Ed. note: The controversial and defamatory statements about Mexican immigrants made last month by Donald Trump have been disastrous for the Miss USA pageant, as networks, hosts and performers have all backed out of the competition, which will take place in Baton Rouge on July 12 and will be broadcast on digital cable channel Reelz (whatever that is).
Left in between are the contestants who are competing for a chance at glory and fame, as well as scholarship money, like Mexican-American Miss Texas USA Ylianna Guerra, a native of McAllen. Guerra spoke to Houstonia before Trump made his comments and has not been available to comment in their aftermath, but she told her hometown newspaper, The Moniter, that although Trump's comments were "unfortunate," she never considered quitting.
"I’m very proud of my Mexican roots," Guerra said. “I’m here not only to represent every Texan, but also Hispanics and Mexicans as well.”
Say the words “beauty pageant,” and most people immediately think of the spoiled, hyper-sexualized young girls and their viciously competitive mothers on TLC’s Toddlers and Tiaras. There’s a stigma around these competitions that does no justice to the reality of why pageant women compete and what kind of preparation they undergo – just look at 22-year-old Ylianna Guerra, or as she’s known in the pageant world, Miss Texas USA.
“I had a total misconception about the pageant industry,” said Guerra. “I thought it was just a bunch of pretty girls on stage, walking around in their swimsuits and flaunting their things. But it’s not like that at all.”
Pageants, Guerra said, are a mental game.
“You have to be knowledgeable about current events, about the area that you’re from ... it takes a lot of mental preparation. You prepare physically, because yes, you’re competing in a swimsuit and an evening gown. But it’s really a test of endurance. It’s not just, ‘Who’s the prettiest girl here?’ It’s ‘Who’s mentally prepared?’”
And unlike the spray-tanned toddlers on TLC, Guerra entered the pageant world for personal reasons. In her small hometown of McAllen, which sits on the Mexican border, Guerra grew up dancing and didn’t think of competing in a pageant until her senior year of high school. Anxious about college acceptance letters, she was looking desperately for a distraction when she decided to compete in the Miss Rio Grande Valley pageant.
But Guerra got more than a distraction—she won. Leaving her very first pageant with a title, she says the competition pushed her out of her comfort zone.
“I’ve always been very shy and kind of quiet,” Guerra said. “[Pageants] really helped me grow out of my shell.”
She left McAllen behind to attend the University of the Incarnate Word in San Antonio, but Guerra kept her hometown close at heart as she took her newly discovered talent for pageants to the Miss Texas USA competition. After coming close in 2011 and 2013, Guerra won the crown in 2014 during her senior year of college.
Determined to finish her degree, Guerra packed all the courses she had left into one semester and graduated in December. Since then, she’s been living in Houston and preparing for the Miss USA competition this month. But while she might be a city girl now, don’t think that Guerra’s forgotten where she came from. In fact, her roots in the Rio Grande Valley are what push her most to succeed.
“People have a lot of misconceptions about the Valley,” Guerra said. “Girls down there have very low self-esteem and not much self-confidence. … When I’ve gone back and talked to girls, they say, ‘You’re giving us hope that girls from the Valley can [compete] at a national level. Everybody’s so supportive down there. It’s not just about me anymore.”
As Miss Texas USA, Guerra has spent a lot of time with kids throughout Texas, working for non-profits such as the Make-A-Wish Foundation and Texas Children’s Hospital. She stresses the importance of education to them, especially in the Rio Grande Valley, where she says many people have no higher education.
“I don’t think I would have won Miss Texas USA if I hadn’t been as close to completing my degree as I was. I evolved so much throughout those three-and-a-half years of college,” she said. “Once you have your education, no one can ever take that away from you. So I try to inspire them and say, ‘I’m also from here, and I was able to do it. I worked hard for it. So you can, too.’”