If you thought beauty pageants were only about tantrums, tiaras and two-pieces, then think again.
For the past 45 years, indigenous women in Guatemala have been gathering in the mountainous town of Cobán, Alta Verapaz, 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 between late July and early August, around 100 indigenous women from all over the Central American country descend upon Cobán, 220 kilometers from the capital, and assemble in a large sports center to compete for the coveted prize. All of the young participants have previously been selected as local princesses in smaller, community-wide contests held throughout 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 — usually made up of dignitaries, special invited 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.
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 and suffers the highest levels of poverty.
The competition can last for up to four days and is accompanied by folklore singing groups, rodeos and parades that showcase 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 institute, 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.