Miss Universe and Racism in Puerto Rico: When the Problem Is Education

Miss Universe Racism Puerto Rico
ATLANTA, GEORGIA - DECEMBER 08: (EDITORIAL USE ONLY) Miss Universe 2019 Zozibini Tunzi, of South Africa, is crowned onstage at the 2019 Miss Universe Pageant at Tyler Perry Studios on December 08, 2019 in Atlanta, Georgia. Paras Griffin/Getty Images

One of the worst remnants of 20th-century television entertainment is the beauty pageant. 

For decades, entire families were paralyzed in front of their TVs as they watched dozens of women in evening gowns, bathing suits, and choreographies parading across a stage with a frozen smile on their faces.

Coming from Venezuela, I can attest to the media coverage of these events, as well as the effect they have had on the collective unconscious of a continent where plastic surgery is a multimillion-dollar business.

Just take a look at Netflix’s documentary To Be A Miss to get an idea of the impact of beauty pageants in Latin America.

Gone are the celebrations of the May Queen in the 19th century. Since the first Miss America was celebrated in Atlantic City in 1921, the woman’s body has become a carcass sculpted by prejudice.

Worse yet, one of the favorite entertainments of spectators of such events during the 20th century was to mock the responses of the participants, once they decided to yield to criticism and incorporate an evaluation that went “beyond the body.”

Caitlin Upton and the maps, Giosue Cozzarelli and her comments on Confucius, or Patricia Andrade and the debate on permission and forgiveness were just a few episodes that offered the beauty industry critics thousands of arguments against the contests.

But today, after a powerful second round of the feminist movement, the victory of South African Zozibini Tunzi in the 2019 edition of the Miss Universe in Puerto Rico should have been the epitome of structural change in the continent’s culture.

At the age of 26, the South African model is now considered one of the most beautiful women on the planet, breaking with all kinds of stereotypes.

There are those who believe that it was precisely her speech on Sunday that won her the crown once and for all: “I grew up in a world where a woman who looks like me with my kind of skin and my kind of hair was never considered to be beautiful,” she said in her last response. “I think it is time that that stops today. I want children to look at me and see my face and I want them to see their faces reflected in mine.

Everyone seemed to agree, except some on the island. Tunzi came to the end of the competition along with Puerto Rican representative Madison Anderson, and the buzz about supporting the local model seemed to be stronger for some enthusiasts.

Racist comments on social media were the focus of attention after Tunzi’s coronation, especially those of a Department of Education official who equated the model with a 19th-century South African military leader.

The scandal reached the point where the secretary of the department announced a process of investigation against the official, assuring that his agency fosters “inclusion, tolerance, and diversity.”

The paradox, however, is precisely that: the lack of education.

Between Europeans, Tainos, and Africans, Puerto Rico is a beautiful example of the cultural diversity and hybridization of Latin America. But there are still colonial remnants that overshadow even the best of news. 

The contrast between Tunzi’s use of the platform to talk about inclusion, representation, and identity and the Puerto Rican response speaks loudly to the world’s reticence to an inevitable change: the rupture of the beauty paradigm.