By Christopher Smith
She doesn’t remember it, but Leyanet Gonzalez said she came to Miami from Cuba on a small boat when she was an infant.
“My mom said it was scary, that there was nothing but flat water for days,” said Gonzalez, now 20, of Dalton. “She said there was no way to know where you were. We had to go towards the Gulf of Mexico then to Miami to avoid the main currents. The Coast Guard expected us to go that way.”
Now a legal citizen since 2000, Gonzalez says she does her best to make her family, still in Dalton, proud. That means straight A’s, attending South College in Knoxville as a junior, pursuing medical school, and on May 18, winning the Miss Tennessee Latina pageant in Clarksville, Tenn.
Gonzalez will compete for the national title of Miss Latina US in Riviera Maya, Mexico, from Aug. 18 to 24. The winner of that competition advances to the international Miss Latin America of the World competition on Aug. 31, also in Riviera Maya.
How Gonzalez became involved in pageants she once saw as “materialistic” is “quite a ride,” she said.
Gonzalez moved from Miami to Dalton in 1999 when she was six. She said she immediately felt unwanted while attending Whitfield County Schools.
“I started at Westside Elementary,” she said. “I remember very clearly that there was this guy there who always said, ‘You need to go back to where you came from.’ I was a little girl at the time so I just started crying when I heard that. It was the first time I realized people like that existed.”
Because of the federal Cuban Adjustment Act, Gonzalez and her family were allowed to remain in the United States for a year, even though they entered illegally, to pursue permanent residency. After she gained her U.S. citizenship, people continued to tell her to leave the country, Gonzalez said.
“I’ve faced racism and bullying when I was in school (in Dalton),” she said. “When I was younger, I didn’t look like a typical Latina. I looked like I was white, with brown hair and green eyes. When people learned I was Hispanic, I got a lot of racist comments.”
Middle school was particularly difficult for her, she said.
“It hurt a lot,” she said. “I was at Westside Middle School in Rocky Face and there weren’t as many Hispanics in that area. So I stood out.”
Gonzalez said school bullying she experienced wasn’t only race-related.
“I remember doing well on my report card and I got a lot of bullying from that and mean comments,” she said. “It made me feel embarrassed. But then I got into (Northwest Whitfield High School). It seems like in high school you realize there’s so many different people. And you just want to get along.
“But even then everyone was wearing Abercrombie and American Eagle. And I couldn’t afford those things. I wanted to be popular and fit in, but all I had going for me was academics. But eventually I took on this idea that, ‘If you like me, cool. If you don’t like me, that’s cool too.’”
That’s when things began to change for her, Gonzalez said. She went on to be part of the Northwest homecoming court even as she began full-time classes at the Northwest Georgia College and Career Academy where she graduated in 2010.
“I wasn’t even at Northwest that much my junior and senior year and people enjoyed me and voted for me,” she said. “That was big for me. That helped with my self-esteem.”
But it’s not always that easy for people to shrug off bullies, Gonzalez said.
“A lot of kids don’t want to tell anyone they are getting bullied,” she said. “They don’t want their parents to worry. They don’t think anyone will be there for them. They don’t know there are hotlines to help with school bullying.”
The state Department of Education has a toll-free hotline: (877) SAY-STOP.
Gonzalez said she kept bullying to herself when it happened to her because no one told her “it was OK to talk about.” That’s something she said she hopes others avoid because students who don’t talk about it can become withdrawn. Eventually it’s possible for them to “explode” by taking violent action towards others or themselves, Gonzalez said.
She aims to stop that.
“That’s my platform,” she said, adding that she relates with Hispanic students who might be picked on for their race or background.
“I want to specifically reach out to the Hispanics,” she said. “I want to reach out to people going through that kind of discrimination and say, ‘It will be OK. I know because I’ve been there. It’s different when you’re older.’ That’s why I do pageants.”
Gonzalez admits she never thought she would participate in pageants.
“I used to think it was all about outer beauty,” she said. “I tell my friends I do pageants now and they think, ‘You do what?’ Because I was so against it. But it’s about lifestyle. It’s not about getting on stage and walking around to show how pretty you think you are.
“It’s about eating healthy and taking care of yourself, about being well-rounded, about intelligence, about reaching out to the community. Before, I thought it was dumb.”
That changed when friends asked her to take part in the Chica Latina 2013 pageant in May to help promote their local radio station, Conexion Kaliente 93.9 FM.
“It didn’t go too terrible, but it was my first time talking in front of 400 or 500 people,” Gonzalez said. “I tried talking, but I blanked. I saw the other contestants, they were so beautiful. But when they (the pageant judges) asked me about bullying, I spoke up about what I experienced.”
Being runner-up and winning $300 made pageants more appealing.
“I thought it would be a good way to pay for school,” Gonzalez said. “Then I realized how pageants can help the community. That’s another thing I want to tell people now that I’m involved in them.”
Being part of the Miss Tennessee Latina pageant meant more than dressing up in gowns and looking beautiful, Gonzalez said.
“There was so much going on behind the scenes, reaching out to the community, showing that you had a platform,” she said.
In fact, Gonzalez says she was judged more on her “platform” against discrimination and bullying than her looks.
“It’s more about community outreach,” she said. “Not about being pretty.”
That alone has turned Gonzalez from condemning pageants to possibly becoming a regular at the competitions. What are her chances to win Miss Latina US?
“Well, there’s a lot of beautiful girls in it,” Gonzalez said. “But you never know what will happen.”