Beauty contests in PH | Inquirer Opinion
Looking Back

Beauty contests in PH

/ 12:26 AM February 01, 2017

If the crime rate in Metro Manila really dipped last Monday because of the Miss Universe Pageant, someone might suggest we should have more of this more often. Each contestant’s country surely had a collective desire for a win, and this must have brought some momentary hope and cheer to some corners of the world where they are sorely needed.

In the aftermath, social media are still buzzing about what was lost in the answers of contestants who chose to speak in their mother language and use an interpreter. I read many an “armchair contestants” rant about what Miss Philippines should have said about the most notable changes in the world in the last decade, and I resisted the urge to post a reply to remind them of two things: First, they are not as pretty as Miss Philippines and will never make it to Miss Universe; second, the Q&A in a beauty contest is not an oral defense of a doctoral dissertation.


Whether we had beauty contests in prehistoric or pre-Spanish times we will never know—that is all lost to history. But we can trace beauty contests and our love for them back to the Christianization and Hispanization of the Philippines when the devotion to the Virgin Mary was introduced, making her the most beautiful, unattainable ideal of Filipino womanhood.

Then came the Flores de Mayo (Flowers of May) and the Santacruzan (Holy Cross), now fused into a pageant that commemorates the finding of the True Cross.


During the Santacruzan a long procession snakes around towns and barrios, and the most beautiful women in the community are dolled up and paraded as among the reynas (queens) who precede the most beautiful of them, Reyna Elena (carrying a crucifix to remind us of Santa Helena who played the starring role in the finding of the True Cross). Unlike the other Santacruzan queens who are escorted by the most handsome men in town, Reyna Elena is escorted by a boy, dressed like a prince,  depicting Haring Constantino (son of Reyna Elena), a convert and the first Christian emperor.

If we look at the Santacruzan through the lens of a modern beauty pageant, Reyna Elena is the the winner, and the first-runner up is Reyna Emperatriz (an awkward and redundant title when rendered in English—Queen Empress). Reyna Emperatriz is also Helena, but as Queen Mother, so she is sometimes represented by a matron, or a woman more mature than Reyna Elena.

The finalists in the Santacruzan as a beauty contest are: Reyna Banderada (Queen with a Banner); Reyna Mora (Muslim Queen); Reyna ng Saba (not the cooking banana, but the biblical Queen of Sheba who visited Solomon); Reyna Judít (the biblical Judith who killed Holofernes); Reyna Ester (the biblical Esther); and Cleopatra (not biblical but thrown into the stew for added flavor).

Three other queens represent the Christian virtues faith (Reyna Fe), hope (Reyna Esperanza), and charity (Reyna Caridad). Lesser beauties are included as zagalas (literally shepherdess, or rather maidens, but best described in colloquial Filipino as alalay) who constitute the ladies in waiting to the Queen.

Another group extending the procession represents the various titles lifted from the Litany of Loreto in its Spanish form, describing the Virgin Mary as queen: Reyna Abogada, Reyna Justicia, Reyna Luna, Reyna de la Paz, Reyna de los Patriarcas, Reyna de los Profetas, Reyna de los Confesores, Reyna de los Martires, Reyna de los Apostoles, Reyna de los Santos, Reyna de las Virgenes, Reyna de las Flores, and so on.

In time the Santacruzan and Flores de Mayo evolved into both a fashion show and beauty pageant, such that in recent years the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines repeatedly reminded the faithful of the religious roots of the tradition and warned against the open participation of gays in the procession or the holding of Gay Santacruzan!

Building on the Santacruzan, the Americans introduced the beauty contest in the Philippines in 1908, a decade after the United States won the Philippines as a spoil of the Spanish-American War. The Manila Carnival ran all the way to the 1930s, giving us a succession of Carnival queens who should be remembered and idealized as modern Filipino women who had both beauty and substance. (More on Friday.)

Comments are welcome at [email protected]

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TAGS: beauty contest, Beauty pageant, History, miss universe, opinion
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