Nine-year-old Natalie Hernandez, of Oklahoma City, did not grow up competing in beauty pageants, but when her teacher at Kaiser Elementary recommended the straight-A student enter the National American Miss Pageant based on her academic performance, Natalie saw opportunity.
“I was skeptical at first; I didn't know what it was,” said her mother, Joanna Garcia. “But when her teacher explained it to us, I felt better, and Natalie really wanted to do it, so we went for it.”
Organizers of the pageant say it focuses on inner beauty as well as poise and presentation and emphasizes the importance of developing self-confidence, learning good sportsmanship and setting and achieving personal goals.
Garcia thinks the pageant achieves its goal of helping girls build self-confidence.
“Before, she was afraid to talk in public. Now people tell me she speaks like a grown-up. She's polite and articulate and she talks with experience. It's helped her be herself,” Garcia said.
Natalie said the pageant helped her make new friends, have fun and further develop her goals, especially that of “being someone important” when she grows up.
That means breaking a norm she sees in the Hispanic community.
“Hispanic people are afraid to go to college and afraid to go all the way,” she said. “I want to be the first to go all the way. I want to be the first Hispanic governor of Oklahoma.”
The second of four children, Natalie is often the optimist of the family, often telling her older brother not to shy away from public speaking and to focus on the future instead of the past.
Garcia, a housekeeper, works hard to instill a good work ethic and good morals in her children in addition to giving them what her parents couldn't give her.
“My dad always worked. But my parents just couldn't afford to do something like this for me. I want my children to make memories. For as long as I live, I'm going to try to help them fulfill their dreams,” Garcia said.
American Miss pageant contestants younger than 12 are not allowed to wear makeup, and there is no swimsuit competition. Organizers say the pageant is dedicated to celebrating America's future leaders and equipping them with lifelong skills. The pageant awards $1.5 million in cash, scholarships and prizes each year.
Though she didn't win the pageant, Natalie intends to continue competing. Out of 88 participants, she was one of a handful who made it to the state finals.
“We both cried when we got the phone call letting us know she made it to finals,” Garcia said.
Garcia said the news was so surprising to her because while the mother and daughter hoped Natalie would win, it was never their agenda.
“I told her, ‘Don't feel bad if you don't win. Don't think about winning; it's about bettering yourself,'” Garcia said.
Natalie said in addition to becoming the first Hispanic governor of Oklahoma, she wants to encourage other children and minorities.
“I want to show them that it's important to never give up on their goals. To never say never.”