By Elizabeth Del Cid, 17, North Hollywood HS
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Trying to make the best of a bad situation, Elizabeth sang her heart out in the talent section of the Junior Miss Pageant.
Photo by Hector Del Cid (Elizabeth's brother)

It was the final boarding call. I kissed my family goodbye and boarded the plane. It was the first time in my life that I would ever be apart from them. But here I was, flying from Los Angeles to Rohnert Park to compete in the Junior Miss pageant—and doing it all by myself.

I took my assigned seat, looked out the tiny airplane window and wondered what Northern California and the pageant would be like. I visualized two weeks of beauty queen treatment. I closed my eyes and thought about spas, make overs and all the cool people I was about to meet.
But those thoughts were dashed away by the last words Mami said to me before I boarded the plane.

"You don’t have to go," she whispered as I gave a flight attendant my ticket. Her eyes were full of tears.

I wanted to say, "I’ll win." But instead I winked at her. I couldn’t find the words to tell her that everything would be okay.

I wanted to be brave for her and not cause her any worries.

Her words rang over and over in my head. It had been only 10 minutes since I left Mami, but already I felt chills running down my spine as I sat on the plane without her or the rest of my family.

"Oh my God," I said to myself, "This is my first time away from them—ever!" The realization whacked me like a cement construction ball hitting an old building. Even after a whole summer of preparing for this moment: all the dress sizings, the exercising, preparing for interviews, rehearsing my singing talent—everything! I had focused on all of that and never realized the impact of it all. My eyes had been fixated on the $10,000 college scholarship awarded to the Junior Miss winner. If I won, I dreamed of going to a good university on the East Coast. I just never thought about being alone.

I couldn’t stay in my seat. Nervously, I pranced down the airplane aisle in my red dress, wool jacket and new stilettos. I thought about how my involvement with the Junior Miss pageant got started. It was last March when I was searching for free college money that I first learned about the pageant. I fit the criteria perfectly: a junior in high school with good grades, community leadership and talent. So I applied.

I had no idea that I’d actually win. Thinking about it put me at ease on the plane. Still I couldn’t help but remember the other contenders—a strange bunch. Some of them were so full of themselves. "I’m a professional dancer, National Merit Scholar and the star of my town," one girl said. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing! Could she be more full of herself? I hoped the next group of girls would be different.

But when I arrived at the Oakland Airport, it felt like the Los Angeles competition all over again. About 50 girls were there to compete. Some looked like they just rolled out of bed. My rivals were clad in torn blue jeans and faded T-shirts. They stood huddled together. Left out of their circle, I felt awkward for having spent time getting all dressed up that morning. Was I too prim for them? Or were they too relaxed for me?

I noticed two girls standing in a corner. One already had a bouquet of pink roses in her hands. Both were maliciously eyeing me. I walked over to them and said, "Hi. I’m Elizabeth from Studio City. Where are you from?" They turned away without reply, leaving me stranded in discomfort. "At least they won’t steal any congeniality points away from me," I said to myself with a giggle.

An hour later, pageant coordinators herded all 50 girls onto a bus and took us for lunch in a park. Probably a nice idea, but before we arrived at the wretched park filled with swarms of bees, a small car hit our bus. No one was hurt. But I think the collision set an ominous mood, like a dark cloud, over the pageant.

We sat down at the park and munched on fatty potato chips and school lunch sandwiches. A gust of wind blew through. Eventually the breeze ruined my hair. I pulled out a compact to fix it and looked at myself in the little mirror. Then it hit me—I saw myself transforming into pageant material. Whoa! That was not me! I never even cared what I looked like before all of this. I was too busy with schoolwork, running the school paper and getting into the right college to even care!

My host family wanted to be best friends

Later on that day, I met the host family I would live with for the next 10 days. Instantly, I resented their suburban house. The place felt like prison. The food was edible, but hard to swallow. I wanted to avoid eating at all costs, but that wasn’t practical.

Our first dinner together felt like an interrogation. "What does your dad do? "Where do you live?" "Do you have any brothers and sisters?" they asked. I know they didn’t know me, but their questions felt intrusive. They acted like they knew me real well, like we were buddies. But that didn’t feel right either. They were not my family. Not even a surrogate family.

That night I tried to sleep, but my bedroom was so chilly that I couldn’t. It felt like an igloo. I prayed my host family would turn on the heater. They didn’t. I laid there, twiddled my thumbs and hoped to drift into never-never land. I couldn’t. It was already 11:45 p.m. and I had a big day ahead of me.

I had called my dad earlier that evening on my cellular phone—contraband according to the pageant’s rules. They only permitted minimal calls to parents. But if I didn’t bring my cellular phone along, I would have turned wacko! I called my parents every day. My phone was my safety blanket.

I laid in the freezing room and replayed the conversation between my father and me in my head. He had heard the distress in my voice right away and knew that I wanted to go home.

"I’ll take the next plane out to Northern California and pick you up," he said. I actually considered it, but told him no. I didn’t want to quit, much less when practice hadn’t even started, because that would be weak.

Before I knew it, tears soaked my pillow. I missed my family and friends so much! Just thinking about all of this made the night seem colder. Regretfully, I wished that I had turned weak and had begged my family to come get me from the first day.

Sunrise finally came and I knew it was one day closer to going home. That day and every day until the competition, we were off and running—literally. The other girls and I exercised between eight and 12 hours each day. We had to learn dance routines to perform on pageant day. It was so hard! I lost control, while they learned their routines in a jiffy. "Hey, jumping splits were not included in my repertoire," I told myself.

I was exhausted after a while. At one point, I took a moment to catch my breath and got a drink of water. But a chaperone stopped me red-handed. She asked what I was doing away from rehearsal and told me to stop drinking my water. I was so thirsty that I had to ignore her. I finished my drink and returned to the dance floor. I tried to focus on my dance steps, but couldn’t get over how they considered it a crime to get a drink. "What kind of place is this?" I wondered.

At one point, the choreographer and his assistant stopped our dance routine while they decided what we should do next. I laid down on the floor, closed my eyes and waited for their directions. I was that exhausted.

My life continued at this grueling pace for the next few days. Wake up at 6 a.m., practice for hours upon hours, return to the freezing house and finally go to bed. I was worn out both physically and mentally.

In fact, after three days of exercise with Junior Miss, I lost two inches from my waist. That’s when I realized how hard this pageant was on me. I would have been happy if losing weight had been my intention. But I’m already thin. I didn’t want to waste away to nothing!

I felt so alone

I was so relieved when my parents and other family members finally joined me for the final days of the pageant. I had never felt so alone.
Photo by Arcelia Hayden

It wasn’t the dance routines that got to me the most—I just felt so alone. I didn’t fit in with anyone there. Every day the other girls chatted and giggled about what a wonderful time they were having and how much they wanted it to last forever. I just didn’t feel the same way about it. They acted like this was the only thing in the world that mattered, and I couldn’t connect to that.

I looked in the mirror. My skin appeared thick under the layers of cakey makeup. "This is not me!" I said to myself. None of it was.

I thought about life outside the pageant. I knew the Democratic National Convention was taking place, but little of anything else. I thought about home. I missed Mami’s warm cranberry oatmeal breakfast. I even missed the Hollywood Freeway traffic jams while running errands with my older brother, Hector.

The days continued like that until my family finally joined me in Rohnert Park. That’s when it all hit me. I needed my family more than I needed any scholarship. I felt like someone from the TV show Survivor. Boy, was I ready to leave the beauty pageant island!

The big night came and went. No, I didn’t get the scholarship I wanted or the glory. I had given up an entire summer break to prepare for this and it all went down the tubes in one evening. It was agonizing not to win, because I needed that scholarship.

On the other hand, I didn’t lose, because I didn’t quit! And I returned home with plenty of insight of what life is like without family and real friends. Those are the things that matter the most to me.

I haven’t exercised routinely since last summer. I enjoy making batches of chocolate-chip cookies every weekend and eating as much as I want. Sometimes, I wake up and don’t even bother to brush my hair or really focus on whether my shoes and hair clip match. I feel really comfortable this way. I still speak my mind, sing and dance and laugh, but not for strangers’ enjoyment.

I used to dream about bumming around Europe or attending an East Coast Ivy League school. Those aspirations were dismissed after the pageant, because I’m not sure if any good comes of being far away from family. Besides, California has great universities, especially in Los Angeles, where I’m close to home. I’ve already seen Europe. If I want to go again, I’ll be sure to take someone close with me.

I don’t plan on staying at my family’s side forever, but the pageant opened my eyes to the dangers out there, when I’m on my own.