Top: Wilbur Cross High School junior Miriam Magalis Cruz, who represented Caguas, Puerto Rico, during the talent portion. Bottom: Saturday's winners. Abiba Biao Photos.
As her bow glided over the strings of her violin, Wilbur Cross High School junior Miriam Magalis Cruz had the crowd in a trance. A smile crept across her face, and she followed along to the beat of Mark Anthony’s “Preciosa.” As she sank into the music and closed her eyes, her dress flowed behind her, following the slow, gentle motions of her arms.
Over 100 proud parents, siblings, and friends gathered to watch at Wilbur Cross High School.
Cruz, representing the town of Caguas, Puerto Rico, ultimately took the title. Alianys Ayala, a sixth grader at New Haven’s Beecher School, was crowned Miss Junior Puerto Rico. The ceremony and five-hour pageant followed almost three months of hard work from contestants, who have spent their weekends learning about the cities they represent.
Cruz during an "evening wear" portion of the pageant.
Each of the girls represented their hometown in Puerto Rico. In all, six contestants participated in the 10- to 13-year-old “Junior Miss” division, and seven competed in the high school “Miss” division, created for 14 to 18 year olds. In addition to Miss Puerto Rico and Miss Junior Puerto Rico, contestants could also win in categories such as Miss Community, Miss Photogenic and Miss Congeniality.
“Whoever wins Miss. Puerto Rico tonight, it's not just a title,” said PRU President Joseph Rodriguez, whose own family hails from Barranquitas, Puerto Rico. “It's not just a sash or a crown. They are going to be our cultural ambassadors. They’re going to represent us in New Haven, across Connecticut and across the region, so to be able to teach them who we are and what we stand for, it means so much.”
The pageant consisted of four categories: introductions, talent, evening wear and a question and answer section. As he welcomed attendees, Rodriguez described the audience as filled with “New Haven pride” with many families, pageant moms, and pageant dads showing love for their daughters and bringing the culture of the island to Elm City and beyond.
Throughout the event, that pride radiated through performances from each contestant. As Junior Miss Arecibo, ChristinaFerrer-Santiago was the first contestant to showcase her skills during the talent section, reciting the poem “To Julia de Burgos” from civil rights activist and Puerto Rican poet Julia de Burgos. A seventh grader at Amistad Academy Middle School, Christina said she decided to perform after her mom introduced her to one of the pageant directors.
While she hasn’t yet gotten the chance yet to visit Puerto Rico, she hopes to do so to see Arecibo, a city on the Northern coast of the island that sustained significant damage during Hurricane Maria. In addition to two hospitals that were hit by the hurricane, the city’s observatory—a site of global knowledge—was partially damaged.
Junior Miss Patillas Jaliyah Griswold.
Junior Miss Patillas Jaliyah Griswold, a sixth grader at Wintergreen Magnet School in Hamden, wowed the crowd with her energetic presentation of “Carnaval Del Barrio” from the Broadway musical (later adapted into a film) In The Heights.
In the song, written by Lin-Manuel Miranda, the character Daniela remembers time spent in her native Puerto Rico, singing as other characters join in around her. By the end of it, they are fêting a diasporic barrio that they have made for themselves in Washington Heights, Manhattan, where a number of Latin and Caribbean cultures now live side by side.
For Jaliyah, who first visited Puerto Rico when she was three, it struck a chord. She later described the beauty of the wildlife and flora she has experienced there.
“When I was a little girl/Growing up in the hills of Vega Alta/My favorite time of year was Christmas time,” she sang from the musical, walking across the stage with the mic lifted to her mouth.
“Ask me why?,” She said, turning the microphone over to the audience.
“Why!” attendees bellowed back in unison.
“There wasn’t an ounce of snow/But oh, the coquito would flow!,” she sang, savoring the note. “As we sang the Aguinaldo/The carnaval would begin to grow!”
Her talents extended beyond singing. When she isn’t on the mic, Jaliyah told the judges, she is an avid softball player, young artist, and avid bookworm with dreams of growing her personal library. Her inspiration to participate in the pageant came from her love and admiration for the female figures in her life, including her mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother.
Junior Miss San Juan, Lysella Pujols.
Junior Miss San Juan, Lysella Pujols, performed a hip hop salsa routine to Gente de Zona’s “La Gozadera” As the beat dropped over the auditorium, she sprung into action, jumping and twirling as the Puerto Rican flag she held followed her every move.
A sixth grader at Amistad Academy Middle School, she later said her motivation to compete came from her past experiences being bullied for her light complexion. When she was younger, kids would try to invalidate her Puerto Rican heritage by calling her white.
When she's down, she looks to her favorite celebrity—Jennifer Lopez, who was born to Puerto Rican parents in the Bronx. She said that she relates to her because of her Latin American heritage, and gained a deeper appreciation for her work after watching her documentary “Halftime.”
Miss Peñuelas, Yulianet Nevarez.
That momentum continued through the “Miss” division, which brought in high school students from across the city. Miss Peñuelas, Yulianet Nevarez kept it going as she performed a piece called “mano a mano” by Anthony Orozco.
"When you resettle here and bring island within you, not just your salsa and sancocho, but the feeling you will have to survive the storm on your own, your hands will be my hands," she read with great feeling.
Carlie Evonne Mathews-Ramos.
As Miss Guayanilla, Carlie Evonne Mathews-Ramos, thrilled the audience with her performance of “Don’t Rain on My Parade,” performed as an homage to former Glee actress and social justice activist Naya Rivera. During her life, Rivera dedicated her time to causes including Black Lives Matter, The Trevor Project, and the rights of undocumented immigrants.
Rivera’s cover of “Don’t Rain on My Parade” remains one of the most hailed performances from Glee’s run. In the show, Rivera played Santana Lopez, a queer Afro-Latina woman who delivered many of Glee’s most iconic and ravishing performances. Her legacy was cut short in 2020, when she drowned in Lake Piru, California while saving her 4-year-old son.
Mathews-Ramos is no stranger to the spotlight. A junior at New Haven Academy, she most recently appeared as Princess Winnifred, in Notre Dame’s Theatre Production Once Upon a Mattress, and said that she loves theater.On the stage, her rainbow chain earrings swayed as she moved her head, serving as a nod to the LGBTQ+ community.
“Hey Mr. Arnstein, here I ammmmmm!,” she belted and the crowd went wild, receiving a round of applause in the middle of her performance.
Alianys Ayala is crowned Junior Miss Puerto Rico.
By the end, as members were crowned, it seemed that no one left without some new honorary title. In addition toMiss Puerto Rico, other winners in the Miss division included Alanna Herbert for First Princess, Yulianet Nevarez for Second Princess, and Johanelyz Arroyo, Yairelys Burgos, Haley Colon, and Carlie Mathews-Ramos for court.
In the Junior Miss category, First Princess was awarded to Benjalie Hernandez Second Princess was awarded Jaliyah Griswold, and court was awarded to Lysella Pujols and Christina Ferrer-Santiago.
Abiba Biao is a graduate of the Arts Council's Youth Arts Journalism Initiative and has stayed on with the Arts Paper as a freelance writer and photographer. She is currently a freshman at Southern Connecticut State University (SCSU).