La Villa Hispana

At a newly-madeover Miss Latina Image, a cultural celebration of womanhood takes the runway

It’s 20 minutes before showtime, in a small banquet room at the Julia de Burgos Cultural Center, and Yasin Cuevas is glowingly ecstatic.

For one, her first-ever Miss Latina Image fashion show—expanded from “Miss Puerto Rican Image” of years past—has attracted a packed house, more than any other program in the past few years. It’s also a signal of much more: a newer, more diverse Clark-Fulton community, one more gung-ho on the self-education of its youth, as La Villa Hispana grows gradually into the fore.

The shift is one of the reasons Cuevas, who’s been involved in shows and pageants since she was 15, had to alter the event’s parameters.

Julia de Burgos Director, Letitia Lopez with Program Director, Yasin Cuevas “[In the past], I had girls try to sign up from other countries, and they couldn’t participate because they weren't Puerto Rican,” Cuevas said, wearing a floral Mexican dress designed by friend Gerardo Encinas. “I started thinking, ‘Wow, one girl that couldn't sign up is one girl that is not taking advantage of the program.’ So, we changed it.”

Last Saturday’s two-hour spectacle featured 14 girls (ages 13 to 17) from Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, Peru, and El Salvador. The event was Cuevas-and-team’s debut of future fashion galas, setting the tone for shows to come.

The event was part of a larger six-month course educating girls in a wide range of disciplines—“from how to do an interview, to how to get out of a car with a skirt on.”

In preparation, Cuevas and Letitia Lopez, executive director of Julia de Burgos, completely transformed a tiny gym in the center’s new space on Archwood Ave. into a miniature runway set, one that could be picked right out of "Project Runway." (Fittingly so, as Cuevas has been collaborating with Valerie Mayen of Yellowcake, a former "Project Runway" contestant, and Mayen recently gave a talk to the participants.)

Though the girls smiled their way down the carpet, garnering applause from parents and fans, Cuevas was careful to note in her introductory speech that Miss Latina (a preliminary event for the finals this fall) isn’t a run-of-the-mill pageant, but something a lot more nuanced.

“It’s not meant to create competition,” she said. “We want to show them that fixing the other girl's crown is the best way to fix yourself.”

The result was a two-part display of young Latina womanhood: a walk-through of formal and casual dress, followed by pithy speeches the girls had crafted weeks beforehand. Many used the opportunity to highlight hometown staples, cultural touchstones, or personal reasons “why being Latina makes me proud.”

Aleishka Marrero and Nayelie Claudio: Miss Latina Image 2019Some even highlighted issues they’ve seen in the Clark-Fulton community.

“I see a big language barrier here,” Alaina Palma, from San Salvador, El Salvador, said during her speech. “I don’t see enough people who can speak both Spanish and English. For me, my bilingualism is my power.”

Ruth Carabello, who was present with her husband Angél, said that Miss Latina was, for her, not just a boosting of self-esteem, but a longed-for type of communion for Cleveland’s Latin families.

Noticing a lot more “separation” in past years, Carabello, a Clark-Fulton native of Puerto Rican descent, said that the efforts of Cuevas and her five-person team are valued by program participants, largely because of the bigger implications of community change.

“Before, they usually never had [events like] this,” she said. “When you have a union like this, everybody gets to know each other—and you get to know the community! That's what's more important: that we here are coming together.”

Even with Miss Latina sporting no winners Saturday night during the preliminary, Cuevas was assured that—come finals time and after—the resulting payoff for her girls would be seen in the city for years to come.

“A crown lasts just a year,” she said. “But the relationship you make with people could be a lifetime.”

This article is part of our On the Ground - La Villa Hispana community reporting project in partnership with Dollar Bank, Hispanic Business Center, Esperanza Inc., Greater Cleveland Partnership, Cleveland Neighborhood Progress, and Cleveland Development Advisors. Read the rest of our coverage here.

Read more articles by Mark Oprea.

Mark Oprea is a regular contributor to FreshWater Cleveland. He’s written for the Pacific Standard, OZY, and Cleveland Magazine, and was a correspondent in Mexico in 2018. He lives in Ohio City. More of his work can be found on his personal website.
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