So, I’m not a big fan of pageants–beauty pageants in particular. In fact, I was coerced by my theater teacher and some other folks to participate in one during my high school years for scholarship purposes, which I begrudgingly went along. It was a local Miss town pageant that claimed, like many other beauty pageants, that it was more than a beauty pageant. The truth is when the majority of your pageant’s segments focus on judging the outer appearances of contestants, in my book, it’s a beauty pageant. And we all know what standard of beauty is being utilized to measure everyone up against in those spaces!
I’ve witnessed, first hand, how damaging these types of programs can be on the developing self-esteem of young people, particularly females. I’ve seen young girls being encouraged by adults to stuff their bras, wear their hair in “professional styles” only (which is code for White up-dos), and told, if you are a Black or Brown woman, to accentuate your “exotic” look in case the judges are looking for something different. This, of course, was my experience, so I make no claims to speak for others who participate in traditional pageants nor am I an expert in the pageant world.
When I was approached a few months ago to be a judge at a local pageant, I was initially turned off; however, the goal of this pageant was different. The Fairfield, CT Puerto Rican Cultural Pageant aims to instill Puerto Rican pride in young people by using the arts to teach them about their rich history, language, and culture. Youth, many of whom were not born or even raised in PR, are expected to learn about the Puerto Rican towns their family members are from and the cultural attributes that distinguish cities from one another. Kids demonstrate their learning from dressing in traditional clothes, dancing long forgotten Indigenous and Afro-Latin dance styles, reciting poetry that speaks to the richness of the island and it’s people, and highlighting current and past Puerto Rican artists and professionals that have contributed to society at large. Youth are judged based on how they creatively approach the act of representing their towns. While there are still some traditional pageant elements that make me cringe, such as the most photogenic and congenial awards, they did not stand out as the central components of this cultural pageant. I couldn’t help but feel like kids left that pageant with a stronger sense of self and pride in their Puerto Rican roots. With bomba, plena, salsa, and reggaeton pulsing in the air throughout the entire show, it’s hard to not find yourself tapping or swaying to the music and feeling more Puerto Rican than you thought you were before entering the doors of the beautifully remodeled Bijou Theater in Bridgeport, CT.
Participating in this event really made me re-examine my ideas about pageants. While I am still not a supporter of beauty pageants, cultural pageants, or at least the one I attended, offer young people from historically marginalized communities to work with elders within their cultural circle to learn about themselves in ways that affirm their racial and/or ethnic identities. When cultural pageants focus heavily on developing and affirming cultural awareness and don’t allow themselves to get lost in the superficial patterns of beauty pageants, I believe they have the potential to function as a tool for parents and teachers to use for their kids in an effort to support the development of healthy Black and Brown identities.
A basement pageant that moved itself out of the dark and into the light of a public community theater, thanks to their new director, Eva Morales (no, we’re not related), I am so honored to have had the opportunity to share in an event that left me feeling proud of my heritage and humbled by the eagerness of our young people to shine their ethnic pride.
To learn more about the Fairfield Puerto Rican Cultural Pageant or Parade, contact Eva Morales at firstname.lastname@example.org.