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Worth Gold: Feminism and Leadership at the Miss Bell Gardens Pageant

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On November 9, 2015, the Bell Gardens' City Hall patio was abuzz with jazz music and the voices of family and friends. The crowd warmed the outdoor space as they celebrated the four contestants who had competed for the 2015 Miss Bell Gardens title. Everyone was in a festive mood, although several weeks ago, disappointing news was delivered to the same group: for the first time since 1946, there would be no queen.

Parks and Recreation Director Chris Daste's office released this statement to explain:

"As contestants weren't able to participate for various reasons, the pool of contestants dropped to a number where a contest wasn't practical. [...] Those participants are the Miss Bell Gardens Court and will represent the City of Bell Gardens for the upcoming year."

The decision was made when many of the contestants, women ages 15-21, stopped attending rehearsals because of work, school and family commitments and eventually dropped out of the pageant altogether. By time of the announcement, only four contestants remained. Last year, only 7 contestants participated. Participation in the Miss Bell Gardens pageant has dropped over the years as students are faced with many responsibilities and perhaps have also lost interest in this once-prominent event.

Cost may have also deterred some contestants as parents felt a bite in their budgets: the girls were asked to bring their own gowns for the formal wear.

But at the coronation ceremony that night, there was a silver lining. This year, four young women will represent the city, not just one. These women attended rehearsals, writing and public speaking workshops, and connected with past court members at events that pageant director Ms. Sylvia Blush (also Miss Bell Gardens 1996) created for their professional development. Each princess will receive a $400 scholarship.

In a way, the coronation was a civic debut for the four princesses. Former 1993 princess Mayor Jennifer Rodriguez called the young women up to introduce themselves at the podium. To much applause, the new princesses addressed the crowd both in English and Spanish. Like every year, the contestants were ambitious and persistent.

"I want to attend UCLA and study chemical engineering," said Monique Morales, age 16. Mayor Rodriguez with 1995 princess and council member Priscilla Flores placed a sash and crown on Monique. They smiled and paused for photos, which is how many people characterize pageants: photo opportunities and sparkling crowns. Yet even with reality television shows that promise behind-the-scenes pageant footage, nothing could be further from the truth about this event in Bell Gardens.

Worth Gold
For two and half months, full time students ages 15-21, with part-time jobs, siblings to care for, and parents with multiple jobs, the contestants devoted six hours for six weeks on top of their schedules to the pageant. Rehearsals were held at the former Bell Gardens Park Recreation Center, where parenting classes and after school programs are held in adjoining rooms and older señoras walk around the perimeter of the park in full sweat suits. The group first started out with 12 contestants, then shrunk to 8, then to five. The four that remained in the pageant required the full support of their families.

"Mi hija se comprometio y tuvimos que cumplir," said one parent about her family's commitment to show up: my daughter committed herself and we had to fulfill our obligation. Even though this parent had a work injury, she would drive her daughter every week to practice through her own physical pain. Her word was worth gold.

The mood at the celebration was lively, although, when asked what could have been different for this year's event, the outgoing 2014 court all spoke at the same time. They let Miss Bell Gardens 2014, Monica Monroy, finish their collective statement. "We wished these girls could have experienced the full pageant like we did."

A full pageant involves at least three judges, costume and crown purchases or donations, choreography to elaborate dance routines, field trips to local events, a multi-level production with lights, sound, an emcee, and an auditorium full of people, thousands of dollars' worth of time, support staff, and grueling eight-week rehearsals, not the six this group completed. I know this because I was a contestant and Miss Bell Gardens princess.

The year I participated our program was an all-day event with four costume changes, independent vote tabulators, tables full of our families and friends, and three interviews from radio, print and local business professionals. For the entertainment, seventeen of us danced to songs from the film "Camelot." None of us had ever watched the 1967 fantasy musical. Imagine, in 1993: Latinas of all heights and shapes, some with hair-sprayed bangs, traipsing around in pointy hats and satin dresses. But we did it. And it was a ton of work: smiling for hours on end in high heels you'd never worn, reciting your future dreams trying not to fall over and delivering it all with dignity. We pulled it off and our parents couldn't be more proud, even if we didn't win.

The legacy of the pageant is replete with leaders in all careers, a real opportunity for youth development. From the year that I participated, Grissette Ortiz was second princess and is now an elementary school teacher while third princess, Laura Fabian, is now a journalist and newscaster. As first princess, I went on to study political science.

The Beauty of Community Service
At the coronation last week, the Mayor clarified: "I think people stereotype this pageant as just about beauty. It's not. It's about talent; it's about presentation." While there is no talent portion, what the mayor alluded to was the guts it takes to get front of the world and speak your future dreams and goals. Mayor Rodriguez reinforced this idea when she said the pageant "helps you be assertive, to have the confidence to go up and talk to someone," which has served her a great deal on the city council.

What's more, she added, "When girls say their goals in public, it makes them a lot more real." Their goals this year were not only academic. This year they have a new mandate to fulfill: a community platform, a plan of action to pursue an issue facing the city.

I met this batch of our future leaders when I taught a platform development workshop. They each identified a problem in their city and created a plan to address it. We defined platform as "what you stand on, what you believe in." We began by discussing the women we admired in our lives.

Almost every single person was moved to tears. "I would have to say my mom," some said. Others named their sister who passed away from cancer, or an aunty who "Was a fighter till the very end," or who "showed me how to get through hard times." Those women are the real role models for the Miss Bell Gardens court; the ones who endured financial hardships, but persevered, the women who are best friends, and the strongest supporters. I advised them to pour the emotions that welled up into their walks, into their introductions, and that if they did, people would stop and listen.

Mrs. Universe 2015 served as our radical pageant role model. As a First Nations woman, Ashley Callingbull from the Enoch Cree Nation is using her platform to call attention to the thousands of missing women in Canada. She also advocates and encourages voter participation and for adequate living conditions for her people. When some slammed Callingbull for her outspokenness, she fired back on social media:

"Did you really think I was going to just sit there and look pretty? Definitely not. I have a title, a platform and a voice to make change and bring awareness to First Nations issues here in Canada. [...] I have a voice for change and I'm going to use it!" (From her Facebook page, August 2015)

The girls were inspired and wrote furiously for half an hour about issues they cared about in their community and how they would address them.

Adriana Lara, an Upward Bound student, is still in high school and as a new princess plans to "visit my old schools and talk about bullying."

Vanessa Perez, already at UC Irvine in her first year, is considering environmental engineering as a career. Her project is to support young mothers with a new clothes drive with a local Parents and Teachers Association.

Monique Morales, 16, is interested in supporting special Olympic events, while Beatriz Sosa is planning on a body image series of talks with younger girls

However, the contestants wished they could do more to help their community. "We would have liked to help out more, but we just didn't go to as many things as we would have liked," said one princess. The women in this competition have a great deal of initiative that, if supported with more staff guidance and opportunities to help, will pay off immediately and in the future. The city's future leaders are clearly coming through the program.

A Flatbed Truck and a Bale of Hay
Bell Gardens should be famous for the hard work each of our residents demonstrates daily and this tradition of persistence was alive in the 1947 pageant's humble beginnings. The program's history of creating civic-minded residents lives on with Mrs. Julia Asmus, a pageant committee member since the 1980s.

Julia Asmus, a Bell Gardens resident since 1939, is a local civic leader and the longest running pageant committee member. She remembers the pageant's early days and how its always brought out the best in the contestants and the city.

"We had a flatbed truck and a bale of hay for the first pageant," she said. Starting in 1947 with Queen Barbara Miller, no matter how humble the resources, the City of Bell Gardens managed to crown a court and a queen. That was the helpful philosophy applied last week: to do what you can with what you have.

What remains through time is the leadership cultivated from woman to woman, and peer to peer at the pageant. In conversation, pageant director Blush explained this exact thing to Mrs. Asmus: "I've taken many lessons I learned through those years with me and I can't thank you enough for that." Ms. Blush is an actor, dancer, producer, teacher, and dramaturg.

"We started from nothing," said Mrs. Asmus, "...and look at you today." Yes, just look at all the court members today: newscasters, teachers, principals, directors, scientists, writers. The young people are ready for the city to meet their potential.

The coronation event emptied. I stayed behind to walk the court out to their cars. I lingered long enough to say good night to a family member who spoke frankly about the cancelled pageant.

"Yo me sentí defraudada por lo que hizo la ciudad," she said. The city let me down immensely. "Si mi hija y yo cumplimos, ¿por qué no ellos?" If my daughter and I could show up, why not the city? The sentiment beneath the statement is: How can she trust that the city really believes in their young women?

"If we'd had a pageant, we would feel more confident representing the city," said one princess. The city had to make a tough choice, it's true. And Bell Gardens did recognize the leadership in its young people at the coronation and at the previous pageants.
Was this contest worthwhile? All the court members agreed it was a great experience. One princess, Vanessa Perez from UC Irvine said, "If it weren't for the pageant, I would not have met you or Sylvia, or the past court. I'm excited!" She added, "I've lived in this city all my life. I'm proud to be from here and to get more involved."

Mayor Rodriguez sums up that though the pageant and competition, "may seem like something small... it's going to be a life-changing experience."

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