Kente and De Colores ceremonies celebrate honor, community, and connections for Black and Latino Tigers
by Jeremy Gerlach
Black, green, red, yellow, and purple: these are iconic colors of the Akan ethnic group from south Ghana, draped through woven cloths called “Kente” stoles, and bestowed throughout history on ancient kings and queens.
At Trinity, Khaniya Russell ’19 and the Black Student Union have given the Kente cloth a place of equal joy: an annual graduation ceremony where seniors are honored by their peers in front of their families and friends, and are each bestowed with a unique stole.
“This symbolizes the honor they’re receiving by going through commencement,” Russell says. “It’s a ceremony that comes from Historically Black Colleges and Universities, and it’s so important to us that we’ve turned this into an annual event at Trinity, too.”
Russell, a history major and African American studies minor from Houston, is also vice president of the Black Student Union. In that role, she’s responsible for organizing the Kente ceremony, now in its third year at Trinity.
At the event, loved ones and family members bestow their graduates with the graduation stoles. One by one, each honored individual gets introduced by another chosen honoree. These introductions break down the degree, organizations, and roles each member has played during their four years on campus and explain their proudest moments and accomplishments at Trinity.
“This is for students who’ve had really significant and unique hardships that they’ve had to persevere through, and to honor their efforts,” Russell says. “This is an intimate ceremony, and it’s important for them to have their family there with them to celebrate.”
For each senior, having their family on hand for the Kente ceremony is an unforgettable experience, Russell says.
“Traditionally, I think a lot of times in black and African culture, you’ll see large family gatherings to honor accomplishments like this—like graduating—and that’s kind of the root of the tradition.”
Russell plans to graduate in 2019 and wants stay at Trinity to pursue a Master of Arts in Teaching, and she says she’s already thinking about the Kente ceremony for her fellow seniors next year.
Still, Russell says she is sad to see the class of 2018 depart.
“This Kente ceremony, it’s a really humbling experience, because I know the seniors going through the ceremony this year, and I know what a full circle it’s been for them,” Russell says. “And to see them stand out as leaders on the campus, that’s great for me—that’s why I wanted to be a part of this.”
For Janett Muñoz ’18, a graduating biochemistry and molecular biology major, Trinity’s De Colores ceremony is a chance to show the world that unity is stronger than division.
At De Colores—a unique celebration of Trinity’s graduating Latina/o seniors that takes its name from the Spanish term for “in colors”—24 Tigers, including Muñoz, headed to Trinity’s Parker Chapel. Seniors invited their families, friends, and countless members of the Trinity community who’ve supported them in school, and each selected a loved one to present them with a colorful stole in honor of their graduation.
“The colors on the stoles represent the many colors of the Latino people, the many areas we come from and languages we speak,” Muñoz says. “As minorities, we are always being fragmented and divided—by race, income, education, even body type—but this ceremony is a way for us to be united.”
A first-generation college student, Muñoz emigrated from Aguascalientes, Mexico with her parents when she was a child. While Muñoz still has extended family in Mexico—beloved grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins whom she visits every year—she went to McCollum High School in San Antonio and calls the city’s South Side home.
“Latinos are underrepresented at highly-ranked universities, so when I first came to Trinity, I found myself adjusting my behavior, ‘fixing’ my mannerisms, my jokes, to fit in,” Muñoz says.
“But after my first couple of years here,” Muñoz adds, “I found a really good community for people of color, and for Latinos here.”
At Trinity, Muñoz explored this community in different ways. As a scholar in the Ronald E. McNair program—which prepares first-generation, underrepresented, and/or low-income undergraduates to pursue doctoral degrees—Muñoz met “fantastic, understanding friends” who shared her academic ambition as well as her social perspective. Through the University’s strong tradition of residential life and its open, urban campus, Muñoz was able to connect with groups like the Trinity University Latino Association, and found resources and allies through fellow groups for people of color, such as the Black Student Union, as well as other resources for first-generation Tigers. Muñoz was part of Trinity’s Summer Bridge Program, an initiative that brings first-gen, underrepresented and/or low-income students to Trinity early and helps introduce them to campus life, academic resources, and Trinity’s unique Pathways Curriculum.
As a Catholic, Muñoz leaned heavily on the campus faith community to help her shoulder burdens beyond the physical.
“I always thank God I made it through four years (in school),” she says. “I’m a fighter.”
In Trinity’s faculty and staff, Muñoz found role models who challenged her but also understood her own challenges as a first-generation student. Muñoz says sociology and anthropology professor Sheryl Tynes and modern languages and literatures professor Arturo Madrid helped her see Trinity as a “pressure cooker” that made her “stronger and more confident for the experience.”
Since these connections all played a role in her growth at Trinity, it was only natural that Muñoz invited a seemingly endless list of guests to De Colores.
“I invited pretty much every department chair to the ceremony,” Muñoz says. “I invited the Aramark ladies, my friends, my family— because this graduation isn’t just my accomplishment.”
And at De Colores, as a beaming Muñoz donned her stole, she felt gratitude for her parents, family, friends, and her fellow seniors.
“It’s a big deal that we’re graduating,” Muñoz says. “We came from different areas, came from different colors and families… but we came together.”