The “Modern Maria Clara in America”: 1964

Excerpt from “Search for Modern Maria Clara” application (1964)

I’ve mentioned elsewhere that Filipinas in the pre-WWII U.S. often helped to support the existence of Filipino newspapers in this country by participating in subscription drives, and running in beauty contests to help raise subscriptions for the newspapers. For decades, the image of Maria Clara, the eurocentric ideal of the chaste, subservient, feminine, not to mention long-suffering Filipina, has been held up as a role-model for pinays. Filipinas who migrated  to the U.S. in the 1920s and 1930s found themselves held up to scrutiny against this image, as Helen Rillera has written in “The Filipina in Filipino Society” (Aug. 1934). They found their dreams of independence in this country harder to realize than they expected.

Helen Rillera, writer for the Philippines Mail, 1930s.

Helen Rillera. Photo from the Cacdac family collection.

In 1964, the Philippine News (based in San Francisco) and the Philippine-based Manila Chronicle co-sponsored a contest declared as a “SEARCH for the MODERN MARIA CLARA IN AMERICA.” In this way, the Maria Clara ideal continued to be upheld, even as immigration policies toward Filipinos relaxed (see 1965 Immigration Act), and a new wave of Filipinos in the professions began to enter the U.S. (For more on Maria Clara see also Denise Cruz, “Transpacific Femininities”).

In the application materials, “beauty” and “personality” comprised 60% of the basis of selection, while both “stage presence” and “talent” were worth 20% each. The grand prize was a free, two-week vacation to the Philippines, and the winner would be crowned the “MODERN MARIA CLARA IN AMERICA” in a spectacle on live television in Manila, and receive “appropriate plaques and trophies.” I found the application forms in some of my mother’s old papers (I suspect she hoped to enter me into the contest).

Philippine-mestiza women dressed in “traditional” Maria Clara gowns, late 19th c. Photo from Wikipedia.

The contest was announced during an era when tourism to the Philippines, aimed partly at Filipino U.S. immigrants, was increasingly touted in full-page ads in U.S. Filipino newspapers. While I have no materials on hand stating explicitly  how the candidates for the Modern Maria Clara in America would benefit the Philippine News/Manila Chronicle, my guess is that the contest would help to increase Philippine tourism, and to forge, through the Maria Clara narrative, a growing transnational readership for both newspapers.

As a former teenage (barely — I was 13) Filipina queen contest winner (for the Dimas-Alang lodge) in the 1960s, I ran headlong into prescriptives for modern Filipina womanhood that came straight out of the Maria Clara playbook. I had little awareness of their origins, or even how they were affecting my life. I only knew they were sometimes constricting, infuriating, and polarizing (creating a sniping competitiveness among the other young contestants, their parents, and organizations); nevertheless, the contest, culminating in a coronation at the Hollywood Roosevelt hotel, also injected a bit of hard-won* “glamour” and excitement into my otherwise mundane life as a teen.

Over the decades, some Filipinas went against the grain of the Maria Clara role, and were not well-recognized or appreciated until recently. Nowadays, I’m grateful to see that many pinays — scientists, activists, artists, writers, musicians (for example, Ruby Ibarra) — are working hard, often successfully, to change the narrative; but it’s a complex issue, and there’s more work to be done.


*I’m serious about “hard-won.” Winning the contest required participating in countless “social-box” dances at lodge-sponsored Filipino community events, as well as countless trips to Filipino labor-camps up and down the central California coast, selling tickets to Filipino dances and other events, and taking the time (while chaperoned by my mom and aunties) to schmooze with and charm my mostly male lodge-member constituents. Schmoozing, by the way, did not involve cocktails and jazz; it meant sitting down to meals of fried fish (sometimes fresh-caught from the surf near Davenport) or adobo, lumpia, and rice, cooked by laborers at the camp for their guests.