The absence of his family members tonight—and at every pageant he ever put on—speaks to a community in flux. As comfortable as the Castro sisters are, there are many among their generation and younger who still struggle to accept their children for who they are.

"It's okay that she can't come. She loves me. I know that," he says wistfully.

*   *   *

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

After their speeches, five finalists are selected: Nicole Lopez, Samantha Palacios, Alexa De La Riva, Kasandra Montenegro and Zuleyka Flores. The five women are asked: Why do you want to spread the message of HIV/AIDS prevention to the community? How should you have sex if one of the partners is infected? Why is there a window before one gets tested? What is your opinion of a child with HIV/AIDS?

Each answers, and then waits for the judges' decision while Carlos Diaz, now dressed as Kayla Montesdeoca for one last time, bids the audience goodbye. The judges announce this year's pageant winner: Palacios takes the crown. Montenegro comes in second for the second year in a row, and Lopez comes in third. Despite her smaller, second-runner-up crown, she can't stop smiling.

"I'm proud of myself tonight. I did everything I set out to do, and I couldn't be happier," she says, clasping her crown above her head with one hand.

For a slideshow of Russ Roca's photos from the pageant, please click here.

daltan@ocweekly.com

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