A story as it was told to me...
“You’ll get pregnant walking around in skirts that short.”
When it came to advice, my sisters didn’t mince words. They took their roles as surrogate mothers very seriously.
“You’ll come to bad end, going out dancing late at night.”
But I was a teenager, no one was going to tell me what to do. Just because they never had any fun didn’t mean I wasn’t going to.
Of course, the reason their young years had been so boring – why they were so serious, the reason they had no sympathy for my desire to go out, to have fun – was that the responsibility of taking care of all of us had fallen on them when my mother left. But when you’re a rebellious and self-centered young person, you don’t think about that. All you think about is how boring and controlling they are, and how unfair it was to come home and find the house locked at midnight.
We were poor – nine kids and no mom, and dad not always working. We didn’t have a dirt floor or anything, but I remember rain coming in the holes in the roof, and suppers of tortillas with nothing inside.
But I worked hard and saved my money. At 19 I scandalized my sisters by leaving home for modeling school. “A single girl living alone – it’s not right.” I wasn’t living alone, I lived with one of the modeling instructors, but it was all the same to my sisters. Girls should live with their families until they got married. Who knows what these Modeling People get up to with all their fancy clothes and fancy doings, fancy men.
But I really enjoyed the school. It was more than just modeling. It was called School of Modeling and Personality – somewhere between a modeling school and a finishing school – and I loved it.
They taught us how to walk, how to eat at a formal dinner, how to order at a fancy restaurant, how to dress for different occasions. Where the line is between looking sexy and looking trashy. How to walk up stairs in a short skirt without putting everything on display. They taught us runway modeling, traditional dances, various ways to do our makeup, how to pose for photograph sessions.
I’d only been there a few months when they announced the Miss Leon competition – an annual beauty pageant sponsored by the agency, the city of Leon, and local businesses. The modeling students were invited to participate, as well as young women – mostly society girls – from the city. We practiced the dances and songs and poses we were to present at the pageant. It was fun, a great experience.
The day of the pageant came. My sister loaned me the dress she had worn to her high school graduation. From one of the modeling teachers came a pair of earrings. My sister’s brother-in-law was my escort.
We took a taxi to the pageant, and got out among the fancy cars and limos bringing the other contestants and the high society of Leon.
I watched all the other girls getting out of the cars, entering the building, preparing for the pageant, each one with her mother at her side, carrying dresses and purses, smiling and proud. I wondered where my mother was at that moment, if she was happy. I sat alone at the mirror, put on my makeup, did my hair, and tried not to cry.
And then the pageant. And I won – out of all the beautiful debutantes and other models, they chose me. At first I didn’t even realize it; they were announcing the winners – Miss Congeniality, Miss So-and-So – when they announced the big winner, Miss Leon, my date said “They’re talking about you” and I started to cry for real this time. I cried because I was happy, and I cried because my mother wasn’t there. I thanked my sister’s-husband’s-little-brother for being there with me. And the mayor put the crown on my head, and everyone applauded.
And then several wealthy mothers cornered me in the bathroom, and told me I needed to renounce the title. For the good of the pageant, they said. They said I just didn’t have the resources or the experience to be Miss Leon. Their daughters had been training their whole lives for this, they said; I should step down, and each of their daughters would move up a step in the scoring. They offered me a lot of money. They crowded around me and I stood there trembling, a little girl from the barrio, with my hand-me-down dress and borrowed earrings, surrounded by old money, generations of wealth, the power and influence of Leon society.
I was shaking, but I pointed at my tiara and said “Do you see this crown? This means I won.” And I swept out of the bathroom. And burst into tears.
I told my friends and teachers from the modeling agency what had happened; they were indignant and very supportive. I felt better knowing they were on my side.
After that, I danced with my escort and ate at the banquet and had a good time. That night, I went back to my sisters’ house for the night. Everyone was already asleep, so I put my tiara on the table and went to bed. In the morning, my sisters were shaking me awake, “What does this mean? Where did you get this? Did you borrow this from someone?”
“I won,” I said. At first they didn’t believe me, but eventually they did. I could hardly believe it myself. I felt sad that none of my family had come to the pageant, but I felt they were genuinely happy for me when I won.
And that year, they rallied around to help me fulfill the obligations of being Miss Leon. When I had to be present at a function, where the society girls’ parents would have bought them a new dress, they helped me find sponsors (usually designers or clothing stores) who would loan me a dress for the event.
At one festival, they helped me set up an antro de dia (an outdoor restaurant or bar), and found a band to play for free in exchange for the publicity.
It was a magical year. I continued at the modeling school; I was the queen of Leon; and most importantly, I became a little closer to my family.
Today, some of my older sisters have mellowed a little. We still don’t always see eye to eye, and they still give advice freely, but I no longer resent it like I did as a teenager. I know that they sacrificed a tremendous amount for us younger children; I know they have others’ best interests at heart.
I have a daughter now. I’m grateful for every minute I have with her. I don’t resent or blame my mother for leaving – I can only guess what her life was like, what she went through that brought her to that decision. But I intend to be there for my daughter; when I pray for things for myself, what I ask for is that I might be able to see her grow up, to be there in the important moments of her life.
And my sisters have daughters of their own as well. Some of them are teenagers now. Guess who wears skirts even shorter than I did at their age?