"I've realized that so many people are lost the way I was when I first came here," she says. "I mean, it was my experience at the beginning, to not know anything . . . I'd never learned anything about prevention, diseases, nothing. I had never been tested. . . . And to see that there are so many people in the same situation—and I'm not just talking about the gay community—there are so many people who don't know what to do or how to handle prevention."

The box filled up with $800 in donations from customers. "It's been so emotional for me, the response," she says. The money allowed her to pay for her $600 evening gown, swimsuit, jewelry and various pairs of heels. "If I can get two families to walk away from the pageant with some questions in their minds, that will be the winning of my crown."

Lopez's ex-fiance may well never know that the man who left her and fled to the U.S. from Guadalajara, Mexico, 14 years ago has a thing for Victorian-era statuettes and spent a recent Saturday making her way down a runway in a decadent peach-and-deep-pink evening gown before a panel of pageant judges. Lopez left one month before their wedding. "She was a nice girl," Lopez remembers, "but I couldn't bear the thought of creating a family, and then bringing suffering to us all because I was hiding who I was."

Contestants begin their backstage transformation for the Miss Hermosa Y Protegida pageant
Russ Roca
Contestants begin their backstage transformation for the Miss Hermosa Y Protegida pageant

*   *   *

At the pageant, Lopez stands defiant in front of the crowd. Her pageant etiquette washes away, and her face sobers. She pulls a male condom out of her bodice, then a female condom. "Sadly, we still refuse to talk to our children about sex. Talk to them," she implores. "Homemakers, you must take care of yourselves," she says, holding up the female condom and talking ardently about the high rates of HIV/AIDS infections among married Latina women. She goes beyond her time limit, but the crowd, listening intently, explodes in applause.

Other contestants are equally passionate: Samantha Palacios says that as Latinos, the audience is one entire family. "It's time we started taking care of each other," she says. In a shimmering gold and leopard-print gown, Kasandra Montenegro offers up a personal testimony: "I am a living example of what can happen despite a life of domestic violence and rejection by a machistafather," she says.

"It's time we put a stop to children being born with HIV infections," Zuleyka Flores says.

"Maybe you think salt and lemon will get rid of an STD, or washing with soap and water, but you're wrong!" Valeria de Montecarlo booms passionately to the applause of the crowd.

Sisters Rosa and Angelina Castro are sitting near the stage at a table with family members and their granddaughters. They're cheering Frida Marin, Miss Puerto Rico. "The children say the girls look pretty, and that's fine. If they ask, I'll tell them," Angelina says of her decision to withhold the entire boy-to-female explanation for now. Both grandmothers say they're glad for the openness of the pageant.

"In this day and age, you have to talk to your kids openly about these things. There are still people who don't want to talk about it, but it's good to do it. You have to do it," Rosa says.

"I always told my son when he would go out, take your sombrerito [little hat]," Angelina says, laughing about the condom advice she gave her son.

Rosa is quick to get to the point regarding the transgender community: "They need to be accepted, and that's it," she says. Angelina nods in agreement and calls to the little girls, who are running around the table.

Not far from the Castros sits Amaro, the guest of honor tonight, who, as "La Pepa," is dressed in a gleaming red sequined gown and a bed of hair piled high above his barely recognizable face. When he is called onstage a short time later, the pageant founder's face is flushed and glowing. He has never had the pleasure of having his mom at one of the pageants, and none of his immediate family is here tonight. "I remember one year, an old woman came up to me," he says. "I have it burned in my memory. She came up to me—she was around my mom's age—and she said, 'Oh, your mom must be so very proud of you.' I was so moved. I said, 'Yes, she is proud of me,' because I know she's proud of me for other things, even if it's not this specifically. But it really touched me.'"

While her son received an award tonight, Amaro's mother, who is ill, was at home, not suspecting a thing. "It would be too hard on her," he says. "If she asked me, I would tell her. She already knows I'm gay. But this would worry her. She's very Catholic. It just would be too much. . . . She would think I was trying to become a woman, even if that's not the case." Amaro's siblings also know he's gay, but like their mother, they are unaware of his involvement with the pageant.

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