For The Madera Tribune
Maria Manzo of Madera recently competed in an international beauty pageant in Ecuador as a representative of the United States.
When she began competing in beauty pageants almost five years ago, the ultimate goal of Maria Manzo of Madera was to represent the United States in an international pageant.
Manzo’s dream came true last month, competing in the Miss Continents Pageant representing the United States in Ecuador.
“From the first day I thought about competing in pageants, my goal was to be Miss USA,” she said. “It brought me so much pride. At the National level, when I was crowned Miss United Continents USA, I felt like I won everything I wanted to win. I finally got to say, ‘I’m Miss USA.’ This was the cherry on top. This was a win. It doesn’t matter about winning or losing the pageant. This was my goal and I did it. I got to go to another country with a bunch of other contestants. I got to go on multiple stages and say, ‘Maria Manzo, USA’ or ‘Maria Manzo from the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave, Miss USA.’ I think that’s something you can’t explain the feeling of. It’s so empowering. I don’t think you can ever explain it. You have USA across your chest. It’s not only about representing you and what you’ve done to prepare. It’s about representing your country.”
Although it was her first time representing the United States at an international pageant, she previously represented Cuba in the Miss Grand International Pageant in 2015.
Manzo recently spent three weeks in Ecuador and came back with an affinity for Ecuadorian food and culture. She competed on Sept. 28 in Guayaquil and came home the following week.
“The pastries, which are my favorite thing, are the absolute best thing in the world,” she said. “They pride themselves on chocolate and coffee. I got to visit a chocolate factory and had a one-on-one experience with a chocolatier. She creates chocolate liquors and chocolate ice cream from scratch. She’s a big commodity there and for me to get invited was a huge honor. She cooked for us, made homemade chocolate for us, which unfortunately, I couldn’t being much back.”
Although Manzo didn’t get the finish she wanted, she was able to soak in as much of the experience as she could and came away with a great sense of pride for the United States.
“You don’t appreciate your country until you go to a third-world country who doesn’t have what we have with the freedom,” she said. “We are who we say — the land of the free. I felt that a lot. I am so thankful to come back to this soil and ground. It meant the world to me.”
Miss Columbia won the pageant while Miss Ecuador was the runner-up.
One of the advantages Manzo had in Ecuador was she spoke Spanish and it allowed her to get to know many of the people surrounding the Miss Continents Pageant.
“I was very thankful that I went for the experience and became friends with all of the contestants,” she said. “I can honestly tell you that I am friends with all of the staff. My roommates most of the time were Miss Japan, Miss New Zealand and Miss Mexico. I was close to Miss Denmark and Miss Ecuador. The thing that allowed me to get close to them was I spoke English and Spanish. A lot of the girls who competed were from Latin countries that spoke Spanish. I did a lot of translating for contestants and staff. We already have plans. I am planning on visiting Miss Japan during the Olympics. She invited me. I will visit Miss Mexico soon and some of the other girls will meet too.”
With her experience in pageants, Manzo was the go-to contestant for advice. She also became aware early on that she wasn’t the type of girl the pageant organizers were looking for in a beauty queen.
“I feel like they were looking for something who wasn’t who I was,” she said. “I kind of got a feel for that at the beginning. Like I said, different day, different judge. It was a little hard for this pageant. Unfortunately, I think they were looking for someone young and lively. They, unfortunately, didn’t get to know me as an individual. They wanted to know about Donald Trump and the immigration policy. Other girls got questions about who they are. It was a little hard. I stood my ground and did what I could and kept the positivity of our country. It wasn’t what they were looking for and that’s okay.”
One of the best events for Manzo was the international costume event in which Manzo wore a bald eagle costume, which received some awards and placed in the top 10 for best national costume.
“I wanted an image that represents who we are,” she said. “I wanted the bald eagle because it represents freedom and strength, on top of the majestic beauty of the bald eagle. It represents how far we’ve come as a country. My costume was definitely a show stopper.”
Throughout the competition, the beauty queens were treated to many trips within Ecuador and visited sponsors and other cities where they were treated like royalty.
“The competition starts when you arrive,” Manzo said. “We’re visiting sponsors. A lot of it is awesome and it’s a great experience. We visited a lot of restaurants so the food was amazing. We got pampered and spoiled a lot there. I miss the food. I thought I ate a lot, but these girls were competition.
“There was a lot of visiting sponsors and venues. Every city we went to, they welcomed us with activities with dances or cultural dance. They still have tribes there. Tribes that have never made contact with other people, as well. They would welcome us with their traditional music and dances. We visited a lot of spas, as well. It is a competition so they want to make sure you are social and can speak to sponsors.”
Despite the outcome of the competition, Manzo wanted to make sure she soaked in every bit of experience she could.
“I thought this was going to be my last international pageant and I told myself this wasn’t my first one. I wanted to go in there and enjoy every single day and person you meet to cherish everything. These aren’t opportunities that just come out of nowhere. You have to train and work really hard for them.”
While talking to other delegates, Manzo was constantly asked questions because she is very independent of her career and others were envious of that.
“I knew, up front, the United States women are very strong,” she said. “I am very happy and it brings me so much joy how far we’ve come as women. In other countries, it’s not that way. A lot of the women were asking me questions because they thought it was amusing how we live in the United States. The girls were amused with how independent with how I am. I have my career, I do acting, I do modeling and I’m on TV. I’m independent. To them, they are used to their culture. They depend on other people to care for them. In the united States, we pride ourselves in independence and freedom. It’s amazing.”
After the pageant, Manzo spent a few more days in Ecuador visiting other cities, including a rain forest.
“I visited a little more of Guayaquil, but I wanted to see a rain forest,” she said. “I also wanted to see the diversity. I plan to go back, not just for the coffee and chocolate. I want to go back and eat everything again.”
When Manzo arrived back in the United States, one of the first things she was able to do was sleep.
“I slept for three to four hours a night in Ecuador and four hours was a good night,” she said. “ It’s beauty 100 percent of the time. When you come back home and you don’t live like that. I get to sleep and breathe. I spent a lot of time with my family. You appreciate when you are away from them for a while. They were probably worried about me most of the time.”
Manzo was also able to indulge on her favorite post-pageant snacks — donuts, Hot Cheetos and pizza — in addition to attending the Fresno Fair.
“Those are my go-tos,” she said. “I can’t say I didn’t gorge on them. I was more excited about going to the fair. They have the cinnamon rolls and the experience of being at home. That’s when you know you’re home is when you can go to the fair and eat whatever you want.”