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by Bianca Laureano

This is the fourth interview in a series of interviews with various media makers who have agreed to share with us their motivations, process and hopes for the media they create. _Read past interviews with Aiesha, Nezua, Nuala,  and Espie

I met Carmen B. Mendoza, Miss Kings County 2011 who is representing the borough of Brooklyn, last year at an event for The Black Girl Project that focused on HIV and AIDS in communities of Color. My homegirl Tamara Walker had wanted to introduce us for some time because Carmen’s platform is de-stigmatizing getting tested for HIV. This is the first time I have ever heard of a pageant contestant focusing their efforts of a specific reproductive and sexual health topic. My (stereotypical) ideas of pageantry are much like what some of you reading may be: a focus on issues that are so large, vast and tied to colonization that a focus on them may become comical (i.e. “world peace”), or topics that are to promote a particular organizational mission or that has become the usual rhetoric for “feminisms” (i.e. empowering girls).

To be honest, I have rarely been interested in pageantry, its politics and protocols beyond the film Miss Congeniality  (which I actually really do enjoy as a form of media). Part of my disinterest has been the media representations and the narratives and critiques I’ve heard and read about through “feminist” lenses, ideas about certain standards of beauty being represented, how race plays a role,  and the all too familiar objectification perspective. However, when I met Carmen and heard about her goals and plans for the work she desires to do and the work she has already done I was kind of already on Team Carmen. It was through Carmen’s activism and organizing that I was able to be present for the screening of Let’s Talk About Sex and on the panel with film director James Houston.

Usually when we hear a pageant contestant connected to topics of reproductive and sexual health they are usually attached to scandal and ideas of “morality” and what is considered “appropriate.” Carmen is changing that. She is using a space that has historically been hostile to women of Color, creating and promoting a message that affects us ALL, and doing it in a community and space that I know of no one else reaching. This is what makes her a media maker. This is what makes Carmen an important presence and voice today.
For this reason I ask that readers think about the communities that are not being reached in the work we do. How are we missing some folks and what does it mean when we choose not to go to places that are in need of specific messages around reproductive and sexual health? Before we critique folks who are doing important work because of the way they are reaching communities we are not, let’s remember we need people doing good work in every part of our society. I know I don’t want to do the work Carmen is doing, so I’m glad she is here and willing to do it. I’m proud Carmen and I are on the same team because we care about our communities and we want to make sure we live in communities where people are healthy and know how to access resources when they need them.

What identities/social location do you embody? (race, class, gender, sexual orientation, national origin, primary language, ability, age, belief system, etc.)

I identify as a multi-layered woman but some identifiers are: Latina, proud first generation American, sexual health advocate, salsera and agent of change.

What are some reasons you went into pageantry? Do you have a history of participation? What drew you to Miss Kings County pageant?

When thinking back on my childhood, watching the Miss Universe pageant was kind of an event in my household. I don’t even think it was done intentionally but growing up in a bilingual home where we watched a lot of Telemundo and Univision, the Miss Universe Pageant was just as big of a deal as the World Cup on a Latin American network – or at least that’s what it felt like in my young impressionable mind. We were always really proud that the Latin American countries did so well and days after we would still be talking about who our favorite was and who we thought should have won. Although I never vocalized it, I always had the thought of "I could do that" in the back of my mind.

It came full circle last August when I watched the Miss Universe pageant via Hulu. Although I watched it alone and from my laptop this time around, my parents and I spoke about it the next day and shared our excitement for Miss Guatemala (one of the top contestants representing their country of origin).

This was the catalyst that brought me back to that thought I had as a young girl of "I could do that" and turned it into "I CAN DO THAT". After doing my research on pageantry and what the different pageant organizations represent, I chose to compete in the Miss Brooklyn/Miss County Queen Scholarship Competition, an official local preliminary pageant for Miss New York & Miss America. It was a little less than 2 months away but I put myself through my own rigorous "pageant boot camp" and won with the title of Miss Kings County 2011.
How did you come to choose the platform you have?

I began my advocacy work in the field of HIV/AIDS in high school volunteering at an AIDS clinic in the predominately Latino neighborhood of Humboldt Park in Chicago, IL. It was through my peer outreach efforts and working directly with HIV positive people that I learned firsthand the devastating effects HIV/AIDS has on under-served and minority communities. I continued to grow as an advocate in sexual health during my undergraduate career at the University of Wisconsin, Madison hosting forums and workshops on how HIV/AIDS and HPV particularly affect women of color.

When it came time to choose my platform I knew it would be to advocate for HIV/AIDS awareness and prevention but given New York’s specific needs and my own life experience, my platform organically grew to be "De-stigmatizing Getting Tested for HIV". Out of the urgency to get New Yorkers screened for HIV the state passed legislation making it law to offer an HIV test to all patients between the ages of 13-64. Progress in legislation was the first step but I felt that through my platform I could initiate the next step. Opening the dialog on getting tested and addressing the social barriers that prevent people from knowing their status is crucial in making routine screening a reality. Through my platform and title, I knew that I could reach the community directly with this message but most importantly, have it reach young girls and women like myself.

What has been the response to your platform choice? How have people responded and reacted towards your choice?

I have received an overwhelmingly positive response and have been given the opportunity to partner with several HIV/AIDS organizations and schools to speak on my platform. I think the reason controversy hasn’t been brought into the mix is because I’m sticking to the facts and the issue at hand. Routine screening is a vital practice that can help save lives. Of course different elements come into the conversation when talking about HIV/AIDS but I always make sure to bring the focus back to the fact that getting tested is a proactive measure necessary to live a healthy lifestyle.

How is language important in the projects you create and are a part of?

Language is incredibly important. My message is always the same but my delivery is consistent with my audience to make the most profound impact. For example when speaking to young women I share my personal story and how the fear of being judged prevented me from being confident and vocal to ask my partner to get an HIV test. Also, I am bilingual and I have upcoming appearances that I will do in Spanish, inclusive of the Latino community ensuring they hear my message as well.

What are some goals you have for your reign this year?

I hope that my message continues to grow and that I build more partnerships with schools, health organizations and women’s groups. I especially want to make sure I reach as many young women as I can to help them find the confidence and strength to be vocal about getting tested and getting their partners tested. After the pageant I plan on continuing my work to de-stigmatize getting tested because it’s an unnecessary barrier hindering the battle against HIV/AIDS. Ultimately, I believe in my lifetime we can accomplish removing the stigmas associated with getting tested and make it as routine as getting a haircut.

There are many stereotypes about pageants in US society, especially for women of Color, perspectives on beauty, and ideas of objectification. What are ways that you work through this, or challenge these ideas to be able to do the work and create the messaging you want to create?

I don’t believe that there is just one path for you to accomplish what you want to accomplish or for you to become who you want to be. I have always been the type of person to cease opportunities as they come my way. I saw this pageant as an opportunity to continue my HIV/AIDS advocacy work and represent the changing face of America and potentially become the first Latina Miss America. It’s easy to focus on the negative and the scandal we’ve seen in the media but at the end of day we have to acknowledge the fact that a lot of these women are incredibly smart, talented and leaders within their communities. The Miss America pageant has had a rich history of empowering American women to achieve their personal and professional goals while offering scholarship assistance to pursue a higher education. In fact The Miss America Organization is one of the largest providers of scholarship assistance to young women as prize money can only be used for academia. A little pageant 101 for those who don’t know (I didn’t know until I decided to compete) the two most recognized systems are the Miss America Organization and the Miss USA/Miss Universe pageant (owned by Donald Trump) and they are separate entities.

I chose to compete solely in the Miss America system because I believe in what it stands for with an emphasis in encouraging women to achieve greatness in academia and community service, not an emphasis in “beauty”. Yes there is a fitness portion of the competition in which contestants wear a swim suit that may raise some eyebrows – but when you look at it in the spectrum of things, those 30 seconds a contestant is in a swim suit shouldn’t discredit her intelligence, talent and all of the other things that complete her as an individual.

What support systems help you cope with frustration, challenges, obstacles, etc. as a pageant contestant?

What really helps me when I get overwhelmed is the wonderful support system I have in my family, friends and co-workers. Everyone in my life fully supports me in what I am doing and truly believe in my mission. This alone has provided me with the strength and confidence to push forward.

The Miss America pageant is the next one you are competing for? What are ways that you think your platform will be received in this space as traditionally we have seen many young women and contestants eliminated and ostracized based on ideals of sexual politics?

The next step is to compete for the title of Miss New York in June, then Miss America. My hope is that my platform will be received with open arms. Like I mentioned before, it does have the potential to be controversial but when you strip it down to its core, it’s really about making a positive behavioral change that can save lives. I had the chance to talk to the current Miss New York, Claire Buffie who’s platform is “Straight for Equality: Let’s Talk” and I asked her if she ever felt like she had to compromise her beliefs. I can remember her words clear as day, “It’s going to be a long and hard road to Miss New York trying to be someone you’re not” and I agree with her 100%. When I meet with the judges for Miss New York in June I’m going to give them the real me, not someone who I think they want me to be. From my platform – that I have been invested in since I was 16, to my talent – a salsa performance reflecting my culture and passion for dance, it will all be the real me and that’s a really empowering feeling.

What time management strategies/advice can you share with us about creating the messaging and also finding time for yourself/family/friends?

I involve my friends and family in all of my projects. I’m very lucky to have a lot of talented individuals in my life and we often will collaborate on projects. Also, the things that I am passionate about and involve myself in are where I have forged many friendships. The hardest thing to do sometimes is to take time for me but my dancing and my advocacy work are really rewarding and they keep me very busy but also very happy.

Are there upcoming projects you are planning?
For the first time ever, The Miss New York 2011 Pageant will be held at the historic St. George Theater on Staten Island June 17-18, 2011.

22 young women from across New York State, including Miss Kings County, will be competing for the coveted title of Miss New York 2011. The winner will go on to compete at Miss America in Las Vegas, January 2012. It would be great to see my supporters there! Visit Carmen’s blog to learn how to purchase tickets.

Also, I’m very excited to announce my partnership with Human Intonation, the premium, unisex apparel brand dedicated to raising social awareness while giving 20% of the proceeds from each sale to youth & minority HIV/AIDS prevention, the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, Education in Darfur & Haiti. On June 23rd I will participate as a panelist in their forum in honor of National HIV/AIDS Testing Day sponsored by the National Black Leadership Commission on AIDS (NBLCA). Visit my blog and become a follower to get more information on these events and others!

How can get involved with your projects?

Anyone who would like to get involved with my platform or who would like to have me speak at the schools, events etc. can contact me directly at misskingscounty2011@gmail.com

What else would you like to share with us?
This has been one of the most rewarding experiences in my life and has led me to realize all of my potential while combining my skills and passions. I’m proud to be the first to perform salsa as a talent in Miss New York history and am excited to bring the beauty of the Latino culture to the stage.

Where can people find you on the web, social media?

Visit my blog! www.misskingscounty2011.blogspot.com

Follow me on twitter! @CarmenBMendoza

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