Vanessa Mendoza and the Miss Colombia 2001 fairytale

This time of year is the craziest time of year in Cartagena. The build-up to the Concurso Nacional de Belleza, or National Beauty Contest, is taken so seriously that schools in the Cartagena region are given ten days of holidays. For months the papers have been covering the elimination rounds of the contest, which began at the local suburban level months ago, and gather momentum like a snowball until their climax at Cartagena's Centro de Convencíones. Last year Miss Cartagena came first, and Miss Bolívar second, pleasing the local crowd immensely. But this year there was even a bigger roar when the winner was announced, because history had been made.

All week there have been parades, where the public can catch a glimpse of the regional beauty queens (called reinas), dancing, free concerts, and exclusive parties where the elite pay a lot of money to be in the same room as a reina. On the Thursday before the judging, the contestants go on board floats that parade around Cartagena before boarding boats and taking to the water in Bocagrande. The is where the multitudes turn out to cheer the reinas, throw water, paint and firecrackers at anything that moves, and groups of youths covered in black grease corral passers-by with a greasy rope and ask for a tip to be released. The costumes were varied, but the Caribbean theme of pirates and slaves was the most common, along with regional folkloric dresses. Even Osam bin Laden was there: I spotted a man in white robes, a turban and a flowing but false black beard toting a wooden machine gun.

On Sunday there was an event called the Cabildo, held in the poor quarter of Getsemaní, with folkloric dancing, poetry readings and musical groups play a rainbow of pagentry. It is held in the same plaza where independence was proclaimed (and as a result slavery abolished) many years ago. They arrive there to the beat of drums in a dancing, writhing and costumed procession that begins in Canapote, passing the Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas, the statue of La India Catalina, the Torre del Reloj and finally ending in the Calle Pedregal in Getsemaní, where the festivities were turned up in volume even more, before listening to the poetry of one of Getsemaní's favourite sons, Pedro Blas Julio Romero.

The Concurso goes to the heart and soul of South American nations like Colombia. The winners are more than mere national heroes, they are role models for the young women all over the nation, from the poorest to the richest. Young senoritas dream, often with the encouragement of their parents, that if they watch their diet and comport themselves with poise and grace, the crown is within their grasp. Starting at the local barrio level, being a reina enjoys a lot of respect, fame, and publicity. It gives the contestants a chance to speak on matters as varied as the state of the local street lighting, to the Colombian policy on ecology. The eventual winner of the title Señorita Colombia can look forward to international travel, prizemoney, dinners with the President, even appearances on the David Letterman Show, as last year's Miss Colombia, Cartagena's Andrea Noceti, did (to refute a bad joke about Colombian drug smuggling).

There are schools where prospective reinas are groomed from a young age for this event, with plastic surgeons waiting in the wings to do a little cosmetic correcting, where needed. The common criticism that is levelled at beauty competitions, ie exploitation of women, is rarely heard in reina -mad Colombia. The concurso is an event as important and as passionately followed as the final of the football. I have heard however, coastal costeños voice disapproval about the fact that always the winners seem to come from rich white families, the ones who can afford the plastic surgeons. Judges are rotated every year to blunt rumours of favouritism and corruption. No black woman has ever won the crown, despite the fact that an alternative competition, the Reinada Popular, run in parallel with the official competition, often selects women with darker skin as the people's choice. This year's Reina Popular, elected from 42 hopefuls in a ceremony at a football stadium at the same time as the official concurso, was Claudia Esther Guerrero Zapata.

Back at the Centro de Convenciones, there was only one contestant with black skin, a raven haired beauty from Chocó, an impoverished guerrilla-plagued region on Colombia's Pacific coast, and in media polls, was cited as an outside chance. The other favourites were Miss Valle, Miss Huila, Miss Atlántico and Miss Bolivar.

My friend Andrew was visiting from New York, and we agreed that we would repeat our celebration of the reinada in the same manner as we had last year: by reserving a table at a discoteque called Mr Babilla's (`Mr Alligator's'), where they had a large TV screen to show the judging. My girlfriend and myself set off on foot to walk there, and had to pass a mini-carnival that had sprung up in front of the centro: in addition to more than a hundred armed soldiers stationed around the entrance to the venue, a huge stage had been set up with loud music and inflated oversized bottles of Medellin brand rum. We arrived at Mr Babilla's to find they had increased the cover charge for the night to 30,000 pesos for myself and girlfriend. Normally my girlfriend, asking on my behalf can sweet talk her way in for free. Tonight there was no such possibility, the people in front of us in the queue had to pay. Besides, the bouncer was so huge that even the Incredible Hulk would have thought twice about arguing with him. Mr Babilla's is probably Cartagena's premier nightclub, and you get what you pay for: airconditioned comfort, good music and incredibly vibrant décor. Among the old movie posters for Spanish language movies of days gone by are antique dolls and cooking utensils, set on rose-coloured walls.

Inside we found Andrew had been lucky enough to have been allocated the best seats, right in front of the screen. The judging was already in progress, and the contestants were parading in their bathing costumes, the clientele of Mr Babilla's eyes glued to the screen. I saw that Miss Chocó gained a near perfect score in this section of the judging, 9.93 out of 10, but it is only one part of the overall score. Scores are flashed up so briefly that unless you have a video-recorder and a calculator handy it is impossible to guess who is winning. Between appearances the crowd was entertained by a chubby Carlos Vives singing his hit "Fruta Fresca". The women appeared again in designer evening gowns. The scores of the top contestants appeared again briefly on screen, and one could sense the excitement rising among the audience. A folkloric group called Totó la Momposina filled the final gap before the five finalists were announced.

Our table, being at the front of the screen, attracted a lot of attention whenever a commercial was aired. We were a group of five gringos and four pretty Cartagenera girls, and we had also ordered plates of food. Once a mimo, or mime artist, wandered over on stilts taunted us with jokes. Then I saw the big man, the bouncer, talking with Andrew, in English. There was a slight problem with the way our table was arranged, but it was sorted out quickly.

"I wouldn't argue with him either" I quipped to Andrew, "he's too big!"

"You know who he is, don't you?"

"No. But he looks like he is a man to be reckoned with..."

"He sure is. He's Bernado Mercado, the former World Heavyweight contender, who once knocked out Trevor Berbeck."

Here he was waiting on our table. I got my girlfriend to ask for his autograph, which he proudly gave me on the back of a beer coaster, inscribing "To may friends, champion Bernado Mercado".

A hush descended in Mr Babilla's as the five finalists were announced. Miss Huila, Miss Valle, Miss Atlántico, Miss Santander and Miss Chocó. When Miss Chocó and Miss Atlantico were announced, cheers erupted. The final five were then asked a question which they select from an unmarked envelope. Any hesitation or mistakes can, and has, ruined the chances of many previous hopefuls. Miss Chocó was asked her opinion about the terrorist attacks on New York's Twin Towers. Her answer came quickly and naturally, her voice rising in excitement as she delivered her answer above the applause that erupted before she had even finished, saying that it appeared many people had lost their sense of tolerance and sensitivity since the attacks.

To reduce the pressure on the waiting reinas, the winners are announced almost immediately, with all the contestants standing near.

Señorita Huila, Juanita Martínez Bahamón, was declared Thrid Princess.

Second Princess, Señorita Santander, Maria Claudia Penuela Cornejo.

First Princess, Señorita Atlántico, Johanna Cure Lemus.

That left only the two contestants Señorita Valle and Señorita Chocó, in contention. When master of ceremonies Jorge Vargas announced Señorita Atlántico, Consuelo Guzmán Parra, as Virreina, or "Runner Up Queen", everyone from Cartagena to Chocó screamed, because they knew who the winner was.

Vanessa Alexandra Mendoza Bustos, the 20 year-old girl from the little village of Ungía, one of sixteen children, father deceased, representing the poor, war-torn region of Chocó, the only contestant to publicly declare not to have had plastic surgery before the contest, had won.

She is the first ever Miss Colombia of African descent.

Fairytales do sometimes come true.

Glen David Short is a freelance writer based in Cartagena. His new adventure travelogue, "An Odd Odyssey: California to Colombia by bus and boat" .has just been published by Trafford Publishing.

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Text and Photos Copyright 2005 Glen David Short