Monday, November 16, 2009

Corn Queen

The other day my host mom, who is a teacher at the local school, asked me if I would be willing be a judge in a contest to choose a queen of the school. I was intrigued. "You'll want to dress up a little bit, too," she told me. "And wear some make up." On the appointed day I put on a cute little sun dress and gobs of eyeliner and arrived at the school, uncertain of what exactly I was going to be asked to do.

My Host Mom

I went to sit at the judges' table and was handed a sheet the listed several categories, each of which had a point value attached to it. The categories were as follows:
Fantasy Wear - 25
Evening Wear - 15
Modeling - 15
Presentation - 15
Response to Questions - 15
(and the enigmatic) Expresivity - 15

Each grade level, from first through sixth, had chosen a girl to represent the grade. The grade-level princesses paraded by the judges' table in outfits made from local materials - corn husks, banana leaves - and adorned with the basic grains that are the root of rural life - coffee, cocoa beans, red beans, and of course, corn. In their hair were hibiscus flowers and beads and feathers, and of course each girl was fully made up like a beauty queen.

Nicaraguans love pomp and circumstance. Each girl, as she approached the judges, stopped and made a speech that started like this: "Good morning esteemed judges, teachers, students, and assembled public. I am here representing the my grade and the school. As you can see, my dress is decorated with cacao beans. These represent the indigenous people of Nicaragua, who used cacao beans as currency..." and on and on.

Next was the evening wear competition, followed by questions about the founder of the school. As is typical of the Nicaraguan education system, the responses to the questions were all memorized. The questions all focused on the dates and facts of the life of the man for whom the school was named.

I tried to take my role as judge seriously, as did the other three members of the panel. When it was time to compare our scores, we put our heads together and debated the merits of each girl in each category. Finally, we agree that the 4th grade princess would be crowned queen of the school. The other judges asked me if I'd ever participated in an event like this when I was in school. "No," I told them. "We didn't have anything like this at my school." They looked surprised.

Passed through my own cultural filter, the school beauty pageant seemed completely strange and possibly damaging to the self-esteem of the girls involved. But in general, I am trying to experience as much of Nicaraguan life as I can, while passing as little judgment as possible. Overall, I had fun being part of the panel, and I felt honored to have been asked to do so.

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