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Pageant Opens Debate On Caribbean Racial Politics
By Iván Román
June 9, 2002
SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico -- Once Miss Russia was crowned with $250,000 worth of diamonds and pearls on the San Juan stage, local reporter Adria Cruz saw it all too clearly.
The 21 black contestants in the Miss Universe pageant, and the three others who were of mixed black ancestry , couldn't make it to the semifinals because, of all things, they don't blush.
You see, her theory is that judges already knew the finalists were going to have to answer the eminently insightful question, "What makes you blush?" Because black women technically can't blush -- become red in the face, according to Webster's dictionary -- or most people can't tell when they do, they'd be stumped. And that would throw a wrench into the pageant's high drama.
My irate mother called minutes after Russia's Oxana Fedorova's victory stroll along the stage. "What kind of stupid question is that? Who thought up such a thing?" she managed to say amidst her outrage. "And did you see there were no black women there?"
What about the sparkling Miss Dominican Republic whom people here had talked about for weeks?
In this "year of the black women," as pageant groupies called it, even Miss Sweden was black, with lighter complexion and reddish hair, something seen more often in New Orleans than in Stockholm. The swanlike Miss Colombia and Miss Nigeria looked on, simply clapping in place as they called the semifinalists who, despite some ethnic mixes, looked pretty much the same as they lined up side by side.
"They were looking for another type of beauty, and I respect their decision," said graphic artist Ruth Ocumarez, Miss Dominican Republic. "This time, the black race was completely out of it."
The hundreds of Dominicans who gathered before a big screen at a public square in San Juan's Barrio Obrero neighborhood to cheer her on to the beat of merengue music were not as generous to the judges. Neither were most people creating the buzz the next day.
"There were 21 black women in the contest, and they couldn't pick one for the semifinals, even for the hell of it?" said Leticia Rivera Casablanca, 40, a postal clerk.
"I'm very upset. We're in the new millennium, and we're still dealing with this crap."
But all this outrage left Fernando Sosa, a dependable barometer of racial indignation, scratching his head.
"The last thing Puerto Ricans would have wanted was for a black woman to win," said Sosa, who owns a boutique in Old San Juan. "Why, a black woman has never been selected Miss Puerto Rico."
Maybe without realizing it, the judges helped to pull a scab off the wounds of Caribbean racial politics. Or helped bring up challenging questions about the need for racial representation in what for some is a glitzy, superficial show and business franchise that exploits women and perpetuates subjective and unfair concepts of beauty.
The indignation may have quickly gotten lost in gossipy news about whether Fedorova, a police officer and martial-arts expert, had a relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin. And sadly, this year's disillusionment probably won't cure the island and many other Latin Americans' obsession with beauty pageants.
After all, they are, according to some sidewalk-vendor analysts, one of the few ways they can truly compete with the superpowers of the world.
"Donald Trump is going all the way to the bank holding the pageant here for two years in a row," Sosa said. "Only in Puerto Rico and Latin American countries do we care so much about this. That's a sign of low self-esteem. Excuse me if that seems harsh, but that's the way I feel."
Local politicians have always pointed to Puerto Rico's participation in Miss Universe and the Olympics as the only international forums in which the island has its own identity apart from the United States, something that would be lost if it ever gained statehood.
Ironically, it was pro-statehood Mayor Jorge Santini who hosted the 76 beauties and scooped up every opportunity to take pictures and dance with them. When asked about sacrificing a spot in the pageant in the name of political status, he unsuccessfully tried to say that wouldn't happen.
I'm surprised that when he looked the press in the eye and said that, he didn't blush. And in case you're wondering, he can.