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
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
wouldn't argue with him either" I quipped to
Andrew, "he's too big!"
know who he is, don't you?"
But he looks like he is a man to be reckoned
sure is. He's Bernado Mercado, the former World
Heavyweight contender, who once knocked out
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".
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.
reduce the pressure on the waiting reinas,
the winners are announced almost immediately,
with all the contestants standing near.
Huila, Juanita Martínez Bahamón, was declared
Princess, Señorita Santander, Maria Claudia
Princess, Señorita Atlántico, Johanna Cure Lemus.
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
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.
is the first ever Miss Colombia of African descent.
do sometimes come true.
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.