A few years ago, I went through a phase where I watched episode after episode of the reality show America’s Next Top Model. It was a guilty pleasure; I loved seeing the contestants pose for photo shoots in telephone booths or freshly dug graves. I eventually stopped watching because I got tired of seeing the girls berated and reduced to tears for not trying hard enough. Tyra Banks, the show’s host and a model herself, would frequently say something along the lines of, “Modeling is serious. It is important. If you don’t understand that, you don’t deserve to be here.”
I didn’t understand it. No amount of scolding from Ms. Banks could convince me that modeling was anything other than a narcissistic pursuit designed to sell overpriced clothing. But Sam Quinones’s “Héctor and the Beauty Queens” has changed my mind. By tracking down some of Mexico’s most illustrious beauty queens years after their pageant wins and presenting their lives against the cultural backdrop of Mexico in the 1980s and ’90s, Quinones paints a convincing social portrait of the importance of beauty pageants. Seen through his eyes, pageants are not just about beauty, or even just about competition, social platforms, the objectification of women, or any of the other concepts we commonly associate with them. Instead they’re about race relations, economics, politics, history, and religion. Through the intimate portraits of five beauty queens and Héctor Díaz Valdez, the originator of the pageant scene in the western Mexican state of Sinaloa, Quinones shows how, for young women during this time period, a pageant win could be a means of escape from poverty and obscurity, just as professional sports is for young athletes today.
Over the years, Creative Nonfiction has featured work by writers from around the world and has devoted entire issues to Australia and Italian-Americans (as well as an entire “Diversity Dialogues” issue). These issues not only introduce writers whom readers might not otherwise encounter, but also provide a literary excursion into the heart of a culture in a way that news outlets rarely do.
The essays in Issue 23 reveal a Mexico that you don’t see on the nightly news. The writers, working from both sides of the border, do discuss the drug trade and political upheaval, but they also tell us about taxi strikes, eggs, their love of Liberace, the persistence of fairy tales in modern culture, Italian vacations, and, yes, beauty queens. Their words leave no room for doubt: it is all important.