

“There is something to learn from this in the hustle and bustle of society today,” Leeper, 18, told the crowd. “Life’s purpose is not solely to focus on what we have in our own little spoon. Dedicate a little time in your life to appreciate something other than your own goals, whether it be family, friends, nature, volunteering.”

Gonzalez said Spanish was her first language. She said her parents only speak Spanish, though her father knows a little English.

She said that by delivering the speech in Spanish it reached out to the Spanish-speaking parents at graduation, making them feel comfortable and welcome.

Leeper knows some Spanish, but she intends to learn a lot more in college. She is headed to the University of Nebraska at Omaha to study secondary education with an endorsement in Spanish — she wants to teach Spanish in high school.

Gonzalez plans to continue her education at Metropolitan Community College, where she’ll study social work.

The city of Fremont has been ground zero for the battle over illegal immigration since 2010, when voters approved an ordinance prohibiting hiring and renting to people who entered the U.S. illegally.

Most recently, opponents of a chicken-processing operation that Costco wants to build in Fremont have pushed back with a variety of concerns, including that it will attract immigrant workers who are living in the country illegally and who will put a financial strain on social services and schools.

Both girls said they were too nervous giving their speeches to notice how well it was received by the crowd, though Story assured them that they got hearty applause.

Afterward, they said they got many compliments. They think it helped people to see things a little differently.

“I think it was a good step forward for the community,” Leeper said.

Joe covers education for The World-Herald, focusing on pre-kindergarten through high school. Phone: 402-444-1077.

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