In a sea of decorated graduation caps, Jesus Partida’s was especially colorful, with a rainbow of large letters on top spelling out: “Young Latinx and Proud!”
The Garden Grove resident was alongside hundreds of fellow Latino students to celebrate their graduation. He would use that cap again, when attending the Lavender Graduation with fellow gay students, and, finally, while celebrating his degree a third time during Cal State Long Beach’s traditional commencement.
Universities across the country are increasingly holding graduation ceremonies for different ethnicities and other specific groups, more intimate versions than the campus-wide pomp and circumstance.
“I identify with the Mexican and Latino community because my parents are Mexican,” Partida said. “I have a sense of pride in my culture.
“At the Lavender Graduation, I invited those who I identify as my gay family, who were there during my coming-out process.”
Last month, Harvard University netted considerable media attention when it held its first commencement for black graduates. But such ethnic ceremonies are old hat in the Southland, where universities have been hosting so-called cultural graduations for years, some for decades.
UC Riverside’s 45th annual “Raza Grad” is Saturday, June 10, for Latino students, who choose two individuals — often parents or grandparents — to walk in with them during the ceremony for Latino grads.
Its “Black Graduation Ceremony” will follow Sunday, and so will the 4th annual “Family Graduation Celebration” with 20 grads who are parents and will be accompanied by their children — who will receive their own caps and certificates.
“Commencement is so big that the accomplishments of some of the students are not recognized, but when you break it down by community, you can recognize their accomplishments,” said Romaine Arterberry, of UCR’s Women’s Resource Center.
UC Irvine will host its own “Raza Graduation,” the 39th edition, next Thursday in the Bren Events Center. There are smaller celebrations for indigenous graduates and Vietnamese-American graduates. Those in the country illegally just held their third annual “Dreamers Graduation” that included a dinner and dance, with parents receiving certificates for supporting their children.
This year, at Cal State Northridge, 60 veterans walked across the stage to receive a Veterans Resource Center Challenge Coin and a long-stemmed red rose. Following campus tradition, the new graduates then placed the roses at the foot of the school’s Matador statue.
Cal State Long Beach’s 28th annual Chicano/Latino graduation was so large it was split into two sessions in the Pyramid, the arena where basketball is played, with live music, Aztlán dancers, and flags from throughout Latin America.
“I get the question a lot: Why separate them?” said Pamela Kreiser, a CSULB professor attending the Latino event, a day after going to the Pan-African Graduation. “It’s not to separate them. These are celebrations in addition to regular commencement.”
The keynote speaker was Sylvia Mendez, daughter of Mexican immigrants whose landmark court case, Mendez v. Westminster, led to desegregation in schools in Orange County and California before the rest of the nation followed years later with Brown v. Board of Education.
“What makes this country the greatest in the world is the knowledge that we are all created equal, and we are allowed to keep our culture, our customs, even our own graduations — how great is that?” Mendez said to cheers.
“This is a lot more special,” said Yazmin Farfan, 24, of San Juan Capistrano, getting her master’s in social work. “The culture is really embraced.” Speeches are in English and in Spanish, “so my parents will be able to understand it.”
Across the Long Beach campus, there was a much lower-key celebration, for about 15 Cambodian graduates. The fare included traditional dishes following speeches and congratulatory certificates.
Professor Armando Vazquez-Ramos, the coordinator of the Long Beach Ethnic Students Program, says the ethnic graduations recognize not only the graduates “but those who got them there. … It’s more of a celebration for the whole family.”
At Whittier College, there were separate graduation ceremonies for Latinos, Asian/Pacific Islanders, African Americans and LGBT students.
The Kente Graduation, at Loyola Marymount University for black students, offers a special African prayer, the presentation of a colorful kente cloth stole to each grad, and a call-and-response with the graduates on their responsibilities to their communities.
“It’s an amazing event,” said Jade Smith, Loyola Marymount’s associate dean for student affairs. “There are African drums. And we do a naming ceremony for all the students in which they receive their African names, representing some characteristic of the students.”
This ceremony grew from a handful of black students in 1991 to 108 students this year. The Catholic campus also offers a special blessing to Jewish students during their last Shabbat of the school year, and next year it may host a graduation ceremony for Muslim students.
Smith said that the ethnic graduation ceremonies and their relationships to the university have evolved.
“In the 1960s and ’70s, it was the community celebrating the community in spite of the university,” Smith said. “They’ve become a celebration saying, ‘Because of you, we are better.’ The university recognizes it’s important to have students of color, and to support and celebrate them.”
Even on campuses where Asians and Latinos surpass their Anglo peers in numbers, the celebrations are still needed, said Jade Agua, director of UCI’s Cross-Cultural Center.
“It’s all about persisting through institutions that weren’t made for students of color and that’s true today, even though we are not numerical minorities,” she said. “They are still experiencing being marginalized.”
Some students pass on participating in the specialized ceremonies.
Senior Ariana Martinez, 23, was busy studying for finals while some of her friends were at the “Raza Graduation” at Cal Poly Pomona.
Had she been free, she might have gone.
“I feel it is still necessary because it makes us feel empowered,” said Martinez, who hails from Anaheim and whose brother Alejandro graduated from Cal State Long Beach and attended his Latino ceremony.
“At the same time, we’re separating each other during graduations,” she said. “We’re supposed to be united, but these graduations actually separate us. I see both points of view. But as long as I can attend the main graduation, I’ll be happy.”
Back at Cal State Long Beach, Partida said each ceremony was meaningful.
“We live in a society where everyone wants to make people stay in one box,” said the newly minted grad with a degree in human development. “Having more than one identity is not a bad thing.”
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