Mónica, the first | Translation
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Translated by MC Editorial
[Daniel Alarcón]: This is Radio Ambulante from NPR. I’m Daniel Alarcón.
This is Radio Ambulante from NPR. I’m Daniel Alarcón.
The time of the year has come when we say goodbye for a while. With this episode we end our eleventh season! Eleven! Thank you very much for joining us week after week. We’ll be back in September with more stories, but in the meantime we want to invite you to sign up to participate in the Radio Ambulante Fest if you haven’t already done so.
We still have many events left: tomorrow, April 27, there will be a conversation between Brigitte Baptiste – a Colombian biologist and environmental leader -, Ramón Cruz – president of the Sierra Club, the most influential environmental organization in the United States – and Eliézer Budasoff – co-host of our podcast El hilo. They will talk about the possible futures for our continent and the role of Latin voices in the face of the climate crisis. In two days, on April 28, I will speak with novelist, vlogger and podcaster John Green.
On Saturday the 30th our producers Lisette Arévalo and David Trujillo will give a hands-on workshop on how to research a story for audio. On May 4, I will talk with Dominican artist Rita Indiana and on May 5 we will have a pitch session where Radio Ambulante’s editors and producers will share strategies for finding stories and hold a live discussion on three pre-selected pitches.
Every ticket we sell helps us keep producing stories like the one you’re going to hear today, like the ones you’ve heard all this season 11. You can find more information at radioambulante.org/fest.
Well, that. So, here’s the episode.
[Paola Vintimilla]: Let’s hear the public cheer loudly, with enthusiasm; you’re having a good time, right?
[Henry Soto]: The thing is, they are stressed, they are like us. It is stressful, very stressful…
[Daniel]: It is an evening in November 1995, and we are at the Miss Ecuador ceremony at the Bolívar Theater in Quito.
[Henry Soto]: 12 Ecuadorian women representing several million beautiful, creative, hard-working, and entrepreneurial women of this land have now been presented to you . . .
[Daniel]: And among those women was . . .
[Paola Vintimilla]: And our last candidate, Mónica Chalá.
[Daniel]: If you are Ecuadorian, that name may sound familiar to you. Maybe not. But for a brief moment, she was one of the most important women in her country.
[Paola Vintimilla]: . . . She was also an excellent athlete. She earned medals for track events at National and Bolivarian Games. She withdrew temporarily due to lack of support, despite her triumphs.
[Daniel]: Mónica was the first Black woman to compete in the Miss Ecuador contest.
[Paola Vintimilla]: Well, any of these girls can be elected Miss Ecuador tonight and will represent us at the most important beauty event in the world, Miss Universe. Henry, how are the nerves . . . ?
[Daniel]: This reign would be very special, and a little bit different, because it would spark a conversation about something very important: what it means to be Ecuadorian…
We’ll be back after a short break.
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[Daniel]: We’re back with Radio Ambulante. Our producer, Lisette Arévalo, and our fact-checker, Desirée Yépez, researched this story.
Desirée picks up the story.
[Desirée Yépez]: To get to know Mónica Chalá better, we have to start by imagining her as a child. As the person she was before competing for Miss Ecuador.
She was born in Quito in 1973. Her parents are Afro-descended and they came to the capital years before, separately, looking for better opportunities. Her mother migrated from Esmeraldas, a coastal city in Ecuador, and her father migrated from Ibarra, in the country’s northern highlands.
Mónica lived with her mother, grandmother, and five siblings. She is the third. And if she stood out for one thing, it was for being the most mischievous and determined of all. This is Mónica:
[Mónica Chalá]: My mother used to say to me, “You were always so restless that I had to be watching you constantly, because you never liked to stay in one place.”
[Desirée]: She was a cheerful girl, very friendly. If she wasn’t jumping rope with her schoolmates, she was playing hopscotch or soccer with her sisters and brothers. And when there was money, they traveled to Esmeraldas to visit their mother’s family.
[Mónica]: Always reminding us where we came from or from where she has always been.
[Desirée]: Esmeraldas, a province that has had a significant Black population since colonial times. In the 16th century, a slave ship that left Panama was shipwrecked. Several Africans escaped and managed to reach the coast of Esmeraldas. Much of the country’s Black population has its roots in that area, and the prejudice, repeated so often in Ecuador, is that Afro-Ecuadorians live only in areas like Esmeraldas—that is, in warm places.
[Mónica]: But of course I feel one hundred percent Quiteña because I was born and raised in Quito. But there is that very strong tie to the coast, to the region of Esmeraldas.
[Desirée]: For Mónica, it is important to mention this because, although the migration of Black people from the provinces to Quito began in the 1960s, a family like hers still attracted attention in the capital. She remembers that at that time, Black people were normally found doing manual labor, domestic work . . .
[Mónica]: There were Black people who didn’t drive cars. Very few did. And much less women. You didn’t see Black people in a bank, you didn’t see Black people working as cashiers in a supermarket. But you did see them doing simple jobs, right? Like washing dishes, cleaning, in hotels . . . you know, those kinds of jobs.
[Desirée]: Almost invisible jobs. And in a sense, this reflected the country’s relationship with its Afro-descended population. Here, for example, I leave you a piece of information that not even I, an Afro-descended woman, knew until we reported this story: in my country, there are more people who identify as Black than as Indigenous.
But in Quito in the 1980s, it didn’t feel like that. In her daily life, Mónica and her family faced discriminatory comments.
[Mónica]: We were walking down the street, for some reason I was wearing sunglasses. And someone said, “You look like little monkeys with those sunglasses.”
[Desirée]: For this type of discrimination, Mónica’s mother had a strategy she repeated to them:
[Mónica]: “When you’re Black you have to try harder, right? People will always notice you more. From the first impression to how you speak, how you behave.” She prepared us to live life—not a storybook life, but a more real life. How hard life is when you are a Black person and you have to learn how to behave.
[Desirée]: Her mother made sure to provide them with everything that was necessary for them to have a comfortable life. When Mónica was between 7 and 9 years old, her mother went to work as a housekeeper in Europe and sent them remittances, clothes, and shoes. Mónica and her siblings remained in Quito with her grandmother, who made sure to raise them as her mother wanted: she taught them to be organized, respectful, and always look impeccable. She also emphasized playing sports. It was a way to aspire to more, and get ahead.
Historically, Afro-Ecuadorians have found space in sports disciplines. It was thought—well, it is still thought—that their genetics make them better athletes. To justify this belief, they say that they have longer legs and optimal muscle development for boxing, basketball, weightlifting, and of course, athletics.
Mónica’s older sister, Liliana, was the first to take the step. She went into athletics and quickly became an example. She won several medals and even represented Ecuador twice in the Olympics.
Mónica, who is 8 years younger, admired her sister and followed in her footsteps. When she was 14, she started training six times a week with the school team. She ran 400, 800, 1,500 and even 3,000 meters in competitions with other schools, and eventually got on the national team. Her coach told her that if she wanted to win, she had to make an effort, but that meant sacrifices.
[Mónica]: While some of my classmates at school or in other types of environments were at parties, or doing things, or were already drinking, I wasn’t even—I mean, I wasn’t even involved in that kind of thing, because I wasn’t interested.
[Desirée]: Athletics made her a competitive and strategic young woman. She was doing so well that when she was only 15, 16, 17 years old, she competed in countries like Venezuela, Paraguay, Colombia, Brazil . . . and with each race she won, she felt that the doors of the world were opening for her.
[Mónica]: I dreamed of many things. To aspire to . . . to fulfill, to achieve things that maybe we did not do when I was little. Also in that same spirit and with that desire to succeed in life, to try to be a good example for other people. Try to open doors for other people.
[Desirée]: Sports gave the Chalá sisters status. Mónica was in the media because of her achievements, and Liliana even had a segment on exercise routines on Ecuavisa, one of the leading television channels in the country.
[Mónica]: We grew up in a different environment too, you know? Where sometimes my sister—of course, because she was who she was—sometimes we got invited, and then so did I. And of course I sometimes realized that we were the only Black people in certain places, you know?
[Desirée]: They went to social gatherings where there were people involved in television, where Liliana worked. News presenters, models, glamour girls, actresses . . . And there, in that world, there were only thin White women with straight light hair. Although Liliana worked at Ecuavisa, her role was limited to sports, period. It was an environment where Mónica did not see herself having a leading role.
[Mónica]: I never thought about, about, beauty queens, or catwalks, or beauty pageants. How could I dream of something, if I had never seen it or did not have that example?
[Desirée]: Mónica was not a vain teenager. She wore her hair long, tied in a bun. She didn’t paint her nails, and she kept them short; she didn’t wear makeup, and she dressed in casual, comfortable clothes. Partly because she was always training, partly because of her personality. But even so, the Chalá sisters did not go unnoticed. Their friends complimented them on their natural beauty.
[Mónica]: I remember there was a classmate of ours who said to us, “Oh, but you girls should wear shorts when you go out, wear other clothes, put on a little more makeup, you’re so pretty.” Hmmm . . . we didn’t pay much attention to them.
[Desirée]: Mónica had only one thing in mind: her sports career. But people who are really successful at sports spend all their time training. And that requires financial support—which despite her achievements, she did not get. So, when she finished school in the early 90s, she decided to listen to all the people who told her that she could become a model, and she started going to casting calls.
[Mónica]: Of course they would call me, tell me I was very pretty, very sporty, very . . . And of course that helped me, but I kind of didn’t fully assimilate it . . . It’s not something I enjoyed, but it obviously helped me earn money.
[Desirée]: With that money, she enrolled in a modeling academy. And for the next four years, she began little by little to build a career. Her first big commercial was recorded at the age of 22, in 1995, for one of the country’s leading banks. In the video, Mónica appears in a group of people applauding and cheering the star soccer player of the time, Alex Aguinaga, a blond White man. She is the only Black woman in the foreground.
That commercial, where she had a role that might seem insignificant—that is, she appears for only about 4 seconds—would be the gateway to that world she had previously seen as unattainable.
One day in August of that year, when Mónica came home, her mother gave her an unexpected message.
[Mónica]: They called my mother from Ecuavisa, inviting me to participate in the Miss Ecuador contest as a candidate.
[Desirée]: Ecuavisa, the television channel where her sister worked, was organizing the competition that year. Her first reaction was disbelief.
[Mónica]: It seemed strange to me; it seemed to me that there must be some mistake, because, of course, I’d never seen a Black person participate in the contest. Except in international competitions, right?
[Desirée]: The United States, for example, had chosen its first Black Miss America in 1984. And among the most famous top models were highly-valued Black women like Naomi Campbell and Tyra Banks. Mónica admired them. Women like them had cleared the way for others. She was encouraged to participate, thinking that she could do the same for her country.
[Mónica]: And that’s when I said OK. It would be a way for us to be recognized as part of, of society, right? It would be a way to maybe open doors to other people, or it was a way for us to become visible to society.
[Desirée]: Mónica remembers that she showed up at Ecuavisa the next day. The organizers told her that the process would take about three months and that it involved traveling and having full availability. Mónica agreed and when she returned home and told her mother, she remembers that her mother said . . .
[Mónica]: “I mean, if you do it, you’re going to do it well, because it involves spending money and all that.” In other words, it was going to be an investment.
[Desirée]: To buy high heels, makeup, fabrics to make the clothing and dresses she would wear. In addition, she would have to transform herself.
[Mónica]: We had to learn to walk; I had to learn to wear heels. I had to change my dress style. I, who wasn’t used to any of those . . . to those ways of life, a more formal way of life or, or let’s say, more feminine and the vainer way it implied. Yes, it cost me.
[Desirée]: The first step in the contest was to meet the other pre-candidates. From a group of 24 women, twelve would be selected to attend the final gala. When Mónica met them, she was in for a surprise. She wasn’t the only Black candidate. She tells us that the group, dominated by Whites or Mestizas, included one or two other Afro-descended women.
[Mónica]: I liked the idea. I felt happy, happy to see another Black girl, or two more Black girls. Because I said, “Well, finally there’s another one.” I thought I was going, I thought I was going to be the only one, and I said, “No, it’s a good thing.”
[Desirée]: That first phase included intensive practice in makeup, photography, catwalks and etiquette. And the candidates had to make an effort because competing for the crown in November depended on that. After about a month of training, Mónica received a letter from the Miss Ecuador Organization: she had been selected as one of the twelve finalists.
[Mónica]: I was happy and joyful. Not even my mother could believe it. That’s when I started to feel that emotion. But at the same time, of course, a little bit nervous because I had already reached a level I hadn’t even imagined, and it had finally materialized. That was one of the steps. And I thought, “Even if I don’t win, at least I participated . . . “
[Desirée]: And Mónica was the only Black candidate who had been selected among the finalists. The first in the history of the contest.
[Mónica]: That’s when I started to feel a burden and a responsibility. Why? Because I said, “I am not representing just myself or my family; I am representing a group of people, people of this country, and I have to do it well.”
[Desirée]: If athletics had prepared her for anything, it was for that moment: to be determined, disciplined, strategic, and to compete, because the obstacles in the race to the crown started to appear immediately.
In the contest, each candidate represents a province of the country, and the organizers of Miss Ecuador wanted Mónica to represent Esmeraldas. But she wanted to represent Pichincha, the province where Quito is, the city where she was born. She felt that she had every right to do so. This would be her first battle. Let’s remember those prejudices that we mentioned before, the invisibility . . . because in its own imagination Quito, the capital, sees itself as a Spanish city in the Andes. A Mestizo and traditional city. Even a White one.
[Mónica]: I tell them, “Just because I’m Black I don’t have to be from Esmeraldas.” I’m not going to change, because I’m very much a Quiteña and I’m from Pichincha.
[Desirée]: The organizers gave up when she stood her ground. Mónica would wear the sash of Pichincha.
The night of the pageant would be November 9, 1995. In the weeks leading up to it, Mónica and the other eleven candidates traveled all over the country, attended events, and visited various companies and factories. The idea was to make herself known. Mónica remembers that on one of those visits, where they even asked for autographs, a Black worker approached her and said:
[Mónica]: That she felt very proud that I was participating, that it was something that had not been seen before, that she wished me good luck, and she said, “Yes, I see you, yes I see you, maybe I do see you winning.” I replied, “Ah, I don’t know about that, but I’m here representing you.”
[Desirée]: Just her presence in the contest was something new, surprising.
It was a surprise even to the other candidates. This is one of them, Samantha León:
[Samantha León]: I did feel there was discrimination against Mónica because she was Black. Many people said that she did not represent us. And how could it be possible for a Black woman to represent Pichincha?
[Desirée]: What might seem like a handicap, Mónica used to her advantage. It was part of her strategy. Mónica was willing to break the mold, to show that she was different and spontaneous. For example, during the time they stayed in hotels for rehearsals, she would come down for breakfast in her pajamas and no makeup. She wanted to stand out as being authentic, beyond simple vanity.
And it worked, because that’s how Marisol Romero, radio presenter and actress, who was on the judges’ panel that year, remembers her:
[Marisol Romero]: No, she never tried to draw attention among her companions or among us, no. She was very quiet. I’m not going to tell you that she was shy, but rather reserved. With her fellow contestants she was . . . pleasant but not intimate or that kind of personality that wants to win because it suits her or because she has interests, or because . . . No, rather very, very calm.
[Desirée]: Marisol saw that, on the other hand, the other candidates did not show that same confidence or clarity in their objectives. But not only that.
[Marisol]: Beautiful, really beautiful, the most beautiful of all. A sculptural body, as we say, the ebony goddess. In fact, that was her nickname, I believe.
[Desirée]: Marisol, more than anyone, knows what it takes to win a contest like this. She herself had competed to be the beauty queen of Quito. And of course, she noticed Mónica’s physical characteristics.
[Marisol]: And her skin was impressive, it was impressive. It looked like plastic. Have you seen the Barbies, like the rubber of the Barbies? That’s how her skin was; it was super smooth and shiny and super hydrated. And that chocolate color was so beautiful.
[Desirée]: Marisol was not the only one who was impressed with Mónica. In one of the final events before the election, the 12 candidates had a dinner with the jury. There they had a chance to introduce themselves and show that beyond their physique, they were prepared to represent the country as candidates for Miss Universe.
To do so, that night they had an individual interview with the judges. When it was Mónica’s turn, they asked her very general questions: how old she was, what her family was like, what her dreams were, what she was studying . . . And they asked her for an extra explanation . . . This is one of the judges, Gustavo Vallejo:
[Gustavo Vallejo]: Then the judges asked her how a person of color, even called Brown, participates.
[Desirée]: Mónica was prepared for that kind of question.
[Gustavo]: And showing no uneasiness at all, she said, “No, I’m not Brown, I’m Black, and I’m participating because just as we’ve stood out in sports, why can’t we stand out in beauty.”
[Mónica]: Because I am part of a society. Because it’s not like they’re doing me a favor. The point is that I am a part of something.
[Desirée]: She left that interview satisfied and proud. So much so, that when she spoke to her mother that night and her mother asked how she felt, she replied that she was calm. That she even saw herself among the last five finalists and that, if she gave a good answer to the required question, the one they ask the candidates in front of the public, then she had a chance of winning.
The gala event for the election of Miss Ecuador was going to be at the Bolívar Theater, in the center of Quito. It was a Thursday with a lot of hustle and bustle, expectation and tension.
[Mónica]: Yes, I was nervous, but still very confident and calm.
[Desirée]: The theater was packed, and there were groups cheering for their favorite candidate. In the third row were Mónica’s mother and sister, nervous but excited. Finally, amid blue, pink and green lights, the twelve candidates appeared on stage in a pleated miniskirt and brown bra.
Mónica was in the center, smiling, wearing her long, black, braided hair loose. After a few dance steps, the presenters of the gala, Venezuelan actor Henry Soto and former beauty queen Paola Vintimilla, greeted everyone.
[Henry]: Every year, the world comes to a standstill for one night. Every year, all the inhabitants of the planet come together to admire the beauty of the women who live in all corners of this land of ours.
[Paola]: On a night like this night, in a few months, all eyes will be on Johannesburg, South Africa, where they will choose, as Henry said, the most beautiful woman on earth.
[Henry]: And today we are here to choose the woman who represents the beauty and way of being of a whole people, of a whole way of feeling, of a whole race.
[Desirée]: One by one, the candidates filed on stage. As they completed their parade, Henry and Paola talked about them. In addition to giving their age, they commented that they were “beautiful” and had “a spectacular body.” And in the background, you could hear the whistles, applause and shouts of the public.
[Paola]: And our last candidate . . . She appears on the scene, she represents the province of Pichincha, her name is Mónica Paulina Chalá Mejía and she is 22 years old.
[Desirée]: Mónica walked with confidence and ease, smiling at the camera and the cheering audience.
For the second part of the evening, the candidates wore a short black dress. As they walked on the stage, the presenters gave a brief description of who they were, what they did for a living. And when it was Mónica’s turn . . .
[Paola]: Mónica Chalá graduated from high school at the 24 de Mayo School in Quito. She works as a model and is currently studying German because she wants to succeed abroad to represent Black Ecuadorian women. She wants to be known for all her cultural qualities.
[Desirée]: Afterwards, they modeled a peach-colored swimsuit and the presenters gave more details about their origins and their professional and personal aspirations.
The final round was in evening gowns. This was the contestants’ last chance to dazzle the judges and make it as one of the five finalists. Mónica wore a long, sleeveless dress with a gold torso and a wide white skirt; her hair was done up in a high bun. The presenter talked about her sports career, the medals she had won, and said that she was temporarily retired from athletics.
[Paola]: She wants to achieve international success to represent Ecuadorian Black women who, in her view, have had very few opportunities to express themselves. The same as the indigenous women.
[Desirée]: After this round, the presenters made way for the announcement of the five finalists. They were not named immediately. Mónica says while they waited, there was a lot of tension.
[Mónica]: A little anxious, a little nervous, because being there, right? Like in the clouds, who is it going to be. And you wonder, will I make it? Won’t I?
[Henry]: Sealed envelope…
[Desirée]: The presenters received the envelope with the results and named them one by one . . .
[Paola]: How are the nerves, Henry? Oh no, I’m dying of nerves. Well, but let’s see, let’s see who they are . . . Ta da ta daa, exactly.
[Henry]: Finalist number one . . . representing the province of Pichincha, Mónica Chalá.
[Desirée]: Mónica smiled and her eyes lit up. She separated herself from the other candidates and walked to the front to receive a bouquet of yellow flowers with a giant, orange-colored bow. It was unprecedented. For the first time, a Black woman was competing; for the first time, she was one of the five finalists; and for the first time, she was just one step away from being crowned the most beautiful woman in Ecuador.
Mónica was ecstatic. She was one of the finalists, as she had told her mother the night before.
[Mónica]: Just making it to the top five, the five finalists, already meant a lot. Because I said, I don’t know, I had already fulfilled a goal there, right? One of the last five. And of course, it becomes an anxiety, it becomes a wait, it becomes what, what will it be?
[Desirée]: Mónica waited at the front of the stage, still smiling, while the other four were announced. When the cheering, the applause and the shouts subsided, the questions prepared by the panel came. It was a moment that distressed everyone because they had no idea what they would be asked.
[Mónica]: And then how does one deal with that stressful bit? Breathe, breathe and calm down, because that is when your nerves can obviously fail the most and everything.
[Desirée]: Samantha León, one of the finalists, also remembers it that way:
[Samantha]: The moment in these beauty pageants when the question comes, right? Everyone says, let’s see if the girl has a brain, aside from her nice body, will she show intelligence.
[Desirée]: The first to answer was Pamela Hidalgo.
[Henry]: What is the most valuable contribution that an Ecuadorian can make to their country?
[Pamela]: Love. Love your country. As long as we love our country and know how to love it, the country will be the best . . . I think the only thing we should do is love it . . .
[Desirée]: The other questions were quite similar to the one you just heard. They were things like . . .
[Henry]: What do women contribute to Ecuadorian society?
[Desirée]: And . . .
[Henry]: What motivated you to compete and what would you do if you were elected?
[Desirée]: The last question was for Mónica.
[Henry]: And for my ebony queen, if you would be so kind . . . beautiful lady, will you allow me? What would you do to restore optimism to Ecuadorians?
[Mónica]: The first thing I would do is tell them to have faith. Because as human beings we have to thank God for belonging to this, this world. But above all, that we have to forget about the races we have and support each other because we are human beings.
[Mónica]: When the audience heard my answer, the reaction they had was to applaud, to be thrilled, to be happy.
[Desirée]: The mere fact of mentioning race was in itself a novelty. Even daring. Marisol Romero, one of the judges, recalls the same thing:
[Marisol]: I remember it was like “whoa” and everyone, and the whole theater was . . . I remember the applause. I remember that it was very resounding.
[Desirée]: After eleven o’clock that night, the most awaited moment arrived: the announcement of the new Miss Ecuador. After opening a white envelope, the presenters began to name who was disqualified.
[Paola]: The fourth runner-up is . . . from Pichincha, Samantha León.
[Desirée]: There were four left: Mónica, María Eulalia, Pamela and Silvana. They were holding hands, in a row.
[Henry]: Third runner-up . . . From Manabí, Pamela Hidalgo.
[Desirée]: Now there were three . . .
[Paola]: Now, the name of the second runner-up is . . . Silvana Semiglia from Guayas. (Shouts, cheers) Only two remain. Who will be the new Miss Ecuador?
[Henry]: Ay ay ay ay ay . . . .
[Desirée]: Mónica and María Eulalia looked at each other and held hands, smiling. Only one of them would take the crown. This is María Eulalia:
[María Eulalia Silva]: I couldn’t believe it, really, I couldn’t believe it. I mean, I said, “If I got this far, that’s it, that’s it.”
[Mónica]: And we were like, sure, anxious and everything. And then the cheering, right? And the people rooting for us, because we were waiting for the result.
[María Eulalia]: So Mónica and I were there, holding hands. And then . . . I mean, whoever was named, that one was the first runner-up and the one who was not named won Miss Ecuador.
[Mónica]: But it is being in the moment, at that moment, when you are anxious, when the adrenaline rises, when you hear the audience . . .
[Paola]: Now, the first runner-up, who will replace Miss Ecuador in the event that she cannot . . . is . . . the representative . . . from the province of . . .
[Henry]: Say it, say it, you say it.
[Paola y Henry]: María Eulalia Silva!
[Paola]: Therefore, Miss Ecuador 1995 is . . . !
[Paola y Henry]: Mónica Chalá!
[Henry]: From the province of Pichincha! Congratulations!
[Desirée]: When they said her name, Mónica’s eyes and smile widened. María Eulalia hugged her long and hard. When they let go, a representative from the Ecuavisa channel approached her to place a sash on her. Last year’s Miss Ecuador—a tall, blonde White woman—hugged her, took the crown off her own head, and put it on Mónica’s.
[Mónica]: I was in tears; I was completely in tears . . . The emotion was so great that I started to cry.
[Daniel]: Mónica had made it. She got the most important crown in Ecuador and would go down in history as the first Black woman to do so. But that was just the beginning.
We’ll be back after a short break.
[Daniel]: We’re back with Radio Ambulante. I’m Daniel Alarcón. Before the break, Mónica Chalá was crowned Miss Ecuador and would represent her country at Miss Universe 1996. She was the first Black Ecuadorian woman to hold that title. Something that might seem inconsequential now, but back then it was loaded with meaning.
Lisette Arévalo, co-producer of this episode with Desirée Yepez, continues the story.
[Lisette Arévalo]: On that November night, the years of effort, work and sacrifices of the Chalá family seemed to have been worth it. Mónica was in tears, and in the gallery of the theater, her sister and her mother were too. They held hands, incredulous. But, above all, proud to see her shine. This is her sister, Liliana:
[Liliana Chalá]: It was a great night, in the sense that my mom and I were holding on to each other and . . . because it was quite stressful, an incredible emotion that, when I remember it now, everything comes back to mind. I have not forgotten that at all. And it wasn’t like, “Oh as a Black woman, we had achieved something.” Not at all.
[Lisette]: It was the legitimate happiness of one sister for another. Of a mother for a daughter who had overcome a challenge. Mónica was in shock. In fact, she hardly remembers what that moment was like. She still remembers the affection that she received from some of her fellow contestants.
[Mónica]: I was so excited, and so tearful that I didn’t see who came up and who didn’t. But some came to me and congratulated me, of course. And they congratulated me, and very nice, and very, very sweet and very beautiful.
[Lisette]: One of them was Samantha León, who came in fifth. She was happy. She considered Mónica her friend.
[Samantha]: I mean, it was, yes, it was a shock. But anyway. The thing is, it was important for a Black woman to win that beauty competition. That was important. To mark a precedent.
[Lisette]: For María Eulalia Silva, who came in second, Mónica’s issue went beyond physical appearance:
[María Eulalia]: I think the people who chose her, chose her because of . . . maybe, yes, her physical beauty, but maybe also what she represented. And it was good.
[Lisette]: While the lights of the theater and the television cameras pointed at the stage, the judges, who were sitting with the rest of the public, applauded the new Miss Ecuador. But not everything was emotion and joy. Expressions of anger and violence soon began to erupt. This is Yolanda Torres, who headed the panel of judges:
[Yolanda Torres]: The moment she won, a large number of people got up right there at the event to insult us. Shouting insults at us, they called us all kinds of names.
[Lisette]: They shouted at them, saying they had sold themselves, questioning their impartiality.
[Yolanda]: I was worried that Mónica might win because I thought it could be a cultural shock in our society. To be honest. And that was part of what I feared for Mónica herself. I mean, it must not be very nice to win and have the audience get up and hurl insults.
[Lisette]: Marisol Romero, the judge we heard before, feared that something like this would happen. She sensed that choosing Mónica would be controversial. She heard comments from other judges such as . . .
[Marisol]: “It will be tough if we elect an Afro-descendant as queen, as Miss Ecuador.” And I was furious; I felt it was a racist thing.
[Lisette]: The judges left the theater amid the insults and criticism, and didn’t look back.
That same discomfort was evident in several of the candidates, although at first it was concealed behind the congratulatory hugs, the smiles, and the applause. Samantha León told us that she saw some of them storm off the stage. And Silvana Semiglia, who came in third, was told things like . . .
[Silvana Semiglia]: “They stole my crown,” and I found that comment very unpleasant. Several media outlets called me to say that I should have won.
[Lisette]: The feeling was that a mistake had been made. That it was unthinkable for a Black woman to represent Ecuadorian beauty. Pamela Hidalgo, who came in fourth, heard such phrases.
[Pamela Hidalgo]: I remember some very ugly comments. Comments like, “Oh, now everyone is going to think we are all Black in Ecuador.” Ugly, ugly, ugly, ugly, horrible.
[Lisette]: But that night, Mónica had no idea of the negative reactions or the disapproval. Although of course, in the following days the journalists did not stop knocking at the door of her home. They wanted to talk about her life, her projects as queen, they wanted to get to know her family more closely.
[Mónica]: It was the news. I think they even called me from, from, Venezuela or Colombia for an interview, right away.
[Lisette]: Especially since at that time, neither of those countries had elected a Black beauty queen. That would happen years later, in 1998 in the case of Venezuela and in 2001 in Colombia.
The front pages of national newspapers and magazines were filled with photos of Mónica and headlines announcing, “And the judges chose an ebony queen . . . ,” “Mónica Chalá charmed the judges,” “How Mónica won,” “Mónica defies prejudice,” “Perhaps a door is opening . . . .”
The media focused on the color of her skin. They also highlighted her 170 cm height, her athletic body and—quote—her “exotic face,” saying that she was a “pretty Brown.” A commentator from what was then the largest newspaper in the country, El Comercio, went so far as to say that she was, and I quote, “a Venus of ebony and jet, one of those conceived during the full moon, conceived when the light turns on in the dark”—end quote. And that her appeal lay in a supposed purity of her race that had not been (quote) “contaminated” by mixing with other races.
People commented on everything: that the queen of poverty had won, that the Whites had cleansed their conscience by electing her . . . And in Quito, there was a demonstration of women who were upset over the result. They said that Mónica did not represent Ecuadorian beauty.
It didn’t take long for all this to reach Mónica’s ears.
[Mónica]: People, some of them, agreed; others did not, and what they said, you know? That if I compete for Miss Universe, people would think that the people here in Ecuador are Black. And I said no, no, they are not going to think that, because I myself will say that we are a multiracial country, a rich and diverse country.
[Lisette]: But people’s dislike of the choice did not stop. And they began to create conspiracy theories. The first had to do with the relationship between the government and the Afro-descended population. At that time, social organizations and associations demanded spaces for direct participation in public institutions. So some media said that Mónica’s election was a way to quiet down those claims.
When judge Marisol Romero recalls this, she is filled with indignation, because there was even talk of bribes.
[Marisol]: I found it extremely ridiculous to say that we were paid to elect a candidate of color in order to be on good terms with the Afro-Ecuadorian or Afro-descendant community. Wow! Not at all, not at all.
[Lisette]: Yolanda Torres, who also worked for the organizing channel, Ecuavisa, received several complaints. For example:
[Yolanda]: The other girls’ parents were like, “What happened?” That’s where you even saw racism. Why? Because if one of the others had won . . . “Tough luck, my daughter didn’t win.” But the fact that Mónica won affected them much more.
[Lisette]: They were furious. She says she even received death threats.
[Yolanda]: That they were going to put a bomb in my car. Of course, when, when there is a threat, it’s not going to happen, but people were angry, and that became evident.
[Lisette]: A newspaper even said that the judges had ‘dared’ to choose Mónica to represent the country in Johannesburg, South Africa, where she was going to be Miss Universe. And here came the second conspiracy theory: that with Mónica, being Black, Ecuador would have a better chance of winning. If you search the internet, you’ll find that one of the capital’s newspapers did a survey, in which 68 percent of those surveyed said they believed that assumption.
In her first public statements as Miss Ecuador, Mónica rejected that allegation. The headline of an interview done by a national newspaper read, “I am not less, and I am not better, than anyone else because of the color of my skin.”
[Mónica]: Because people associate being Black with: you must be stupid, you must be vulgar, you must not know how to dress, you must not know how to . . . I mean, the stereotype goes on and on, and it doesn’t end, right?
[Lisette]: It was not a matter of perceptions. That year, 1995, a police spokesman told the press . . . and I quote, “There is a type of race that is prone to crime, to commit heinous acts; it is the dark race, because of its ignorance and audacity.”
That is why Mónica emphasized that her election would serve to, quote, “demonstrate to society that Blacks are human beings with the same abilities.”
Amid all the criticism, there was no allowance for the possibility that Mónica might have won Miss Ecuador because she was the best candidate.
[Mónica]: Ecuador was not ready for a, ah, Black Miss Ecuador. They weren’t even prepared to have a Black representative in such a big competition, were they?
[Lisette]: And it seemed that not even the social group she represented was prepared. The Association of Blacks of Ecuador, a group that in 1995 had been fighting for their rights for over seven years, fell for that theory. This is Yolanda Torres again:
[Yolanda]: They complained, saying that we chose her because it was in South Africa. In other words, absolute and total nonsense.
[Lisette]: When Yolanda received that claim from the Association, she decided to share it on her television program on Ecuavisa. The statement said verbatim, “This hypocritical election is intended to hide the situation of discrimination experienced by Blacks in this nation.” In addition, they doubted that the Miss Ecuador organization would select another Black woman in the future.
But of course, Mónica’s election did not change the living conditions of Afro-descendants in Ecuador. In fact, the census didn’t even calculate parameters for the social conditions of that population until 2001. Only then did it become known that in the previous decade, that is, in the 90s, almost 73% lived in poverty. This matches what Mónica told us at the beginning of this episode: their historical invisibility, the absence of political representation, the unpaid jobs, and their exclusion from public policymaking. But Mónica didn’t have much else in her hands; it was just a beauty pageant. Nothing more.
We tried to talk to the Association of Blacks of Ecuador, but we did not get an answer.
Some also wanted to use Mónica for political purposes. The same Association that criticized her election asked her to intercede with the government for land for Afro-descendants. Since the 1960s, agrarian reform policies had not benefited them with productive land, and they remained marginalized. That’s why they argued that Mónica should do it, and I quote, “so that Blacks who are immersed in poverty, even with a queen, can survive.”
But she did not give in to the pressures and demands, and declined to become a figure on the political chessboard. She didn’t feel obligated to do it, and she wasn’t interested, either.
[Mónica]: We know how Ecuador is; everything is politicized. I don’t like politics. I think I stayed somewhat neutral, right? Yes, we can chat, we can talk, but I don’t want to get involved in politics, because many of the organizations are part of political parties.
[Lisette]: She believes that by her presence in the national conversation, she already fulfilled the purpose of making Blacks visible in her country.
[Mónica]: My being there and giving myself, that is, putting my face on the front of it . . . I had already done enough, because I took on a lot of criticism, I took on a lot of things. In other words, I already took on that responsibility. I didn’t let them wrap me up in more than I should.
[Lisette]: By getting in front of the cameras and coming under public scrutiny, she had already accomplished enough: she was getting Ecuadorians to talk about Blackness.
[Mónica]: Creating controversy, for good or ill, but at least it gave people a chance to think that they are part of a social group, Black people, right? That Ecuador is a country where . . . there is no reason to set borders, and you have to know how to acknowledge each other.
[Lisette]: Mónica says that, all in all, she was not affected by the racist comments against her. Her mother’s advice, the discipline acquired in sports, and her determination prepared her mentally for that moment. Those criticisms taught her to be even more realistic, to be stronger.
[Mónica]: If you dwell on the negative, you will never get anywhere. You have to let it flow. So why focus on that negativity? When there were other positive things . . .
[Lisette]: Like the trip she would take to represent Ecuador at the Miss Universe pageant.
The preparation for that competition lasted six months. Time in which the organization pressured Mónica to change her appearance. For example, her eyes.
[Mónica]: I use contact lenses because I have myopia and it is genetic. So they said, “Why don’t you put a little color on them?” Like a lighter color . . . more amber, more honey.
[Lisette]: She accepted. Mónica kept her hair long but instead of braids, she wore it straight. In the middle of these preparations, Miss Universe changed venue. The pageant would no longer be in South Africa due to lack of budget and sponsors. Now it would be in Las Vegas, the United States. For Mónica that was a minor detail. In May 1996 she set off for the most important beauty pageant on the planet.
Unlike Miss Ecuador, in this competition Mónica was just another Afro-descended contestant. They came from all over the world: Aruba, Bonaire, Virgin Islands, Bahamas, Jamaica, Great Britain, Finland, Ghana, Zimbabwe, and Belize . . . And although her skin color was no longer a differentiator, she was recognized. Contestants like Alicia Machado, from Venezuela, said . . .
[Mónica]: “I saw you in my country.” That’s what the girls said to me, “You made the news. I saw it” . . . Because it was news at the Latin American level.
[Lisette]: The night of Miss Universe, Mónica took the opportunity to present the culture of Esmeraldas, the culture she inherited from her mother. For the round where she had to model a traditional costume, she wore an outfit inspired by that culture: a pink turban, a long-sleeved lace blouse, and a white and light-blue flowered skirt.
Although it was a unique experience. Mónica did not win. She didn’t even make it to the finalists.
Back in Ecuador, the contest opened doors for her to work in advertising, but she also collaborated with some fundraising events for girls and boys in different provinces of the country.
[Mónica]: It touches your heart because, ah, it was the events that really fulfilled me, to see how there are people who are so charitable, so good, and there were many people who even opened their doors to me and welcomed me, and it was a wonderful experience.
[Lisette]: Mónica did all that until April 1997, when she handed the crown over to María José López, a tall White woman with brown hair. And just as she said goodbye to her sash and her reign, she said goodbye to the public eye. She found it too harsh an environment and did not want to be a part of it.
[Mónica]: And then I kind of relaxed a bit and sort of put things back into perspective. Right? Reality. It was a show, it was an opportunity. I have kept going, I have not gotten stuck in it, and I have continued to live my quiet life.
[Lisette]: Some time after her reign as beauty queen, Mónica got married and went to live in the United States. In that country, she worked in sales for several companies, and until last year she was working in a bank, where she was the only Black and Latina woman. And we could say that the reality there is not very different from Ecuador.
[Mónica]: Look, wherever I go, I’m going to be a Black person; it doesn’t matter if it’s in the United States or in Ecuador, it’s all the same. The first thing they will see is my color.
[Lisette]: Mónica told us that in the United States, many people assume she is from there because she says that she speaks English with almost no accent. And when she corrects people, the first thing they think is that she comes from some Caribbean country. The image people have of what an Ecuadorian woman looks like is so vague that even when Mónica goes to visit Ecuador, they assume she is a foreigner.
[Mónica]: People ask me where I’m from, right? They see you well groomed . . . And if they see you well dressed, they speak to me in English until I say, “No, I speak Spanish.” And then they realize it’s on my passport, when they actually open it. They see it, they say, “Oh, you are from here.”
[Lisette]: They do not recognize her as being Ecuadorian. Much less as that woman who started a debate and a controversy as a result of her election in the competition. Yes, Mónica opened the doors of the contest so that other Afro-descended women could participate. In fact, after her, two more have won the crown. And that was her legacy, at least in the world of beauty.
[Mónica]: And it is gratifying to see that today Black women, and women in general, continue to open doors and close those gaps, or break taboos.
[Lisette]: Now, in 2022, it is no longer uncommon in Ecuador to see Black women in the media, in positions of power such as prosecutors, ministers or members of Congress. But their reality is still complex.
In the country, and in the rest of Latin America, being a woman and Black is still linked to poverty and marginalization. A significant percentage of Afro-descendants are illiterate. Many of them earn their living in situations of exploitation and insecurity, and most have experienced some type of violence.
She sees it very clearly.
[Mónica]: Being a woman is a disadvantage, it is still a disadvantage. But even more so when you are a woman and Black.
[Lisette]: That is why, until now, Mónica has not allowed herself to be affected by the criticism, the racist comments, the hostility towards her and her skin color. She protects herself from it all with a shell that was formed from the time she was young, because in the society in which she lives—Ecuadorian and American—it cannot be otherwise.
[Daniel]: Lisette Arévalo is a producer for Radio Ambulante, and Desirée Yépez is a journalist and fact-checker for Radio Ambulante. They both live in Quito, Ecuador.
With this story, we share some happy news. Our own Desirée is going to California for a year on a John S. Knight Fellowship at Stanford. We wish you all the luck in the world, Desi, we will miss you.
This story was edited by Camila Segura and me. Bruno Scelza Lorenzo did the fact-checking. The sound design is by Andrés Azpiri, with original music from Ana Tuirán.
The rest of the Radio Ambulante team includes Paola Alean, Nicolás Alonso, Aneris Casassus, Emilia Erbetta, Fernanda Guzmán, Camilo Jiménez Santofimio, Rémy Lozano, Ana Pais, Laura Rojas Aponte, Barbara Sawhill, Elsa Liliana Ulloa, David Trujillo and Luis Fernando Vargas.
Zoila Antonio is our engagement intern.
Carolina Guerrero is the CEO.
Radio Ambulante is a podcast by Radio Ambulante Estudios, produced and mixed on the Hindenburg PRO program.
With this episode, we end the season….. Thanks again to all our listeners for supporting us, for sharing, and for commenting on each story.
I’m Daniel Alarcón, we’ll be back in September!