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Students displaced by fire hold prom at governor’s mansion

Robyn Ortega, 17, left, and Arieanna Velasquez, 16, both juniors at Mora High School, dance at the school’s prom held at the Governor’s Mansion in Santa Fe on Thursday. Mora and communities around it have been evacuated in recent weeks because of the Calf Canyon/Hermits Peak Fire burning in the area and were unable to hold the prom in Mora. (Eddie Moore/The Albuquerque Journal via AP)

SANTA FE (AP) – The largest wildfire in New Mexico history wouldn’t stand in the way of a normal prom for Mora High School students. Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham saw to that.

Students laughed and danced with Lujan Grisham at the Governor’s Mansion on Thursday evening – a silver lining for students during a tumultuous end to the school year.

Many students were forced to flee their homes by the Calf Canyon/Hermits Peak Fire in recent weeks, and some had only recently returned.

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham celebrates prom with students from Mora High School at the Governor’s Mansion in Santa Fe on Thursday. (Eddie Moore/The Albuquerque Journal via AP)

“I’m really excited to be here with my friends, and be able to enjoy this, and to have everyone welcome us,” said prom queen Jayme Pacheco, adding that it has been over a month since she’d seen her friends. “They mean a lot.”

Some students arrived decked out in suits and gowns while others stuck to their roots showing up in cowboy hats, jeans and boots.

Spanish and country music boomed through speakers as students two-stepped across the governor’s back patio. Lujan Grisham said she couldn’t throw a party and sit on the sidelines, and jumped in to dance the Cupid Shuffle with students, state Sen. Leo Jaramillo, D-Española, and U.S. Rep. Teresa Leger Fernández.

“I’m just elated that we could do this for the kids,” said New Mexico Education Secretary Kurt Steinhaus. “I’ve chaperoned a lot of proms – this one’s a little different than I’ve done before.”

The idea to have it at the Governor’s Mansion was Mora Independent School District Superintendent Marvin MacAuley’s. He said he asked Lujan Grisham during a conversation if students could have prom at her place.

MacAuley said she grinned, and told him she’d need to think about it. Her staff told him later that the idea was a go.

Lujan Grisham said a lot of work went into making sure students knew they had a “whole state that cares about their happiness and well-being.”

“We have to celebrate each other, and we have to make room even in a tragedy,” Lujan Grisham told the Journal. “This is the way we ought to show how resilient we are … these experiences matter.”

Middle and high school Principal Lefonso Castillo said this year’s seniors have only spent two years in an in-person school setting, in part because of the COVID-19 pandemic. That’s part of why making the end of this year as “normal as possible” was so important, he said.

Seniors had a luxurious week lined up. After Thursday’s dance with the governor, 33 students were slated to graduate Friday during a ceremony at the Eldorado Hotel & Spa in Santa Fe. Many are also being put up in hotel rooms funded by members of the Mora community.

Maricela MacAuley, 17, and Adam Torres, 18, dance at the Governor’s Mansion, Thursday. (Eddie Moore/The Albuquerque Journal via AP)

Community members also chipped in for prom essentials, including dresses, tuxedos and corsages. The snazzed-up students fit right in with the elegant mansion, which even featured a chocolate fountain for them.

Prom was originally planned for April 30, and staff members had already begun decorating for the dance. But about a week before, the evacuation orders came, forcing the district to come up with a new plan.

So far, Castillo knows of one or two of his students who have lost their homes to the fire. Three staff members’ homes were also destroyed.

“It’s once in a lifetime, for sure” senior Ellianna Martinez said about the dance. Still, she noted the past weeks had held many hardships, and that the fires had “devastated our community.”