A beauty pageant for earthquake victims

More than a year after the Chile earthquake, thousands of people still living in emergency camps have devised simple ways – like a beauty pageant – to give their lives normalcy.

• A local, slice-of-life story from a Monitor correspondent.

It was the last night of summer celebrations and a Michael Jackson impersonator fawned over four pageant contestants, one of whom would be crowned queen.

This wasn’t your typical beauty pageant. Three of the contestants were teenagers, the fourth a septuagenarian – and all had lost their homes a year earlier when a tsunami washed away their small fishing hamlet of Dichato.

Since then their families have lived in El Molino, the largest of more than 100 emergency villages, made up of rows of flimsy brown huts. The specter of the Feb. 27, 2010, earthquake haunts El Molino, but on this evening all eyes were on the queens.

“We wanted to do something fun to take our minds off all the pain and frustration of the past year,” says Nury Ancao, the community coordinator for Sector 5 of El Molino. And so they devised a pageant. For a week the contestants ran a gantlet of tests: the recycled dress competition (one was made of turquoise plastic bags), a traditional-foods competition, and a talent show. In the end teenage Stefanie Jerez took home the crown and was paraded around on a jury-rigged bicycle carriage.

“We’re all queens,” Stephanie says, “I’m just honored that I could represent my sector.”

Ms. Ancao was equally delighted. “We’re already thinking about how we can make it better next year,” she says.

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