The history of the presence and influence of beauty pageants in Latin America is expansive and has permeated all levels of society, so much so that political and economic actors, including drug cartels, have passively and actively engaged with them, even to the point of handpicking contestant participants, fixing the outcomes, and running former contestants for political office and/or giving them other positions of political influence.
Additionally, pageants in Latin America have long been a stage for political messaging as well as dissent, like in 2007 when Miss Mexico, Rosa Maria Ojeda, came under scrutiny for a dress design that depicted violent scenes of from Mexico’s Cristero War1, including Catholic rebels hanging from posts, which reignited long-standing tensions between Catholic and secular socio-political factions in the national discourse. In 2015, Mexico’s pageant organizers from the media network Televisa boycotted the Miss Universe pageant2 after Donald Trump’s comments referring to Mexican immigrants as “rapists” and “drug dealers.” More recently, Alejandra Gavidia, Miss El Salvador, participated in the National Costume Parade in the 2021 Miss Universe pageant wearing an outfit that alluded to the country’s Monument to the Constitution3 complete with a blindfold that read “Not one more disappeared” and a dress with red handprints, highlighting victims of femicide in her country.
In Mexico, beauty pageants are big business and have always been intertwined with political influence, scandal and policy and have been subsidized by the government from the beginning. The Señorita Mexico pageant, the first national level pageant in the country, was established by President Miguel Alemán Valdés4 in 1952 (one year before women gained the right to vote) to promote tourism, but a scandal arising from fraud allegations in 1959 resulted in the pageant being suspended for 5 years, relaunching in 1965. For the last 70, years local, state, national and international pageants have continued to hold close ties to government actors with pageant winners and participants holding influential positions and relationships with the government. In 2021, Miss Universe 1991, Lupita Jones Garay5, who had since become famous actress, producer, and political influencer, was urged by the National Action Party [PAN] to run for governorship of Baja California Norte, which she subsequently lost.
The level of power and influence that pageants hold in Mexico against the backdrop of gender discrimination, family violence and femicide, prompted the Gender Equality Commission [La Comisión para la Igualdad de Género] in 2021 to propose banning the use of public resources, promotion, and subsidies for beauty pageants6 as one of the provisions of the general law on Women’s Access to a Life Free of Violence [la Ley General de Acceso a las Mujeres a una Vida Libre de Violencia]. Jones Garay fired back at the commission7, “Trying to typify these platforms as symbolic violence seems completely wrong to me and unfounded….Teaching her to cultivate her self-esteem, self-confidence and security. Providing her with professional opportunities so that she can stand out in what she is passionate about. Where is the violence?” further highlighting the enduring and complex relationship Mexico has had and continues to have with beauty pageants.
The 1987 the crowning of Kataharine Renpenning, a Mennonite of Russian descent, born and raised in Cuauhtémoc, as Miss Chihuahua, in many ways is a microcosm of the dynamics of beauty pageants in Mexico. Renpenning, who is still widely known as “the Mennonite Miss Chihuahua,” used her fame as a state pageant winner and national pageant participant to launch Keers, a language tourism business in Chihuahua City that focuses primarily on helping children and young adults learn English abroad and to help establish a state governmental agency focused on providing social services and community development in Mennonite communities across the state.
In the late 1980s, Katharine Renpenning had recently completed her coursework in Communications at the Autonomous University of Ciudad Juarez and had returned home to Cuauhtémoc, when she was approached on the street by a man from the local Chamber of Commerce requesting that she participate in the Miss Chihuahua pageant. Despite his promises of charm training and prize money she turned him down saying, “It’s not for me,” and “They never give out the prize money, it’s all lies.”8
After returning to Juarez to present her thesis and receive certification her area of study, she received a phone call from her parents saying the President of the Chamber of Commerce and his wife had come to their house to request that she participate in the Miss Chihuahua pageant stressing that, “It will be very respectful and her mom can always be by her side.” She responded, “No, I don’t want to.”
Time passed, and Katherine completed her certification in Juarez, returning to Cuauhtémoc to accompany her mother to Durango to visit relatives. To her surprise, the Chamber of Commerce came to her house again and asked her to participate in the Miss Chihuahua pageant. The persistence of the Chamber of Commerce prompted Katharine and her mother to wonder if this was an opportunity from God. They began to pray and read through the book of Esther. Renpenning reflected on this experience in 2018 for the Rebels, Exiles and Bridge Builders Oral History Project (REBB), remarking, “We asked God for his blessing. I said, ‘I’m not going to win. I’m just going to participate.” Her older brother was the only family member who was resistant to the idea, “What are the Dietsch going to say about us today? ‘What is going on with those Renpennings?’
Katharine’s family was used to the tenuous relationship they had with the larger Mennonite community in the region. Her grandparents emigrated to Mexico in the late 1920s from Russia, rather than Canada, and settled in the city of Cuauhtémoc because they were not permitted by church leadership to live within the colonies. Despite the fact that her grandfather became known as a master carpenter in the region, serving the Mestizo and Mennonite communities, and her grandmother, Catalina Schroeder, profiled in “Trajchtmoakas, Parteras, and Midwives: 100 Years of Maternal Care in Chihuahua’s Mennonite Campos”9 was a respected and sought-after midwife and healer, they were largely excluded from the Mennonite community while not being fully accepted in the Mestizo community. Katherine related her experiences to REBB:
There was a lot of discrimination. It was terrible. It was also terrible that the Mennonite church had also rejected us. Well, with the Mennonites you were from the “Mexas” and with “The Mexas” we were, “The Mennonites.” So, you don’t belong to anyone, right?. . . For the women, it was much easier than for my male siblings. So, they also felt the Mennonites’ rejection, it was very hard. Very difficult because physically we looked like them, right? On questions of religious principles and other aspects. And it was difficult sometimes for my older brothers because it came to blows, right? To get in fights with them, or well, attacked when they were walking to school. These attacks-they weren’t just verbal attacks, they were strong attacks and still to this day my brothers have that feeling of “Neither from here, nor from there.” Right? The attacks they suffered from the Mexicans . . . they were really, really, really ugly. At school, for example, I always felt bad because they said that the Mennonites had stolen the land from the Mexicans. And that was, “Oh, well, yes” They would point at me like this, “You stole the land!” In classes, in middle school, elementary school that’s how one would be addressed.10
Despite the inevitable rumblings from the local Mennonite community and mixed acceptance from the Mestizo community, the desire to heal from a family tragedy was what ultimately propelled Katharine to participate in the pageant. In 1985, Katharine’s brother Tony was killed by a drunk driver while riding his motorcycle. “It was terrible. The whole family was in shock.” Katharine reflected that the pageant offered an opportunity for the family to focus on something other than the tragedy and was the first time that they had felt happy in a long time. She described the preparation for the regional competition:
We asked God for his blessing and we realized that the sign-ups had already closed and we said, “Ok. Well, they’re no longer going to accept us” that’s what we thought, right? . . . I entered and they accepted me. After I was accepted, there were preparations in the gym. They taught us diction, how to pronounce, how to cover ourselves, how to put a pencil between our lips and everything about speaking. In total, we were about 13 or so girls, very beautiful. All were from the northeast region. So, there were girls from Madera, from Guerrero, from some small towns, and it was very important that each municipality for Chihuahua that the girls were prepared and of good character, they always said it wasn’t enough for her to be just beautiful, but also had to be intelligent, know how to speak and everything. Overall, the preparation went well and the day got closer. A girl who hadn’t spoken well won and another girl who hadn’t either got 2nd place and I was left in 3rd place. So, just 1st and 2nd place were going to participate at the state level. But, because I was the other person, they said, “No, you are also going to participate.” “Me too? Well, I’m also going. Ok. That’s good right? That’s no problem for me.11
After receiving 3rd place in the regional competition, she travelled to Juarez to participate in the statewide competition. The event was rocked by scandal and it was alleged that the Institutional Revolutionary Party [PRI] fixed the results for Gabriela Trespalacios, the participant of their choice, which rocketed the scandal all the way to Associated Press syndication which described the pageant in this way:
Police were posted in every aisle and outside the auditorium where the Miss Chihuahua beauty queen was chosen, as the event was marred by rumors that the contest was rigged by the ruling political party.
Rumors had run rampant before and during the contest that the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, had fixed the pageant in this city across the Rio Grande from El Paso Texas, so that Miss Chihuahua City, Gabriela Trespalacios, would win the crown.
Every time she walked on the runway or tried to speak, she was booed and hissed by the crowd of nearly 5,000, but she never lost her composure.
In fact, Katharine Rempenning [sic] Semadeni, 24, of Chuauhtemoc [sic], was crowned Saturday as Senorita Chihuahua. Miss Trespalacios, 22, was first runner-up and Patricia de la Garza, 18, of Delicias, was second runner-up.
Officials had prepared for possible protests from the opposition National Action Party, or PAN, if Miss Chihuahua City were chosen.
PRI controls the municipal governments of Juarez and Chihuahua City and has been undefeated in the federal government for 58 years. Juarez, formerly a PAN stronghold, is the largest city in the state of Chihuahua, and Chihuahua City is the state capital.
PAN claimed that last summer’s municipal elections throughout the state were fixed by PRI, which nearly swept every election. PRI officials denied the accusations.
The crowning of Miss Rempenning [sic] at the University Cultural Center brought cheers from the audience.12
Katherine went on to represent Chihuahua in the national Señorita Mexico pageant,13 where she showcased traditional Mennonite clothing in the opening sequences where participants wear traditional clothing from their home state. Though she was eliminated in the first round of judging, the impacts of her participation in the pageant were long-lasting in her personal life and for the presence and role of the state government Campos Menonitas.
1. “Miss Mexico ‘war gown’ toned down,” BBC News, 19 April 2007, http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/americas/6571061.stm.
2. Tanya Basu, “Mexico Pulls Out of Donald Trump’s Miss Universe Pageant,” Time, 30 June 2015, https://time.com/3942024/mexico-donald-trump-cheryl-burke-miss-universe-nbc-univision/.
3. Javier Maldonado, “Salvedoreña Alejandra Gavidia sacude Miss Universo con mensaje: ‘Un una menos, ni un desaparecido más,’” El Mundo, 11 December 2021, https://diario.elmundo.sv/salvadorena-alejandra-gavidia-sacude-miss-universo-con-mensaje-ni-una-menos-ni-un-desaparecido-mas/.
4. “Señorita México,” Wikipedia Español, https://es.wikipedia.org/wiki/Se%C3%B1orita_M%C3%A9xico.
5. Salvador Rivera, “Former Miss Universe Could be Mexican Border State’s Next Governor,” 30 January 2021, https://www.borderreport.com/politics/former-miss-universe-could-be-mexican-border-states-next-governor/
6. “Federal Lawmakers Move to Outlaw Beauty Contests,” Mexico News Daily, 4 July 2020, https://mexiconewsdaily.com/news/federal-lawmakers-move-to-outlaw-beauty-contests/
7. “Beauty Pageants May No Longer Exist in Mexico and Here’s Why,” LatinaWatch, 10 July 2020. https://latinawatch.com/news-update/beauty-pageants-ban-mexico/
8. Katharine Renpenning, interview by Abigail Carl-Klassen, March 23, 2018, Interview 34, transcript, Rebels, Exiles and Bridge Builders: Cross-Cultural Encounters in the Campos Menonitas of Chihuahua Oral History Project, Mennonite Heritage Archives, Winnipeg, MB.
9. Abigail Carl-Klassen, “Trajchtmoakas, Parteras, and Midwives: 100 Years of Maternal Care in Chihuahua’s Mennonite Campos,” Anabaptist Historians, May 7, 2020, https://anabaptisthistorians.org/2020/05/07/trajchtmoakas-parteras-and-midwives-100-years-of-maternal-care-in-chihuahuas-mennonite-campos/
10. Katharine Renpenning, interview by Abigail Carl-Klassen, March 23, 2018, Interview 34, transcript, Rebels, Exiles and Bridge Builders: Cross-Cultural Encounters in the Campos Menonitas of Chihuahua Oral History Project, Mennonite Heritage Archives, Winnipeg, MB.
12. “Politics Invades Mexican Beauty Pageant,” Associated Press, 27 April 1987. https://apnews.com/article/ce63225db234b53394b48e62a6bef496
13. Darp Stories, “Señorita México 1987 con Katherine Renpenning (Nuestra Belleza Mexicana Excerpt)” YouTube video, 6 minutes, November 16, 2021, https://youtu.be/hgoCu3rvHo0
Very interesting! I was in Cuauhtémoc recently and heard about the situations the ‘Russian Mennonites’ there had to go through. The linking of beauty pageants, politics (of course) and Mennonites makes me wanting to read on…