NEW HAVEN — Cheers of proud parents and friends flooded the Wilbur Cross High School auditorium Saturday afternoon as 13 students from New Haven competed for the titles of Junior Miss and Miss Puerto Rico for the first time in over 10 years.
Miriam Magalis Cruz, a Wilbur Cross High School junior, was crowned Miss Puerto Rico at Puerto Ricans United's Miss Puerto Rico of Greater New Haven Cultural Pageant. In addition, Beecher School sixth grader Alianys Ayala won the Junior Miss Puerto Rico title. Ayala represented the town, Río Piedras, Puerto Rico, and Cruz represented Caguas, Puerto Rico.
"Puerto Ricans are a passionate, loving, hardworking, vibrant community," said Joseph Rodriguez, president of the Puerto Ricans United board. "So, having a young lady represent that culture to the broader community, not just in New Haven, but statewide, is amazing."
The first Miss Puerto Rico Pageant dates back to the early 1960s, followed by the first Puerto Rican parade in Connecticut in Hartford in 1964.
PRU launched in 2015 after reestablishing the Puerto Rican festival in New Haven after a brief hiatus. It then became the organization's goal to relaunch important New Haven Puerto Rican traditions that have gotten lost to time and changes in leadership over the years, including the Miss Puerto Rico pageant and New Haven's annual Three Kings Day celebration.
"It was an idea that not only myself but the board of directors had," Rodriguez said. "We looked to relaunch the Miss Puerto Rico pageant because it was an important piece in our culture. The festival and the pageant sort of went hand in hand."
Each contestant went through two months of tedious rehearsals preparing their talents, choreography and stage presence for this year's pageant, hosted at Wilbur Cross High School.
"We are excited to host the Miss Puerto Rico Greater New Haven Cultural Pageant," said Ann Brillante, the school’s assistant principal. "The standout moments in my early years in New Haven public schools was the rich Puerto Rican culture in our schools every day — music, language and food. The students and educators around me were so full of pride and so generous and sharing aspects of their cultural identity inspired me, nurtured me, and I am filled with gratitude."
During rehearsals, each contestant put together a presentation featuring a Puerto Rican woman from their hometown in Puerto Rico.
"This is not your traditional beauty pageant," said Rodriguez. "It's not a Miss Universe. We stress leadership, empowerment, community service and cultural awareness, more than anything else … We look at this as an opportunity for us to teach, educate our younger generation and who we are as Puerto Ricans."
The pageant is separated into two brackets — Junior Miss and Miss Puerto Rico. Contestants representing Junior Miss range from 9 to 13-year-old girls, and Miss Puerto Rico includes girls ages 15 to 18. To qualify, all contestants must be from the greater New Haven area and at least partially Puerto Rican.
"I think this pageant is going to help young people who are struggling with identity when it comes to our culture and being Puerto Rican. A lot of the young ladies I've met, they want to learn more. They're Puerto Rican, they're half Puerto Rican or a quarter, Puerto Rican, and they do want to learn more, they're itching to learn more. And this pageant will hopefully help them as they explore who they are," Rodriguez said.
The winner of each age category wins an academic scholarship sponsored by Latin Financial, which has helped business owners with loans in the U.S. and Puerto Rico since 2015.
"I'm a single mom and I have a daughter as well, so it's relatable to me because back in the day I didn't have the funds to have my kids do certain things," said Sonia Alvelo, the CEO of Latin Financial.
Rodriguez said some of the high school contestants were drawn to the opportunity because many Miss Puerto Rico candidates are either sophomores, juniors or seniors getting ready to transition to college.
However, since the contestants in the Junior Miss age category are in middle school, their parents also have the option to have PRU hold onto the check until an educational opportunity comes up, like a summer art program, for example, or use the check for a college fund.
Seniors also have the option to use some of the money toward a prom dress or a yearbook once approved by a PRU board member.
"We understand in our community, there are challenges," Rodriguez said. "So if something comes up, we can certainly pivot and assist, as long as it's academic in nature."
The pageant had four categories: introductions, talent, evening wear and a question and answer portion.
"Confidence, their knowledge, creativity, when it comes to our culture, all play a part in determining who wins," Rodriguez said. ‘We’re all Boricua’
The afternoon started with a choreographed group dance routine to the song "Get on Your Feet" by Gloria Estefan. The girls wore matching white, red and blue outfits. Next, each contestant was introduced one by one with a sash showcasing their hometown.
The girls then displayed various cultural talents relating to Puerto Rican culture, from poems and live music to dance routines. Each contestant then walked the stage in their evening gowns, followed by the final category of the evening, where the girls randomly picked a question to answer.
"It just gives me goosebumps right now because every single girl is going to take something out of (the experience)," Alvelo said. "They're gonna walk away with a tremendous love for their island, Puerto Rico."
Rodriguez said the pageant winner should also be excited to learn about Puerto Rican culture.
"I don't expect all these young ladies to know everything about Puerto Rico," Rodriguez said. "When I first met them, I said, 'Listen, you don't know who I am. And I don't know many of you. Some of you are a second, third, or fourth generation; some of you speak Spanish, some of you don't speak Spanish. Some of you have been to Puerto Rico, others haven't been to Puerto Rico. Some have a deep knowledge of the islands, some don't. But at the end of the day, what's inside of us, we're all Boricua.'"
The evening concluded with titles given out to the alternative winning categories, including Miss Community, Miss Photogenic and Miss Congeniality in both age categories, before crowning Miss Puerto Rico and Junior Miss Puerto Rico, whose scores were determined by the panel of judges made up of local Latino leaders.