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03 Dec 2014

Know Your Neighbors: Finding Impressive Young Women at the Queen Scheherazade Scholarship Pageant

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The Queen Scheherazade Scholarship Pageant. The Queen Scheherazade Scholarship Pageant. Courtesy of Stuart Smith/Avant Studios

Back in 1968, when the feminist movement was in full swing, a significant protest was staged in Atlantic City against the Miss America beauty pageant.

The protest was organized by author Robin Morgan, who attacked “the degrading mindless-boob-girlie symbol” so prevalent in the media, and the “ludicrous ‘beauty’ standards we ourselves are conditioned to take seriously.”

I was part of that feminist movement, concerned about the objectification of women—paraded in bathing suits and awarded crowns based on little more than whether they met the then-common standard of “beauty,” meaning long-legged, tiny-waisted, barely talented and white-skinned. (No black woman had ever made it even into the finals.) While I did not take issue with the women who willingly participated, many of whom went on to enjoy interesting lives, I sympathized that there were so few opportunities based on anything other than superficial beauty to which they could aspire.

There are concerns that the current Miss America pageant, although now offering lucrative scholarships and emphasizing young women pursuing education, has not been giving out that scholarship money as advertised. A recent exposé on HBO’s Last Week Tonight With John Oliver asserted that although the Miss America Foundation claims to make “$45 million in scholarships available to contestants—the pageant promotes itself as ‘the world’s largest provider of scholarships for women,’ the money it actually provides is just a fraction of that.” According to Oliver, in 2012, the Miss America organizations spent only $482,000 on scholarships, using questionable statistics to stretch to the $45 million figure.

Locally, several organizations offer money for education, usually based solely on scholarship and outstanding essays by applicants. With much competition for limited awards, students often scramble to cobble together enough money to cover tuition, books, fees and the other costs associated with higher education or career training—to avoid taking out loans and graduating with debt.

What’s an aspiring young woman needing money for college to do? One local event that offers scholarship money is the Queen Scheherazade Scholarship Pageant, which picks three young women to represent the Riverside County Fair and National Date Festival. In November, 13 young women vied for the 2015 titles of Queen Scheherazade, Princess Dunyazade, or Princess Jasmine. I attended, in spite of my aversion to “beauty pageants,” because I am acquainted with one of the contestants, Alejandra Franco (about whom I have previously written). I must admit I came away impressed, not only with the young women and their accomplishments and aspirations, but also with the support they had from family, friends and local officials in the audience—and the community’s seriousness of commitment to this long-standing cultural event.

The master of ceremonies, KESQ’s Laura Yanez, talked about her own sister’s experience with the pageant as Princess Jasmine in 1995. The contestants had to demonstrate that they knew what would be required to represent the county fair at events throughout Riverside County. They presented themselves in business dress, evening gowns and beautiful harem-like costumes. (There were no bathing suits, but the feminist in me rebels somewhat at the implications of harems.) They also had to present a brief speech that included their aspirations, academic and extra-curricular activities, and why they should be chosen. They responded to randomly drawn questions about the history of dates in the Coachella Valley, the county fair and its attractions, and community resources. Finally, they had to show the judges they could be effective representatives for the festivities.

La Quinta High School students included Shannon Slankard, who plans to be a pediatric oncologist; Maritza Cubillas, who wants to major in engineering but is also avid about studying dance; Loren White, whose smile is a standout, and who aspires to be an orthodontist; and Amanda Cardinal, who remembers tap-dancing at the fair when she was just 5 years old, and is passionate about robotics.

Representing Coachella Valley High School: Liliana Aguilar, who wants to achieve a doctorate in medicine; Itcelia Segoviano, who hopes to be accepted by Harvard or UC Berkeley and study law to work with at-risk juveniles; and Charyne Toribio, a student at College of the Desert, an avid basketball player whose goal is to become a toxicologic/anatomic pathologist (whew!).

From Hemet High School was Morgan Lawrence, an excellent communicator who plans to study communication and graphic design. Cathedral City High School was represented by Vanessa Martinez, whose aspirations include a double major in peace studies and women’s studies, with the goal of a career in global humanitarian efforts.

Shadow Hills High School had two entrants: Destiny Patlan, who said, “I am Indio!” and is an active community volunteer helping the homeless; and Silvia Ruelas, who plans to study political science and criminal justice, and said, “Our future is our key—failure is not an option.” From Desert Mirage High School, Alejandra Franco is passionate about getting into Yale and becoming an immigration lawyer here in the Coachella Valley: “My duty is to make evident that education is not out of our reach,” she said regarding her responsibility toward her younger brothers. West Shores High School graduate Carla Cabrera is currently a student at Cal State University-San Bernardino, hoping to achieve a master’s degree for a career as a registered nurse.

All of these young women have been honors students in Advanced Placement courses of study, active in campus sports and extra-curricular activities, and volunteers in their communities. Some work while going to school. Many will be the first in their families to attend college. All of them are worthy of our support. Politics aside, I was impressed by these admirable young women doing whatever is necessary to ensure their futures.

If you’ve never been to the Riverside County Fair and National Date Festival, this is something you should do at least once. Admission cost is reasonable, and you don’t want to miss the camel and ostrich races, monster trucks, marvelous mutts, nightly live music, wonderful displays of art and fabulous food. Plus, you’ll be supporting the 2015 Scholarship Pageant winners: Morgan Lawrence as Princess Jasmine, Shannon Slankard as Princess Dunyazade, and Carla Cabrera as Queen Scheherazade. You will see them in full Arabian regalia all over the county and at the fairgrounds Feb. 13-22.

I now know how dates came to the Coachella Valley! Do you?

Anita Rufus is also known as “The Lovable Liberal,” and her radio show airs Sundays from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. on KNews Radio 94.3 FM. Email her at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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