Miss America Has A Latina Problem
Even as the pageant rebrands itself to be more inclusive, Latinas still struggle to find a spot in the competition.
When Miss Massachusetts, Gabriela Taveras, took the stage on Sunday night at the 2019 Miss America pageant, she made a point to introduce herself in a full Spanish accent. Although she said her name with the utmost confidence on stage, Taveras was defying suggestions she had been given by supporters to tone down her Latinidad. “For the competition, people didn't want me to say my name with a Spanish accent in fear that it could weigh me down or make people feel uncomfortable,” she tells Refinery29. “Unfortunately, we live in a society where if you are embracing your culture, people feel as though you're not proud to be an American.”
Taveras wasn’t the only Latina on the stage on Sunday night. But she was the only one who visibly embraced her Dominican, Haitian, and Chinese background throughout the competition, even wearing a dress from a Cuban designer during the red-carpet portion of the competition. “There were other Latinas that were there, but maybe it's not necessarily something they talk about or maybe they don't make it a noticeable part of their identity,” she says.
When Carole Rigual, Miss Puerto Rico 2016, competed in that year’s Miss America pageant, she had a similar experience. "In my year, there was no representation of Latinas in the Miss America pageant," says Rigual. "There were a few contestants that were of Latin descent, but they were full English speakers and had little knowledge of their Latin roots.” Even backstage, she felt like the odd woman out. “Other contestants would stop what they were doing just to hear me speak in Spanish,” she says. “I even had contestants who recorded me speaking in Spanish."
This archaic attitude is just one of the reasons Latinas have largely abstained from participating in the Miss America system. Instead, they opt for other competing organizations that, although aren’t perfect, have been more inclusive and accessible to a community where beauty pageants hold considerable cultural importance. (They’re so prevalent in Venezuela, for example, that girls there are enrolled in pageant training schools as early as four years old). "The Miss America system has always been scary for me,” says Genesis Suero, Miss New York USA 2018, who was born in the Dominican Republic. “Every time I watched, they portrayed the perfect American beauty, and I was not the perfect American beauty. I didn’t feel it was the right pageant for me, although it could be the perfect pageant for other girls."
It’s hard to visualize yourself wearing the sash and crown on the Miss America stage when very few Latinas ever have. Of the limited Latina contestants, only one has been crowned the winner in the competition’s 97-year history: Sharlene Wells Hawkes, who was born in Paraguay. That was over three decades ago in 1985. In contrast, there have been nine Black winners (most famously Vanessa Williams in 1984) and two Asian winners. We have reached out to the Miss America organization for comment, and will update this piece when we hear back.
Other contestants would stop what they were doing just to hear me speak in Spanish. I even had contestants who recorded me speaking in Spanish.
It’s not just a lack of representation that keeps Latinas from the Miss America stage. The pageant requires a series of preliminary competitions in each state, which means contestants may have to travel in order to compete. This brings up another significant barrier: Participating in pageants is expensive.
Taveras says that in order to increase Latina representation, there must be a concerted effort to recruit minority contestants. “Traditionally, Miss America was exclusive to white women, and it wasn’t until 1971 when women of color [started] competing," she says, referring to the 1930s rule that stated contestants should be "of good health and of the white race." After the rule was overturned in 1940, "that didn’t necessarily mean that they were putting the local competitions in the areas that minorities existed," Taveras says. She had to travel 26 miles for her first competition, away from her home city of Lawrence, Massachusetts (that’s predominately Latinx), and then, even farther for her second local competition.
Taveras was able to sacrifice time and money for this opportunity, but not everyone can. “Accessibility is going to be the big thing that we're going to have to see within the organization if we want to see an increase in diversity,” says Taveras. “If you're someone who doesn't have enough money, and you've never competed… then you somehow have to figure out how to get properly prepared for the competition on top of figuring out how you're going to get there.”
Costs are so prohibitive that some areas bow out entirely — which is why Miss Puerto Rico was notably missing from the stage this year. The organization announced that her absence was because not enough contestants were willing to compete, but Rigual says there is more to the story. "Unfortunately, Puerto Rico has suffered an economic crisis for a few years now, and the struggle of Hurricane Maria only served to further limit our resources for the contestants, unlike the other states," says Rigual. But Puerto Rico’s relationship with the Miss America pageant has always been fraught; the U.S. territory only began competing in the Miss America pageant in 1948 and then took a nearly 50-year hiatus before returning, sporadically, to the competition in 2010.
On the other side of the pageant spectrum, the Miss USA Organization has had four Latina winners. The first was Laura Martinez-Herring, who was born in Mexico and crowned in 1985. The most recent Latina Miss USA queen was Nia Sanchez, who is of partial Mexican descent, in 2014. "I chose the Miss USA system because I felt that it had room for my dreams, and my ethnicity wouldn’t be an obstacle for me," says Suero. It also helps that Miss USA feeds into the larger Miss Universe competition, which brings competitors from all across the world. Within the last decade, 5 out of 10 Miss Universe winners were Latina.
But that’s not to say Miss USA is perfect. Even with its progressive direction (the organization opened the competition to transgender participants in 2012), Miss USA isn’t all the way there when it comes to uplifting Latina contestants. Donald Trump, who owned the Miss Universe Organization from 1996 to 2015, was forced to sell his stake in the system after sponsors like Univision didn’t agree with his anti-Mexican rhetoric. While the future U.S. President was at the helm, his outlook definitely had an impact on the winners. During his tenure, in addition to accusations of walking backstage while titleholders were changing, Trump was known to eliminate contestants who he deemed “too ethnic,” anonymous staffers alleged in the book Russian Roulette: The Inside Story of Putin’s War on America and the Election of Donald Trump.
Genesis Davila, Miss Florida USA 2018, says that while there are opportunities for Latinas to succeed on the Miss USA stage, they are still seen as rare, lucky breaks. “The fact that so many people thought that my chances to win Miss USA were less because the two previous queens were [Black women] illustrates that there is a systemic problem,” she tells Refinery29.
There is that level of fear and doubt that people may not receive you well if they know your identity.
Lately both pageant systems have been looking to evolve in order to maintain relevancy (a buzzword during the Miss America 2019 telecast). After an email scandal in 2017, in which vulgar language was used by the former CEO Sam Haskell and board members to describe former constants, there was a shake-up in the leadership team. The 2018 pageant was the first under chairwoman Gretchen Carlson and President and CEO Regina Hopper, who famously (and controversially) eliminated the swimsuit competition. “We are now open, inclusive, and transparent, and I want to inspire thousands of young people across this country to come and be a part of our program," Carlson (Miss America 1989 and an outspoken TV news anchor) told ABC News this June. But her attempts at body positivity reflect just one area of inclusivity that needs to be addressed.
“There’s room for a lot more diversity on the Miss America stage,” says Taveras, who was the first woman of color to win Miss Massachusetts. “I do think there is that level of fear and doubt that people may not receive you well if they know your identity. Unfortunately, people aren't completely comfortable yet fully embracing who they are.”
In a country filled with 55 million Latinx people, the infatuation with the competition within this culture, and the success that we've had in other pageant systems, there’s no reason Miss America shouldn’t expand to celebrate Latinas. Women of color should feel welcome in the system just as they are — and not have to wrestle their way to the final competition only to have to dim their shine. That’s why Rigual keeps fighting.
"I realized relying on my second language and being bilingual meant I was adding to my strengths and accomplishments,” she says. “I carried myself with the hope that all the little girls that saw me would feel like they too were represented in the Miss America Organization — regardless of if they were Latina or not.”