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World

The First Indigenous Miss Panama

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

Panama is sending its first Indigenous woman ever to the Miss Universe contest. And in Latin America, where pageants are a big deal, that's a big deal. Rosa Iveth Montezuma's win as Miss Panama is being hailed as a landmark, especially as Indigenous people in the Americas continue to suffer discrimination. She joins me now from Panama City in Panama. I'll also say I am part Panamanian, so I am very proud to welcome her to the program today. Bienvenido al nostro programa.

ROSA MONTEZUMA: Gracias.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So congratulations, of course. I want to ask you about your Indigenous heritage. It's always been an important part of your life. You grew up in the Ngabe-Bugle comarca. Comarcas are like reservations, but they're semi-autonomous. They give exclusive land rights for Indigenous communities. They're able to self-govern. And you also studied at university, so tell me why you decided to run for Miss Panama.

MONTEZUMA: (Through interpreter) I realized that an Indigenous woman had never been a part of Miss Panama before. When I decided to enter the competition and all of Panama realized that I was Indigenous, many people discriminated against me. This made me reflect and say, OK. Now that I'm here, I have the opportunity to change their thinking, so I wanted to promote my culture. I decided to wear my cultural dress, the nagua, and demonstrate to the whole world how much Indigenous culture is worth in our country.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And speaking of discrimination, when you were running for Miss Panama, a rumor surfaced that you were actually from Venezuela. And you had to prove that you grew up on the comarca, the implication, I guess, being that someone as beautiful as you couldn't be Indigenous. That must have been painful.

MONTEZUMA: (Through interpreter) Yes, of course. Yes. They made a fake passport saying I was Venezuelan, that my dad was European, that I wasn't even Indigenous. It hurt me because, for my whole life, I've just tried to be who I am. And because of this rumor, I had to prove my citizenship so that the country would know that I am actually Panamanian. There were so many accusations, and I had to defend myself in one way or another.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You've spoken both at the United Nations and the Organization of American States. And you told the ambassadors and officials there that Indigenous people in the Americas are considered inferior, uneducated, are discriminated against. How has your community experienced that?

MONTEZUMA: (Through interpreter) Look. Indigenous communities in Panama are very far from the capital. They're in the mountains. They're on the coast. They're not accessible. And it's true that, over the years, the government has started paying more attention to Indigenous communities, but the resources don't arrive like they should. There is progress up to a point, but then it stops, so I think Panamanians are used to looking at Indigenous communities as minorities. They're used to excluding them from society. There are many well-trained people in Indigenous communities. There are lawyers and doctors, engineers, teachers. But when they ask for work, they're rejected just for being Indigenous and for being in competition with other Latinos. So I think it affects us. But we should work even harder to change these things.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You've won the Miss Panama competition. And now you're going to Miss Universe, where you'll have a global stage. What are you hoping that people will learn from your experience?

MONTEZUMA: (Through interpreter) I'm going to represent a whole country - Panama, a country small in size but big in love and tradition and culture. And that, more than anything, is what I want to show. I want to show that Indigenous women are not just pretty faces, that we're also intellectuals and that we want to be participants in society.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Rosa Iveth Montezuma is Miss Panama, and she joined us from Panama City. Muchisima gracias y buena suerta.

MONTEZUMA: Muchas gracias a ustedes.

(SOUNDBITE OF NIKLAS AMAN'S "HAMMOCK AND PALMS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.