Taking the stage in Montville to celebrate Puerto Rican heritage

May 4—MONTVILLE — The Montville High School auditorium stage was a sea of sound and color Saturday afternoon as eight young local contestants danced, sang and smiled their way through the region's first Miss Puerto Rico cultural pageant.

Audience cheers and applause served as a backbeat to the event's opening number, "Que Bonita Bandera," as the colorfully clad girls introduced themselves and the Puerto Rican towns they represented on a day dedicated to honoring the island's history.

The pageant, hosted by members of the Borikén United of Eastern Connecticut group, was organized to help instill a sense of Puerto Rican pride in a younger generation, some who'd never set foot on the U.S. territory.

"Those children may not be Spanish speaking, but we can share with them our dances, our food and our music," said group spokeswoman Liz Quiñones, who was born in Puerto Rico. "And promoting that pride is important and serves as a reminder that we are American, but Americans with a complex history of being colonized by the U.S. In many ways, we're still struggling with our identity."

Montville resident Cristina Cruz, a Puerto Rico native, watched as her daughter, Zaliella, 8, took the stage during the "traje tipico," or traditional garb, portion wearing a dress honoring the northwestern beach town of Aguadilla.

Cruz said her daughter's grandparents play an oversized role in maintaining the family's connection to Puerto Rico. She said her father-in-law stops in at a local bakery every weekday morning to pick up fresh bread to serve to Zaliella before school.

"That's the most Hispanic thing you can do," Cruz said. "I wasn't all about this pageant at first — I'm not a fan of that kind of glitz and glamour — but I am for instilling confidence and self-worth."

The Borikén United group grew out of a well-attended Puerto Rican celebration hosted in 2022 by the downtown revitalization Global City Norwich organization.

"We wanted to keep that momentum going," said group President Willie Quiñones, a New Jersey native living in New London. "So, in January 2023, we incorporated with the state to form our own organization. That helped us establish our own identity and people took us more seriously."

Since its formal organization, Borikén United has worked closely with Ocean Beach Park Manager David Segrue to throw festival events — last year's drew in more than 7,000 attendees — at the popular park, with a third one slated for June 15.

To prepare for the pageant, Dalia Santana, a Norwich resident and group vice president, spent months working with contestants and setting up contest guidelines.

The contestants were broken down into two brackets: a "Little Miss" group of 7-10 year-olds, and one for teens ages 15-18. The winners from each group will appear at upcoming Puerto Rican parades and festivals across the state this year.

The talent portion of the program called for contestants to show off their dance, poetry and other skills, all with a Puerto Rican flavor. A formal dress category followed, and the event concluded with a contestant Q&A that included queries from a five-judge panel that focused on social and cultural issues.

"This wasn't about who was the prettiest," said Santana, who spent time herself on the pageant circuit. "We wanted these girls to think deeply about what they were asked. It's been amazing to watch them get more confident from when we started. Their voices started out small and got louder the longer we rehearsed."

The two teen contestants, Adianez Mirlas, 18, of Waterford, and Angienise Orozco-Alvarez, 15, of Norwich, said they were excited to celebrate and share their Puerto Rican heritage with a roomful of supporters.

"I see lots of Puerto Rican people my age that are scared to speak Spanish or take pride in where they come from," said Orozco-Alvarez, who was selected as Teen Miss Puerto Rico. "But I learned Spanish growing up, we eat traditional foods and celebrate Three Kings Day."

Mirlas, the day's Teen Princess winner, said while she's never been to Puerto Rico, it's on her bucket list.

"This (pageant) helped take me out of my comfort zone," she said.

Carli Gisel, 7, of Groton, the contest's LIttle Miss winner with Jadalee Gilgeous, 8, of Groton selected as runner-up.