Confetti and music permeated the air outside the Alaska Airlines Center on Tuesday as high school graduates left commencement ceremonies and streamed into the parking lot.
For some graduates, the party began once they stepped outside — and were immediately immersed in the electric exuberance of a parking lot graduation party.
“It actually goes back to a Polynesian tradition, as we say, of just celebrating accomplishments,” said Damien Espaniola. His son, Aiston Kahananui-Espaniola, was nearby, draped entirely in leis while family members snapped photos with the graduate. “It’s huge in Hawai’i; that’s what we do, just the love and aloha.”
In Hawai’i, every student has a big parking lot party, just like the ones at the Alaska Airlines Center, he said.
As the party went on, Kahananui-Espaniola joked he was exhausted under the leis after roughly a million photographs. It was heavy but worth it. He said that the leis signify both honor and respect.
When asked whether — if he has kids in the future — he would throw them a similar bash, Kahananui-Espaniola said: “Of course, it would only be right.”
After two graduations on Tuesday, for Bettye Davis East Anchorage High and Dimond High, families propped up banners with the names and photos of recent graduates, set off confetti cannons and had speakers blasting celebratory music as graduates walked out of the ceremonies.
Lagi Silao, who sold leis at a stand for Grace Life Church near the arena entrance, said she has watched the parking lot party scene grow since she came to Anchorage 15 years ago.
There’s a good-natured competition among families, she said. The parking lot party “shows to our people how much we love our kids.”
The celebrations can get expensive, she said, especially because there’s often a bigger, separate graduation party planned, as well.
Jezzerrelli Asia-Togia, who graduated from East on Tuesday afternoon, stood near family as a woman approached to put a lei over her head, on top of a stack that already reached up to her chin.
“A lot of Pacific Islanders, we celebrate this because people doubt us a lot,” Asia-Togia said. “So it’s just a celebration of the next step, and we’re emphasizing our existence as a people to go on to greater things.”
Families come to Anchorage from out of state to celebrate their loved ones, Asia-Togia said. And it’s emotional to have so many people approaching you to put a lei on you, she said.
“It’s good to know that even people that you don’t know, they’re your support system, even when you need it,” she said. “That’s just our significance as a people.”
After the East High ceremony, Malachi Toa stood on a grassy patch outside the Alaska Airlines Center, taking photos cloaked in hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars in folded money leis made by his grandmother. Wearing them means you’ve accomplished something big, he said, and he’s the first to graduate in his family.
But he wasn’t going to spend the money or drop it at the bank. He planned to keep the strands just as they were, to be reminded of the day’s accomplishment.
High school wasn’t easy, he said. And he looked forward to the parking lot celebration.
“I just couldn’t wait to see my family smiling, being happy and proud of me,” Toa said.
Following the Dimond ceremony, down one parking lot row, Dani Milo danced as a circle of family members formed to cheer her on.
She said the party was a touching moment. She’s one of the first in her family to graduate, is headed off to college soon, and her family is the main reason she’s going, she said. They were strict, and kept her doing homework and chores.
Milo was thinking about the loss of her grandpa and the passing of her cousin. She said she loves it when her entire family is together like they were in the parking lot Tuesday evening.
Asia-Togia said for families like hers, the parking lot party isn’t even the beginning of the celebrations to come.
“This isn’t even a warm-up; this is pregame,” she said.