‘Beautiful with a heart’
Pura Villanueva, the Philippines’ first beauty queen, is long gone, but she is remembered not just for her beauty but for her other gifts: her writings, business acumen and prominent children. Tierra Pura (translated either as “Pure Land” or as “Pura’s Land”) is a Quezon City gated community built on her timely investment in real estate. Her daughter Purita Kalaw-Ledesma, who founded the Art Association of the Philippines, is best remembered in Filipino gayspeak where her name has become a synonym for “poor.” Beauty is one of the first gifts Nature gives a person, and it is also the first gift Nature takes away, unless one deploys cosmetics and resorts to cosmetic surgery early to make it last.
The Manila Carnival Queens and prewar Miss Philippines were chosen based on three critera: beauty, talent and good family background. They were not subjected to swimsuit contests showing off their vital statistics, nor were they asked inane questions to check if they had grey matter in their heads and a heart that beats for some relevant cause or, to put it in more contemporary terms, “beautiful with a heart.”
Three of the Carnival Queens were prominent in the movement to win the right to vote for Filipino women: Pura (1908), the founder of the Asociacion Feminista Ilonga; Paz Marquez Benitez (1912), one of the brightest stars in the first generation of writers in English and a co-founder of Philippine Women’s University; and Trinidad Fernandez Legarda (1924), editor of Women’s Outlook, who served as President of the National Federation of Women’s Clubs.
Prewar beauty queens became symbols of the “modern” Filipino woman of their time, in contrast to the idealized Maria Clara of Rizal’s “Noli me tangere” and the cheerful sun-lit rural maidens in the paintings of Fernando Amorsolo. These Carnival Queens were urban, highly educated, articulate in English, Spanish and their native languages. Comfortable both in American ways and in the old Hispanic Philippine customs they made the terno and pañuelo fashionable.
Beauty queen traits were sometimes in the genes. Pura’s daughter, Maria Kalaw (later Mrs. Jose R. Katigbak), was 1931 Miss Philippines and later served as senator, and in her twilight was a fierce MTRCB chair. Edith Nakpil Rabat, 1956 Miss Philippines, served in the Marcos-era Batang Pambansa and as deputy tourism minister, but she did not compete abroad because her parents refused to have their daughter ogled by the public in a bathing suit. Edith was the daughter of Juan Nakpil, National Artist for Architecture, and Anita Noble, 1926 Miss Philippines, the first to carry the title after the Carnival Queens.
What makes Pura stand out in the list of early beauty queens has nothing to do with her being the first beauty queen. Rather it is that she raised the bar for the Filipina Oriental Carnival Queen against the favored white American Occidental Carnival Queen. She was treated shabbily by American Carnival organizers: Unlike the Occidental Queen, she was not presented a bouquet of flowers, she was not provided ready transport from the fluvial parade to the Carnival grounds and, worse, she and her entourage were charged one peseta or 20 centavos as entrance fee at the gate! Pura skipped both the Carnival and the Masked Ball to make a statement. Years later, in a 1934 interview, Pura said:
“For me, the most attractive Carnival was that in which my daughter was elected queen, because it was a Carnival that could properly be called Filipino. It is true that in my time there was a more carnivalistic spirit and more costumes, more walking about in the streets, more noise with trumpets. It is true that the costumes I wore, from my crown to my shoes were native. Nevertheless, in that period of joy, those who most enjoyed themselves and also made the most of the Carnival were the foreigners. And the reason was that, being the first Carnival festivity, it was still unknown to us. Those who organized and managed it and animated it were the Americans.”
In the first beauty contest in 1908, Pura Villanueva (who married Teodoro Maniguiat Kalaw in 1910) had to fight for her dignity in her own country.
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