Skin Deep

Civil rights struggles take center stage in Bolivian beauty pageants

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    Miss Bolivia Irene Aguilera Vargas takes part in the Miss Universe National Costume show in 2003.
    REUTERS / Alberto Lowe

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Bolivia and Peru have disagreed on a number of modern issues—energy policy, border control, drug enforcement. The tension between these South American neighbors reached an unprecedented level in August 2009 when Bolivia accused Peru of stealing. Bolivian officials were so outraged that they threatened to take the matter to an international tribunal at The Hague.

The item that Peru stole that was so upsetting to Bolivia: the idea for an outfit worn by Miss Peru at the Miss Universe pageant in the Bahamas.

As part of the competition, each contestant parades across the stage in a gown or costume that represents her home country. During the 2009 pageant, Miss Mexico appeared in a tight mariachi outfit and Miss India wore a revealing, sparkly sari. Miss Peru’s costume featured an elaborate cape and horned headpiece, inspired by an ancient Andean ritual known as La Diablada, or the Devil’s Dance. Bolivian government officials immediately cried foul, claiming that the dance originated in the Bolivian city of Oruro. They also considered the costume an act of cultural theft.

The controversy played out in the media like a catfight between diplomats as public relations officers from the two countries exchanged barbs in the press. Eventually, the feud faded. But even when the conflict was at its height, no one bothered to ask the obvious question: Why was Bolivia so upset over a beauty pageant?


Anyone who’s been to Bolivia knows that beauty contests are a big deal there. Newspapers lead with stories about the pageants, and the winners often become national heroes. “Beauty queens and models are our precarious royalty,” says Edmundo Paz Soldán, one of Bolivia’s best-known novelists.

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