Filipinos do not settle for minimalism. The sequins, lace, sparkles and puffy dress sleeves that adorned the three contestants at the 2016 Miss Maui Filipina Scholarship Pageant on Saturday, June 11, 2016 were visual proof of this. Even the paper slips for the onstage question phase were drawn from a zebra print bag. But it was the woman in the simple black terno that caused an uproar.
“I did not have this terno made for me, nor did I purchase it, but it was passed down three generations before me and belonged to my great grand aunt Grace Laraway from Manila in the Philippines,” pageant contestant Amelia Laborte said as she began her speech. There were no ruffles or layers interrupting her hand as it made its way down alongside her traditional dress’ straight empire cut.
The crowd let out a collective gasp, the scene replaying the surprise of the mock judges when they listened to Laborte’s words three days earlier. Much like her dress, Laborte opted for extreme humbleness. Instead of going for the usual strategy of linking your life story to the gown’s history, the 22-year-old contestant–who works as a dancer at the Westin Maui Resort & Spa’s Wailele Polynesian Luau–gunned straight for the dress the moment she took the microphone. Soon after delivering her speech, Laborte received a generous-sized crown to play up her modest terno.
“When I was backstage about to go on, I had to hold back my tears because I was so proud to wear that dress,” Laborte, this year’s Miss Maui Filipina, said a few days after the pageant, over a cup of coffee. Hair in a bun, loose tank top on, Laborte did not let the poise slip from her voice despite answering questions seated in Queen Ka‘ahumanu Center’s crowded Starbucks instead of standing on a hushed Maui Arts & Cultural Center stage. “I could just feel all my family, just knowing that I had it on, like they’re so proud that I’m actually being able to show how special it was to all of them before,” she said.
From the get-go, Laborte directed her spotlight towards the true subject of the pageant: her Filipino heritage. The pageant was not just about adding a customary Filipino dance in between the swimsuit and talent phases. Nor was it about whose gown had that classic “Filipina” look. It was about embodying the true Filipina spirit, even while strutting out in flirty dresses to Jennifer Lopez onstage.
“It’s just, who you are is your culture,” she said. “It shouldn’t be, you know, your grandparents yelling at you because ‘you’re not doing this, you’re not doing that,’” she added, pointing her finger at invisible (guilty) keiki.
Though Laborte prided her terno gown for the hands that passed it down for over eight decades, she did not want old stereotypes of her culture to dictate her. Hawaii’s first Filipinos may have endured hours of bending over to hoe rows of sugarcane, but Laborte did not rely on the usual Filipino adjectives like “hardworking” and “disciplined” as she spoke into the microphone. Laborte got playful onstage as she talked about her ancestry, using the words “elegant,” “flamboyant” and “colorful” to relate to her great grand aunt.
Pageant director Yvienne Peterson is also all about taking the Filipino culture in a new direction. Peterson saw her pageant as an opportunity to get younger people involved in the Filipino community, a circle that follows the leadership of the elderly. Peterson worries that a failure to bridge the younger and older generations will result in a static community that will see no change.
“I know our culture is traditional–very, very traditional–and I’m trying to make them understand, hey, there are a lot of younger ones now leading the community and eventually that line will have to replace you guys,” Peterson said, who shared a bench with Laborte at Starbucks.
Laborte’s post-pageant plans fall in line with Peterson’s vision. She will not limit her ambassador duties to next month’s Miss Hawaii Filipina 2016 pageant. Being crowned Miss Maui Filipina comes with a free trip to the Philippines, a ticket which Laborte will not use to just canoe around Palawan Island and indulge on chicken drumsticks at a Jollibee. A visit to Tacloban, a city in dire need of clean water, is on Laborte’s to-do list.
Laborte has wanted to help Lahaina Rotarian Rick Nava ever since he shared his mission of providing clean water to the tropical cyclone-devastated city, an undertaking he and his group plan to do next February. She raised her hand at this point of the conversation, exhibiting her “Sign me up!” attitude towards Nava’s philanthropic cause. With a trip that could last up to two weeks, Laborte can now fulfill Peterson’s and her own wish to act as a pioneer of goodwill for her Filipino community.
Back home, Laborte still plans on sustaining her fellow Filipinos and other community members–but with food. Laborte’s passion for cooking became evident during a fast recital of her favorite egg recipes, Miss Maui Filipina’s voice bumping up in excitement when she got to eggs benedict and quiches.
With this enthusiasm, Laborte hopes to combine the skills she learned as a degree holder from the University of Hawaii Maui College’s Culinary Arts Program with a future education in nutritional science to apply a creative twist on healthy eating. The $10,000 in scholarship money to Argosy University that Laborte received at the pageant may just get her started on the prerequisites she needs to jumpstart her career.
Whether it’s filtering water for cyclone victims or advancing closer to that diploma, the Miss Maui Filipina Scholarship Pageant has kicked down obstacles that may have hindered Laborte’s goals in the past. Chelsea Guzman, Miss Hawaii Filipina 2015 and a former Miss Maui Filipina, could barely say one opportunity without jumping to the next that the pageants have opened for her. Guzman had stopped by a practice the Wednesday before the pageant to watch her successors prepare.
“I’ve met a lot of people who’ve had access to scholarship funds, and so I’ve gotten access to a lot of opportunities, and there have been a lot of people also who’ve been telling me about job opportunities,” Guzman said.
Such opportunities included introductions to job openings for certified nursing assistants at The Queen’s Medical Center on Oahu, a career jackpot for a nursing student like Guzman.
Peterson is familiar with this success. Pageants are a lifestyle for Peterson, and not just because she has directed the Miss Maui Filipina Scholarship Pageant for the past three years and produced Miss Hawaii Filipinas two of those years. Peterson was coached herself as she participated in pageants from the first grade up to when she bore her first child. And like Guzman, Peterson flew from her tiny island into the big world of college and career climbing.
But Peterson was wary of women overstepping the rungs of this ladder a little too eagerly. Peterson has observed in her experience that young women tended to support one another less, the higher they climbed. Peterson made it clear she would have none of these “haters” in her pageants.
“For my thing it’s very important to have these young women understand that there’ll always be only one queen, only one winner, but I need you guys to understand that this is a sisterhood where we support each other,” Peterson said.
This attitude was evident in the rehearsal room a few days before the pageant. As Peterson watched fellow contestants Audrey Casicas and Ashlyne Rosalin dance alongside Laborte, the pageant director occasionally shouted out “hands are off on that one,” “pivot,” and “TEETH” to no one in particular. A spectator would have never sensed bias towards Laborte.
No hints of tension would have disturbed an onlooker’s senses either. Even when antiquated Filipino melodies did not overpower any noise between the walls, the contestants’ laughter filled the room every time the music paused–that is, right before they started to harmonize their own tune.
Peterson’s concept of sisterhood extends beyond women just getting along and laughing with one another. The guests showing up to the rehearsal proved to be the support that the pageant director had earlier boasted.
Former Miss Maui Filipina Scholarship Pageant contestants, women who had undergone the pageant rounds from the 1990s to last year, offered bits of advice and encouraging smiles as this year’s pageant women practiced their walks and speech deliveries. The lack of pet favorites and envious eyes in the room served as evidence to the spirit of Bayanihan (community) that the Miss Maui Filipina Scholarship Pageants have carried for 58 years.
Laborte will now prep solo with Peterson for the 2016 Miss Hawaii Filipina pageant to take place on July 30 here on Maui, but she has her pageant sisters behind her. On that past Saturday night, the audience members may have seen Laborte’s simple black terno for its extensive Filipino lineage. The gown could have also triggered the same gasps for the ever-expanding Filipina sisterhood it represented.
Photo courtesy Yvienne Peterson
Cover design: Darris Hurst