Miss Venezuela

Young woman with long dark hair by ocean

Rosalía’s father was the first man to lie to her. When she was still a toddler, he promised her she would become a beauty queen. Each weekend when he came home from the oil fields, he picked her up in his arms and serenaded her with the same song: “My pretty little doll, of golden hair, pearled teeth, and ruby lips…” It didn’t matter that her hair was not golden, but black as the petroleum he extracted from the ground. Golden or onyx, her hair was a silken treasure. On quiet weekday nights when they were alone, her mother ran her fingers through Rosalía’s mane while they watched beautiful people act in telenovelas. “My pretty girl,” she’d say. “My lucky girl.”

Relatives, neighbors, and her own pediatrician soon took to calling her La Miss. “She’s going to be tall,” the doctor said one day while reading Rosalía’s chart, as if sealing her fate. She was still in grade school then, and had discovered the allure of mirrors. Sometimes she pinched her cheeks, bit her lips, and curled her eyelashes with her own spit. The effect was temporary, just long enough for her to admire her enhanced reflection in her mother’s vanity and picture herself being crowned Miss Venezuela. Rosalía memorized the words to the pageant’s opening song and performed it for her mother and aunts. “On such a lovely night, any one of us could triumph and finally make her dreams come true…” At first they clapped at her rehearsed charisma, but she did it so many times they tired of her and told her to cut it out. Chastised, she sat between their legs, marveling at their soft, hairless skin and jeweled toenails.

“How old do I have to be to be a miss?” She asked them.

“They start them young, don’t they?”

“But not too young. They have to have surgery and train and all that.”

“Tell me, how old?” Rosalía asked again.

“At least 16, 17? Quiet now.”

Every Friday before Rosalía’s father came home, her mother sat on her vanity to do her hair, blasting it into submission with the heat of a thousand suns. “Thank the Virgin you weren’t born with my bad hair,” her mother sometimes said, hot iron in hand, explaining that she believed it skipped generations like a curse from a forgotten ancestor. Rosalía liked to watch the hours-long ritual from her parents’ bed. Sometimes, depending on her mother’s mood, Rosalía fanned her with an old copy of Vanidades. On especially hot days, when Rosalía whined for her mother to hurry up, her mother shushed her and, one manicured finger in the air, told her there was no such thing as an ugly woman, only a poorly groomed one.

Rosalía began brushing her long hair every night before bed, counting to one hundred strokes. She then wrapped her tresses around her head using her mother’s discarded bobby pins. In the morning, she would let them out, a gush of velvet cascading down her back. Sometimes, after her mother got her hair permed at the nice salon in town, they combed warm mayonnaise through their hair and wrapped it in plastic, and while they waited, practiced answering pageant questions into a hairbrush microphone. Those were the days Rosalía liked her mother best. But when her mother caught her playing with her clothes or makeup, she could be mean.

“Not until you’re a woman,” she’d say, slapping Rosalía’s hand.

“I wish I was a woman already,” Rosalía once replied.

“No, you do not. Trust me,” her mother said, using the same tone she sometimes took with Rosalía’s father after he lost his job. Rosalía stomped around the house, but didn’t argue with her mother. No one liked a girl who talked back. When she got her first period, her mother told her she had become a woman and handed her a sanitary pad, a razor, and an old waist trainer that she no longer used. “You’ll need a tiny waist if you want to be a miss,” she said.

On her walk to school, men started whistling and calling out to Rosalía from their cars. Boys in school also began paying attention to her, and even girls treated her differently. When her friend Migdaly did not invite her to her quinceañera, Rosalía’s mother sat her down in her father’s faded armchair, which was almost always empty now, and began caressing her hair in that old soothing way. “They envy you. No one likes to see pretty eyes on another’s face.”

With the tape measure her mother used in her new side job as a seamstress, Rosalía took her own measurements. Like a tulip bud that blooms overnight, her body had filled out quickly, leaving behind shiny stretch marks that she rubbed with homemade ointment. Rosalía had learned from years of watching Miss Venezuela that the formula to the perfect body was 90-60-90. Symmetry was beauty, but only in a given size. She measured again and again, but even naked, some of her numbers were always a little too big.

If her mother noticed that Rosalía hardly ate anymore, she never said so. It was just as well, because food had become either hard to find or hard to afford. The plump dictator explained that yankee imperialists were waging an economic war. By then, they’d stopped their mayonnaise hair treatments, as mayonnaise was sold out in stores and its black-market price was, in the words of Rosalia’s mother, “an armed robbery.” At school, Rosalía began skipping lunch and hanging out with the seniors who smoked outside, stopping in the bathroom first to check her reflection. This was how she met Manuel. Within days, he told her she was perfect, and she almost gasped at the word. Perfect. Not even her father had described her this way. He put her on a pedestal so high it made her dizzy, and she confused this disorienting feeling with love.

Finally, Rosalía was old enough and thin enough for tryouts. “You’ve become a beautiful young woman,” her mother said to her backstage with a mix of hope and fear, holding her face between her hands. When her name was called, Rosalía walked onto a makeshift catwalk in a neon green bikini. The room was air conditioned, and she could feel goosebumps forming on her skin. A man and a woman sat behind a table opposite her. “Pretty girl,” the man said to himself. The woman next to him looked down at Rosalía’s form. “She’s only a meter seventy-one,” she said. “Ah, that’s too bad,” the man said. “She has refined features, but with a little something…exotic. And that mane of hair. Those aren’t extensions, are they?” Rosalía shook her head. “Women would die for hair like that. Too bad, too bad. Thanks for coming in.”

“Is there anything I can do?” Rosalía asked, her right hand still glued to her hip.

“Look, baby. That’s not her real nose. Or her real boobies.” The man gestured at the woman, whose smile did not look real either. “Things like that we can fix. Unfortunately, doctors haven’t figured out how to make someone taller. I don’t make the rules.”

Rosalía’s feet turned to cement. Her mother had to escort her off the stage.

When she found out she was pregnant later that year, she cried all the tears she had been too stunned to cry since that day. Manuel had moved to Peru, promising he would send for her once he had a place of his own, but in a matter of weeks he had stopped calling. “Men have the attention span of a fly,” her mother said, caressing her hair. “Always looking for fresh honey.” Rosalía threw up almost every day of her pregnancy, which her mother said was her body’s natural reaction to an unwanted child. Her aunts who hadn’t moved to the city or left the country came to see the baby when she was born and agreed she had avoided the curse of their ancestors. They were gone before Rosalía could tell them there was no milk coming from her breasts.

Rosalía left the house earlier and earlier each day, her long locks tied into a top bun to protect them from the hungry piranhas who went around town stealing women’s hair, cutting it off with garden shears. But there were always other mothers already in front of her in line at the stores. Some days she was able to get formula, other days she fed the baby a mixture of rice and barley water. Rosalía had gotten used to eating little, just a can of sardines with yuca or a bowl of lentils and a mango a day, but she could not get used to her daughter’s cries, which echoed inside her skull even after the baby had fallen asleep. Sometimes her mother found her in bed holding the baby, whom Rosalía called her little doll, gently singing her father’s old song to her, staring into—or through—the mirror, as if it were a portal to a different world.

“My pretty girls,” her mother said, now in plural, though it sounded more like a lament.

The pageant went on, even as TV stations were shut down and students were jailed and the price of oil tanked and children ate from the trash and the news reported that misses were being pimped out to regime officials. Their stomachs half empty, families gathered around the television to pick their favorite girls and critique the rest. The year that Rosalía gave birth, the shortest miss in recent history took the crown. “Only a meter seventy,” the gossip shows repeated over and over the next day. Rosalía stayed in bed well into sundown.

When she got up, she told her mother she was thinking of selling her hair. The older woman looked away and suggested they call her old stylist for advice. The man’s raspy voice smelled of chemicals that reminded Rosalía of a faraway time, though only a few years had passed since her mother had last gotten a perm or since Rosalía still believed in having dreams. He said to go to Colombia, if she could, where she could get more money—as much as a hundred times what she and her mother brought home each month those days.

“Are you sure?” Rosalía asked.

“Honey, do you know how much a natural hair wig costs in the United States? Don’t worry, though. Hair always grows back.”

On the too-cold bus to Cúcuta, Rosalía rested her head against the rattling window but could not sleep. She had kissed her baby that afternoon, sung to her about golden hair, pearled teeth, and ruby lips, kissed her again, and told her she would be back the next day. It was their first time apart. But she wasn’t thinking about her baby; instead, she was trying to imagine what she would look and feel like once they lopped off her hair. After all, it was still a part of her body that they were taking. That she was selling. She hoped she wouldn’t have to do it again.

An armed group stopped the bus just after dark. Rosalía had been warned that police or gangs or guerillas might stop them and that they would all be indistinguishable. Shakedowns were a routine game of chance near the border; almost everyone left unscathed. Three men stood guard outside the bus, while another demanded payment from the driver. Their weapons seemed too large for their lean bodies. Rosalía recalled what her mother had told her before leaving: “Today isn’t the day to be pretty.” She put up her hoodie and wrapped her arms around her body.

A second man boarded the bus and walked down the aisle, opening bags and wallets and taking what he wanted. A rifle hung around his chest like a silent warning. Resigned passengers handed over their belongings one by one. But when he reached Rosalía, she had nothing to give.

“You,” he said, pointing at her with the barrel of his rifle. “Come with me.”

Outside, he pulled her hood down and shoved her towards the other men standing by. She fell on her knees, her old jeans ripping against the asphalt. Staring at the men’s weapons, which they leaned on like wooden canes, she thought of the famous Miss Venezuela turned telenovela star who had been murdered on a highway just like this one. Rosalía had been pregnant when it happened and had felt guilty for once envying the girl. For months, as the country mourned her, her photo had been everywhere. She too had silky jet-black hair that flowed down to her waist.

“You can have my hair,” Rosalía said, showcasing her tresses between her trembling hands. “I was going to sell it for 200 dollars.”

The shorter of the men laughed and grabbed her arm, pulling her to her feet. She was taller than him but had never felt smaller, not even that day on the runaway.

“Please don’t hurt me,” she pleaded.

“How lucky did we get?” He asked his partner, eyeing Rosalía top to bottom and back again. “We won’t hurt you, beautiful,” he then said, and raked his dirty fingers through her hair. Rosalía prayed, though it felt futile after years of worshipping at the altar of beauty, a false idol offering cursed blessings. “There’s no such thing as luck,” Rosalía whispered, her voice so faint that the man, now clutching the hair at the bottom of her neck, leaned in closer to hear. It was then that she bit into his ear with all the suppressed hunger of a beauty queen, his flesh and blood filling her mouth, the first red meat she’d tasted in years. That man was the last man to lie to her. Rosalía was only 19 when her hair stopped growing.

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