While we were staying at the Flycatcher B&B in Santa Elena in the Yucatan, I made friends with the owner, a remarkable American woman named Kristine who abandoned a lucrative career, moved to the Yucatan, married a Mayan man, and now runs a remarkably polished B&B full of homemade wrought-iron furniture about 12km west of Uxmal. While we were there, my partner came down with a stomach bug (no reflection on Kristine's excellent fruit and homemade bread breakfasts), so we stayed for an extra night--a night during which I was somewhat at loose ends until Kristine invited me to watch her niece compete in the Senorita Santa Elena beauty pageant.
The competition was among the local girls, aged about 14-16, I think; the prize was to be a scholarship to the regional high school, something which might otherwise be out of reach for a lot of them.
The competition took place in the community center, which is a large courtyard/basketball court surrounded by a somewhat daunting-looking wall. The audience, which was almost the entire population of the town, stood packed on all four sides of the courtyard, except where a DJ had set up a mammoth array of speakers and the comparative orderliness of the judges' chairs. People were jammed in, maybe three hundred of them; this was clearly a very big event.
The girls first came out one-by-one, sashaying in identical orange dresses, each with a single shoulder strap. Some of them had hitched the dresses up a bit to show some extra leg through the single slit, but other than that, this element of the competition was clearly meant to gauge their ability to stand out in the pre-fab clothing. The next outfits were huipiles, the old local costume--not the shorter dresses you see on market days but elaborate two-tiered outfits, tunic and skirt, which the girls had made themselves. In these outfits, the girls performed a traditional dance which seemed to consist of walking around with raised arms. The final outfit was the evening gowns. These, too, the girls had made themselves, based mostly on photographs of American prom dresses in magazines.
It was during the evening-gown stage of the competition that the girls gave their speeches, which they had written and memorized. Here Kristine's niece (who had otherwise seemed like a fairly ordinary young girl) did something extraordinary: she gave a speech about the morality of suicide, seriously considering when it is or is not appropriate. My Spanish is mostly guesswork and Italian, but I was able to tell that she ended with a passionate condemnation of suicide as too-easy a way out of one's problems.
She didn't win the contest. A thinner, less intense girl did.
I've remembered that night for a long time. The mixture of youthful optimism, charm, and visible desperation among those girls--all but one of whom was likely never to progress beyond the local primary school--was terrifying. And yet I'm grateful to Kristine for taking me. The event was a reminder of how little of the real life of a place we can see when we travel to it.