By JENALIA MORENO
Copyright 2009 Houston Chonicle
Brett Coomer ChronicleContestants show off their gowns and best pageant poses last week after a walkthrough for this weekend's Miss Colombian Independence Contest
Sparkly sequins in yellow, blue and red — the color of the Colombian flag — line beauty queen contestant Sandra Betancur's dress. For weeks, her mother and grandmother helped her make the outfit, decorated with faux orchid petals to represent the exotic flowers grown in her birthplace of Medellin, Colombia.
To some, Medellin conjures images of drug cartels and cocaine. But to Betancur, 18, the city and the rest of Colombia is about beauty.
“I think it's sad that people just show that part. It's not just the bad parts that they show on TV,” said Betancur, Miss Antioquia, one of a dozen girls competing in the 15th annual pageant.
Betancur shows her pride in the city and state of Antioquia with the dress she'll wear in tonight's fantasy gown portion of the Miss Colombian Independence Contest.
The local pageant isn't just about showcasing Colombian beauties at the Kirby Drive Crowne Plaza hotel. It helps the 80,000 Colombian immigrants in the Houston area retain cultural roots. Colombians, like other immigrant communities, often straddle a difficult line, juggling a new life in their adopted country while maintaining bonds to their native land.
But the pageant is more than a don't-forget-where-you-came-from exercise. It also helps battle Colombia's persistent narco image.
“We want to change the image of Colombia abroad,” said Harold Herrera, a native of Colombia and owner of the A&B Art & Beauty Salon on Westheimer Road. “Colombia was only narcotraffickers and guerrillas. We're not all like that.”
The pageant began after another Colombian asked Pearland resident Gladys Salgado to organize an event celebrating Colombia's July 20 independence day.
She agreed on the condition that the event would include a beauty pageant that stars Colombian and Colombian-American women ages 16 to 23. More than half a century ago, Salgado, 66, won the title of carnival queen in her native city of Barranquilla.
“I always liked pageants,” said Salgado, who transformed a wire clothing hanger and some sequins into a crown decorated with golden butterflies during a recent rehearsal.
She's not alone.
Pageants part of culture
More than 300 beauty pageants are held annually in Colombia, celebrating everything from its coffee to potatoes, said Michelle Rocio Nasser, assistant professor of Spanish at Iowa's Grinnell College.
Even women's prisons hold pageants, as featured in the documentary La Corona, which was nominated for an Academy Award last year.
“It's common knowledge that Colombia is a beauty queen country,” said Nasser.
While Colombia has snagged the Miss Universe title only once, Colombians point out that their women win second place often.
“Venezuelans have pageants more for beauty, but for Colombians it's more about culture,” said Herrera, who styles contestants' hair each year. “Pageants are part of the culture of Colombia.”
Until recently, Nasser worked at the University of Houston and wrote a thesis about the local pageant, a subject she knows well since she competed in it in 1996 and won for the most authentic regional garb. She helped make a skirt and apron that included scenery depicting the coffee-growing state of her mother's native Quindio.
“There's this effort to change this image of Colombia internationally. Colombia is no longer dangerous,” said Nasser, whose sister and mother help organize the pageants.
“It's now beautiful. It's also deeply ingrained in the psyche of Colombia,” she said. “All the beautiful women come from Colombia, they say. In a way, they're beautiful because they're Colombian.”
Interviews and dances
Contestants will praise the beauty of Colombia during the interview phase of their competition. To the beat of the Colombian song Las Mujeres de Mi Tierra, or “The Women of My Land,” the contestants perform a choreographed dance while wearing traditional Colombian straw hats and yellow, blue and red skirts.
Instead of a swimsuit competition, the event includes a fantasy dress portion in which contestants wear sometimes revealing dresses depicting where they or their parents were born.
Chance to reconnect
Houston Community College student Karen Franco, 18, wore a beaded dress she bought from Colombia and signifies the congo, a dance performed during the Barranquilla carnival.
Although her parents are from Barranquilla and she speaks Spanish and eats traditional Colombian foods, she didn't immerse herself in the local Colombian community until she signed up for this contest.
“I became very Americanized,” said Franco, who researched her community's folklore for the pageant. “This is the first time I've associated with Colombian people.”