At first glance, one might not be surprised to find that Leyanet Gonzalez, 20, won Miss Tennessee Latina 2013. Her natural beauty and confidence help her stand out in a room — even a room full of beauty pageant contestants. Though she possesses beauty pageant qualities, she wants people to understand that her past experiences have shaped her character far more than her outward appearance.
The Knoxville resident was less than a year old when she and her family came from Pinar del Rio, Cuba, to the United States to escape communist rule. Her first experience in the United States was being detained with the rest of her family and others for 30 days. After being released and living in the United States for a year, the family was granted citizenship. “We came here broke and started at the bottom — the very bottom,” Gonzalez said.
Because she came to the United States at such a young age, Gonzalez did not face some of the difficulties that the rest of her family did, like her father struggling with never having driven a car. But being an immigrant raised by parents who followed Cuban household customs was not an easy task. She said certain Hispanic traditions separated her from her classmates. “When I got into middle school, other girls started wearing makeup and shaving, but since I’m of Hispanic heritage, we’re not allowed to do any of that until we’re 15.”
She also could not go out to the movies or the mall with friends, attend school dances or cut her hair in a fashionable manner. She remembers her friends explaining to her that they gave up inviting her places because they knew her parents would not allow it. “At the time, I was really upset and wanted my parents to conform to the American way of life,” Gonzalez said.
This created controversy within the Gonzalez home. “I wanted to be like the other kids, but I couldn’t. I really wanted people to like me and to be the pretty girl or the popular cheerleader. I got obsessed with that image, and I went through a rough patch with my parents because of it,” Gonzalez said.
But when she entered high school, she realized that outward appearance is not the most important aspect in assessing someone’s character. “I just woke up one day and realized: All of the superficial things don’t even matter. Some people never have that revelation.”
Today she is proud that her parents committed to raising her in a traditional Hispanic home. “Now that I’m older, I thank them for that,” she said. “I’m in tune with my Hispanic heritage. I’m Americanized, but I haven’t forgotten where my roots are.” She hopes that she will be able to keep these customs alive, but she knows it will not always be easy.
“I sometimes felt like a visitor growing up,” Gonzalez said. “I was always an overachiever in school. One day I was telling this kid that we needed to study or work on a project, and he told me to ‘go back to where I came from,’ and I immediately started crying.”
Gonzalez admits that she was not sure what a racist remark was at the time, but she knew that his words were malicious.
Even though some of the racial adversity she faced growing up still impacts her today, those memories fuel her drive to be empowered and to inspire other young men and women.
She also draws strength from her brother, who struggled to speak English in school when the family came to the U.S. Today, he is in his third year of pharmacy school at Belmont University.
Gonzalez said pageants allow her to feel empowered and use that strength for the betterment of young people. She entered her first beauty pageant on a whim at age 20 and was awarded runner-up. The second contest was Miss Tennessee Latina.
“Miss Tennessee Latina is not only focused on the outer beauty but also on your intelligence, your success, things you want to do and things you want to change,” said Gonzalez.
As the winner of Miss Tennessee Latina, Gonzalez competes Aug. 18-24 in Riviera Maya, Mexico, for the national title. The winner of the national title will then compete for Miss America Latin del Mundo.
To compete for the national and international titles, Gonzalez must state her platform.
“They’re going to ask me what I would do with the national title, and when it comes to me, it comes down to self-esteem, which ties in with bullying and racism. I want people to focus on seeing people’s insides, not just how they appear on the outside,” she says.
Gonzalez says that if she wins the national or international title, the money she is awarded will either be given to her parents to help them financially or used to help finance undergraduate student loans.
She is currently studying radiography with a concentration in nuclear medicine at South College. After she graduates, she hopes to attend medical school and specialize in pediatric radiology, allowing her to continue to help and inspire young men and women.
Gonzalez says she became interested in radiology after job shadowing a radiologist at a hospital for a high school project.
“I have a big heart. I love helping people, and I love doing anything that I know can make difference,” she said.
© 2013, Knoxville News Sentinel Co.
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