Beauty pageants Mayan style

GUATEMALA CITY – If you thought beauty pageants were about tantrums, tiaras and two-pieces, think again. For the past 45 years, indigenous women in Guatemala have been gathering in the mountainous town of Cobán, Alta Verapaz, 200 kilometers north of the capital, to participate in the annual Mayan pageant “Encuentro Intercultural Folklórico Nacional” in the hope of being crowned “Rabin Ajau” (Daughter of the King).

Each year at the end of July or beginning of August, some 100 indigenous women from all over the Central American country descend upon Cobán and assemble in a large sports center to compete for the coveted prize. All of the young participants will have previously been selected as local princesses in smaller, community-wide contests held during the year. 

Instead of catwalks and bikini competitions, the contestants are clothed in traditional Mayan dress and are required to perform prayers, parades and traditional dances in front of the public, who are usually made up of dignitaries, guests and local residents. Judges award points for rhythm, elegance, grace and charm before testing the women on their cultural and historical knowledge – giving additional marks for intelligence, sincerity and spiritual beauty.

During this year’s pageant, organizers stressed: “This is not a beauty contest; it’s about leadership.”

Often used as a vehicle of protest and a platform for making speeches, the pageant is a celebration of Guatemala’s indigenous community, which accounts for roughly half the country’s population but suffers the highest levels of poverty.

The competition can last for four days and is accompanied by folklore singing groups, rodeos and parades that display Guatemala’s cultural heritage. The winner is often announced in the early hours of Sunday morning, after various rounds of competition, and is awarded the White Orchid Scepter and the Sacred Silver Crown, which is adorned with jade and quetzal feathers.

Since 2008, the Indigenous Development Fund, a government agency, has offered the winner of the cultural competition a job: This year’s Rabin Ajau, Leslie Tupil, now works as a coordinator for the institute’s youth unity program.