The vanilla queens of Mexico

PAPANTLA, MEXICO -- AUGUST 25, 2023: Old photos of Alma Rosa Gonz‡lez Herrera, when she was crowned with during a corpus cristi event when she was 18, in Papantla, Mexico, Friday, Aug. 25, 2023. In Papantla, Othe city that perfumes the world,O reinas, or queens, of festivals are anointed with crowns woven from the vanilla orchidOs thick brown stems. The tradition honors the indigenous people who first cultivated the vanilla planifolia. The Totonacas first cultivated vanilla planifolia, an orchid species, and the spice became a favorite of Aztec nobility after they conquered the Totonacas in what century. After the Spanish arrived, MexicoOs vanilla spread farther N and Papantla gained international fame. Mexico may no longer be the leader of the global vanilla trade N Madagascar produces more and many farmers turned to oil field jobs N but in Papantla, the spice still reigns. (MARCUS YAM / LOS ANGELES TIMES)
Photos from 1958 show Alma Rosa González Herrera when she was adorned with a vanilla crown in Papantla, Mexico. The spice plays a large part in the city's history. (Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)

In this Mexican city, some girls dream about a crown made of vanilla.

Papantla adorns its Corpus Christi festival reinas, or queens, with the vanilla orchid's thick brown stems woven, twisted and bejeweled into aromatic crowns — a nod to the spice's place in the town's history.

Centuries ago, the Totonac people here used the orchid Vanilla planifolia as a perfume; then the conquering Aztecs started mixing it into a chocolate drink in the time of Emperor Moctezuma. After the Spanish invaded, Mexico’s vanilla spread overseas and Papantla gained international fame.

Read more: In the Mexican city that once perfumed the world, a push to revive vanilla

Mexico may no longer be the leader of the global vanilla trade — that's Madagascar — but in Papantla, the spice still reigns.

Many of the city's former reinas still prize their braided vanilla crowns decades later. The crown is a sweet memory infused with their youth, their city and their heritage.

“You can have a crown with many things — diamonds, emeralds, pearls," said Marichu Mondragon, who won hers in 1981, "but a crown of vanilla only here.”

Marichu Mondragon, 59

Queen: 1981

A crown of vanilla embellished with large jeweled ornaments.
Marichu Mondragon's vanilla crown from 1981. “The smell of the vanilla when they put the crown on you, I don’t know, it’s something that stays with you,” says Mondragon, 59.

Marichu Mondragon occasionally takes the jewels off her crown, bathes it in vanilla extract and leaves it in the sun for several days. The crown's vanilla braids absorb the extract, she explains, keeping it like new.

Mondragon wears the crown every year at a celebration held by Pemex, Mexico's state-owned oil company and her husband's employer. She also brings it out for any Papantla event she's invited to as a former queen.

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“The smell of the vanilla when they put the crown on you, I don’t know, it’s something that stays with you,” said Mondragon, who remembers being crowned by the first lady of Veracruz state.

Delia Nuñez, 94

Queen: 1949

Delia Nuñez Garcia's crown made of braided vanilla.
Delia Nuñez's 1949 vanilla crown, which she stored in a cookie tin and would take out from time to time to show her children. (Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)
A woman in a blue patterned dress holds a scepter and wears a crown, both woven from vanilla pods.
Delia Nuñez, 94, poses for a portrait with her vanilla crown and scepter. Nuñez shows a photograph from 1949.

Delia Nuñez was 19 and a schoolteacher when she competed for the vanilla crown. Her supporters for the Carnival of Papantla held a bullfight to help her win votes and to collect money for a new kindergarten where she would teach.

Years later, when she was raising her seven children, she would take her crown out of its storage place — a cookie tin in her closet — and hold it for them to smell.

Delia Nuñez, energetic and upbeat while struggling with memory issues, still has the crown, now dried and damaged. At her daughter's home in Papantla, she put it on and smiled as she posed for a picture. She then sat down and looked through a photo album from when she was a teacher, before she won the money for the kindergarten the crown helped build.

Tania Zayas, 27

Queen: 2014

A vanilla wand and a crown braided into the shape of a pyramid resting on hearts and orchids.
Tania Zayas' vanilla crown is braided to symbolize a pyramid at El Tajín, an important Mesoamerican city that is now an archaeological site. (Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)
Tania Zayas, 26, poses for a portrait with her vanilla crown and wand.
Zayas, 27, poses for a portrait with the vanilla crown and scepter that she won when she was 17. (Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)

Tania Zayas didn’t want to be queen.

But her high school pressed so hard for her to be its candidate in the Corpus Christi festival that the then-17-year-old gave in.

"I was embarrassed,” said Zayas, who now teaches physical education at a Papantla elementary school.

She now doesn't shy away when people seek her out as a former queen. Her crown is woven in the shape of a pyramid representing the nearby El Tajín archaeological site. It also contains two orchids and three hearts, a symbol of the region.

"Once I did it and was on the other side, I said it's really an experience that all women should have," she said. "It's more lovely because you stay in the history of Papantla."

Alma Rosa González Herrera, 85

Queen: 1958

Alma Rosa González Herrera, 84, holds her vanilla crown in her hands.
Alma Rosa González Herrera, 85, poses for a portrait with her vanilla crown from 1958, when she was 18. (Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)
Alma Rosa González Herrera, 84, poses for a portrait with her vanilla crown.
González, 85, was declared queen of a Corpus Christi festival in Papantla. (Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)

Alma Rosa González Herrera was 18, working as an accountant and living with her parents in 1958 when several ranchers came to their home one afternoon asking if she would run as their candidate for queen of the Corpus Christi festival.

González, who had already been a "student queen" at her high school the year before, was pleased but not overwhelmed.

"Those things almost don’t move me," she said. “I was contributing to my town."

But González, who married a rancher and today writes poems for a local newspaper, has saved the crown for more than half a century. A photograph at her home in Papantla shows the then-teenager smiling, her hair covered in the confetti a crowd tossed in the air when she arrived at a theater for her coronation.

Josefa Vargas Riaño, 71

Queen: 1972

A crown of woven vanilla pods embellished with hearts and jewels.
Josefa Vargas Riaño's vanilla crown embellished with hearts and jewels. (Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)
A gray-haired woman in a red dress wearing a crown and holding a wand, both made from woven vanilla pods.
Josefa Vargas Riaño, 71, poses with the crown and wand she won at 19. Vargas Riaño holds a framed photo of herself as queen in 1972.

The race for Josefa Vargas Riaño to become queen of the Corpus Christi festival was simple. Vargas, then 19, and two other candidates for what she called "the biggest party of the city" drew envelopes from a crystal bowl. Vargas was stunned when she saw that hers said "queen."

Photographs of her coronation hang on the wall at Freijoó Casa Vintage, the hotel she owns in Papantla, which will soon have an exhibit about the history of the queens.

“This was a really nice part of my youth,” said Vargas, who also works for Pemex.

Read more: Shrimp in Vanilla Sauce From Papantla

On the 50th anniversary of Vargas' coronation, about two dozen former queens gathered to help celebrate.

"Many congratulations for all the honor you have given us during these last 50 years," the mayor said. "A queen or princess of Corpus Christi officially serves for only one year. Even after she gives up the crown, in reality, never, never, does she stop being a member of the royal court."

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.