Every Saturday morning, Marcela Barrera of Jackson Heights hair sprays her daughter’s ringlets, helps her pick out an outfit appropriate for the season, and then brings her daughter to a modeling class at Super Star Dance Studio. It is there that Barbara, 6, learns how to strut, pose and shuffle her feet to the quick beats of a Bachata tune.
“It teaches her to be more feminine,” Barrera said, on a recent evening at the dance studio. ¨I see the results.¨
Though Barbara is barely old enough to participate in a beauty pageant, she is following a long tradition. In Colombia, there are more than 300 beauty pageants annually — each one with its own royal figure. There is the esteemed Miss Colombia and the prestigious Queen of the Sea. There is the Queen of Tourism and the Queen of Carnaval. And then there is the Queen of Coffee, an international title that has been bestowed upon a contestant in the department of Caldas almost every year since 1957.
“There is a Queen for everything,” said John Caballero, a New York-based photographer who has helped young Colombians create modeling portfolios. “It’s a tradition there more than in any other part of Latin America.”
Classes like the one at Super Star help to train those would-be queens, or those hoping to become models. But while the culture of pageantry has been unshakably strong in Colombia for decades, both are also an increasingly popular way for parents of young second-generation Colombians, like Marcela Barrera, to connect their offspring with their homeland.
¨They want them to have Colombian roots and strength,¨ said Amparo Gomez, a co-founder of the Centro Civico Colombiano, a nonprofit organization that promotes Colombian culture in Jackson Heights. ¨This is our priority, that the girls who are born in this country know what Colombia is.¨
For community members like Gomez, beauty, as evinced through pageantry and modeling, is a powerful symbol of that identity.
¨We have women that are beautiful spiritually and physically,¨ said Gomez. ¨They carry it in their blood to be pretty, to be intelligent, to be the future Queens.¨
And in Jackson Heights, where an estimated 7 percent of the Colombian-American population resides, a younger generation is getting in touch with their roots.
At a modeling class at Super Star Dance Studio, girls sporting big bows and headbands maintained a slight bounce in their step as they walked across a wooden floor-cum-catwalk and struck a pose. In a recent glamour shot session, young models slung jackets over their shoulders and peered over their sunglass rims into a bulb ahead. And for the first time in the history of the Centro Civico Colombiano, the organization hosted a beauty competition for girls 6 to 12.
̈Many people asked why we don´t do a contest for young girls,¨ Gomez said. ̈So we started to consider it. ̈
As a younger crowd shows interest in pageantry, social media has also played a role in further spreading the word.
¨A lot of people want to have this experience and publish things and say I was the Queen of this and in my free time I do this,¨ said Dina Marcela Buitrago, a previous winner of the Centro Civico Colombiano pageant.
But why the salient interest in reinas, or Queens?
For Caballero, the photographer, the world of modeling and pageantry has grown as entrepreneurs have realized there are a multitude of opportunities to make money.
¨It´s a business,¨ he said. ¨All the parents want their kids to be famous.¨
According to Michael Edward Stanfield, who wrote “Of Beasts and Beauty,” a book about gender, race and identity in Colombia, the idealization of beauty also speaks to broader ideas about women and men in Colombian culture.
¨Colombians,¨ he wrote last year, ¨point with pride to their reinas and beautiful women as proof of their nation´s goodness, modernity, style and allure when male outlets for national honor — sports, jobs, politics — lack potency.¨
At the same time, interest in events like a beauty pageant held during the recent Hispanic Parade attest to the popularity of pageantry and modeling in other communities, too. There, contestants between the ages of 7 and 12 represented countries including Venezuela, Mexico, Peru and Ecuador.
¨It connects Latinos as a whole,¨ said Alejandra Garcia, whose daughter Leandra was named Princess of the Centro Cívico Colombiano pageant in October.
Even so, Garcia said Leandra, 7, probably wouldn´t participate in another pageant in the near future.
¨With schools and pageants, that´s too much,¨ she said. ¨Too many things and we can´t focus. School comes first.”