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Preparing for the pageant: Belleza Universal 2024

The contestants of the Latin American Student Organization’s Belleza Universal pageant at practice on Monday, Feb. 19. The pageant will take place in the SAC auditorium on March 22 at 6 p.m. BRITTNEY DIETZ/THE STATESMAN

In the weeks leading up to the Latin American Student Organization’s (LASO) annual Belleza Universal pageant, 10 energized and talented contestants reflect on their pageant preparation experiences.

Belleza Universal is far more than a beauty pageant; it is a celebration of cultures coming together at Stony Brook.

“The pageant is really a performance to showcase who you are and really show the world the country that you represent and your ancestral roots,” Paola Castro, a senior psychology major and senior representative of LASO, said. “I think it’s one of the greatest things LASO does for the Stony Brook community.”

LASO first hosted the pageant in 2019, but this new tradition was halted by the pandemic until 2022. Now, the yearly pageant is in full swing.

“The girls work really hard,” Castro said. “A lot of them are stepping out of their comfort zone.”

Whoever is crowned Miss Belleza Universal gets a $500 cash prize funded by LASO. The contestants will participate in a series of pageant rounds that showcase their talents, personalities and cultural pride in front of a panel of faculty judges.

Sitting in on just one of their practices reveals the dedication and commitment of the pageant contestants. Although the girls are technically competing, the nature of rehearsals is nothing but uplifting and supportive.

“I think that’s the sweetest part — seeing everybody become friends,” Sheilly Martinez, a senior political science major and the president of LASO, said. “At the end, you see people’s confidence grow a whole lot.”

This year’s Belleza Universal will take place on Friday, March 22, in the Student Activities Center auditorium. More information can be found on LASO’s Instagram page.

Noreza Norena during rehearsal for the Belleza Universal pageant. She is a biology major representing Columbia. BRITTNEY DIETZ/THE STATESMAN

Meet this year’s Miss Colombia. Noreza Norena is a senior biology major from Long Island, N.Y. Although she’s feeling a healthy amount of pre-pageant jitters, Norena can’t wait to show off all her hard work and celebrate various cultures on campus.

“I wanted to get involved my last year in LASO,” Norena said. “I just wanted to showcase my country, my culture.”

Janell Boakye during rehearsal for the Belleza Universal pageant. She is a political science and business administration double major representing Ghana. BRITTNEY DIETZ/THE STATESMAN

Representing Ghana in this year’s pageant, senior political science and business administration double major Janell Boakye is stepping out of her comfort zone and into the spotlight. She encourages others to do the same.

“You don’t want to regret it,” she said regarding missing out on opportunities like the pageant. “I feel like this is my time to really do things I want and just go for it and stop letting fear hold me back.”

The Queens, N.Y. resident plays an active role in campus life. As the president of the African Student Union’s (ASU) dance team L’Afrique and the secretary of ASU, Boakye keeps a busy schedule outside of pageant practices.

Lauren Zou during rehearsal for the Belleza Universal pageant. She is a chemistry major representing China. BRITTNEY DIETZ/THE STATESMAN

Lauren Zou, a senior majoring in chemistry, will be representing China for the pageant. Despite this being the first time having to strut in high heels, the Brooklyn, N.Y. native is excited for the opportunity to show off and embrace her heritage.

“I never actually wore a Chinese dress before, so I’m pretty excited about that,” Zou said. “I think it’s nice to see your country represented because I didn’t get that growing up, so it’s nice to be a part of it.”

Leslie Mejia during rehearsal for the Belleza Universal pageant. She is a social work major representing Bolivia. BRITTNEY DIETZ/THE STATESMAN

Introducing Leslie Mejia! Mejia a junior majoring in social work and this year’s Miss Bolivia. When she is not at pageant rehearsals, you can find this Long Islander being a part of Stony Brook’s Undergraduate Social Welfare Alliance.

“All cultures are beautiful,” Mejia said. “I just want to represent how beautiful my culture is as well.”

Ylenia Toledo during rehearsal for the Belleza Universal pageant. She is a biochemistry major representing Cuba. BRITTNEY DIETZ/THE STATESMAN

From the Bronx, N.Y., Ylenia Toledo is representing Cuba in the upcoming pageant. Toledo is a freshman biochemistry major who is an active member of LASO, the Club Swimming team and Pink Gloves Boxing.

“I’m looking forward to having fun with it, getting all nice and dressed for it and having fun with the girls!” Toledo said.

Toledo, who is Cuban, Ecuadorian and was born in Spain, is particularly excited about competing as Miss Cuba this year.

“To me, Cuba’s very special because it’s very underrepresented,” she said. “I want to represent them and just shine light on my country.”

Samantha Cruz during rehearsal for the Belleza Universal pageant. She is a coastal environmental studies major representing Honduras. BRITTNEY DIETZ/THE STATESMAN

Make way for Honduras’ pageant queen, Samantha Cruz. Originally from the Bronx, N.Y., Cruz is a senior majoring in coastal environmental studies and a member of Pink Gloves Boxing.

As well as a way to celebrate her cultural identity, Cruz took Belleza Universal as an opportunity for self growth.

“I joined because I thought it looked like an opportunity to build confidence,” Cruz said.

She notes that the best part of this experience has by far been the friendships she has forged along the way.

“It’s so nice feeling like it’s an actual family!” Cruz exclaimed.

Karla Wilches during rehearsal for the Belleza Universal pageant. She is a psychology major representing Mexico. BRITTNEY DIETZ/THE STATESMAN

Freshman psychology major Karla Wilches will be taking the Belleza Universal stage as this year’s Miss Mexico. Wilches is from Buffalo, N.Y. but recently moved to Texas. She is an active member of the Psychology Student Alliance, LASO and the Pre-Med Society.

As a first-year student, Wilches took this opportunity to push herself out of her comfort zone.

“I was a very shy person in high school,” Wilches said. “This has been a very exciting experience for me because I get to make new friends.”

Brianna Chavez is participating in the Belleza Universal pageant. She is a mass communication and sociology double major representing Puerto Rico. PHOTO COURTESY OF BRIANNA CHAVEZ

Brianna Chavez is a junior double majoring in mass communication and sociology with a minor in women’s and gender studies. The Queens, N.Y. resident is already adding Miss Puerto Rico to her list of campus identities. She serves as the president of Jubilé Latino, resident assistant in Chávez Hall, member of Planned Parenthood Generation Action at Stony Brook University and member of the Sigma Beta Honor Society.

“I am most excited about seeing all of our hard work as pageant participants come to fruition at the event,” Chavez said. “We have all spent numerous hours learning choreography, organizing outfits and hairstyles, making music mixes, among other things, and I can’t wait to see each of us shine the day of Belleza Universal!”

Julia Taveras is participating in the Belleza Universal pageant. She is a psychology major representing the Dominican Republic. PHOTO COURTESY OF JULIA TAVERAS

Senior psychology major Julia Taveras is representing the Dominican Republic in the upcoming pageant. Born in Brooklyn, N.Y. and raised in Yonkers, N.Y., Taveras is the vice president of Jubilé Latino.

Taveras is ecstatic about participating in Belleza Universal, as she is looking forward to continuing to bond with the other contestants and LASO members.

“I have a feeling this is going to be an amazing experience,” she said with enthusiasm.

Kangkhita Kaes rehearsing for the Belleza Universal pageant. She is a psychology and health science double major representing Bangladesh. BRITTNEY DIETZ/THE STATESMAN

Last, but certainly not least, Kangkhita Kaes, a junior double majoring in health science and psychology, will be this pageant’s Miss Bangladesh. Kaes is from Queens and is a member of Alpha Sigma Alpha.

“I just want to share my culture with everyone because I feel like there is very minimal Bangladeshi representation on campus, specially in big org[anizations] and events on campus and I wanted to change that,” Kaes said. “I’m most excited for the day of the pageant and just showcasing myself and my country!”

 

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Sonya Gugliara
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