In this Mexican town, some girls dream of a vanilla crown.
Papantla adorns its Corpus Christi festival queensor queens, with the thick brown stems of the vanilla orchid woven, twisted and jeweled into aromatic crowns – a nod to the spice’s place in the city’s history.
Centuries ago, the Totonacs used the orchid here Vanilla planifolia as a perfume; then the Aztec conquerors began mixing it into a chocolate drink during the time of Emperor Moctezuma. After the Spanish invasion, Mexican vanilla spread abroad and Papantla gained international fame.
Mexico may no longer lead the global vanilla trade – that’s Madagascar – but in Papantla, the spice still rules.
Many elders of the city queens still enjoy their braided vanilla crowns decades later. The crown is a sweet memory imbued 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 only a vanilla crown here.”
Marichu Mondragon, 59 years old
1. Vanilla crown by Marichu Mondragon from 1981. 2. “The smell of vanilla when they put the crown on you, I don’t know, it’s something that stays with you,” says Mondragon, 59 years old.
Marichu Mondragon occasionally removes the jewels from her crown, bathes her in vanilla extract, and leaves her in the sun for several days. The crown’s vanilla braids absorb the extract, she explains, keeping it looking like new.
Mondragon wears the crown each year in a celebration hosted by Pemex, Mexico’s state-owned oil company and her husband’s employer. She also brings it out at any Papantla event she is invited to as a former queen.
“The smell of 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 state’s first lady from Veracruz.
Délia Nuñez, 94 years old
1. Delia Nuñez, 94, poses for a portrait with her vanilla crown and scepter. 2. Nuñez shows a photograph from 1949.
Delia Nuñez was 19 and a schoolteacher when she competed for the vanilla crown. Her supporters at the Papantla Carnival organized a bullfight to help her win votes and raise 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 storage — a cookie jar in her closet — and hold it up for them to smell.
Delia Nuñez, energetic and optimistic while battling memory problems, still has the crown, now dried and damaged. At her daughter’s house in Papantla, she put it on and smiled as she posed for a photo. She then sat down and looked through a photo album from her days as a teacher, before earning the money for the kindergarten that the crown helped build.
Tania Zayas, 27 years old
Tania Zayas didn’t want to be queen.
But her high school was so insistent that she be a candidate for the Corpus Christi festival that the 17-year-old gave in.
“I was embarrassed,” said Zayas, who now teaches physical education at a primary school in Papantla.
She no longer hesitates when people seek her out as a former queen. Its crown is woven in the shape of a pyramid representing the nearby archaeological site of El Tajín. It also contains two orchids and three hearts, symbol of the region.
“Once I did it and came out the other side, I said this is really an experience that all women should have,” she said. “It’s nicer because you stay in Papantla’s story.”
Alma Rosa González Herrera, 85 years old
Alma Rosa González Herrera was 18 years old, working as an accountant and living with her parents in 1958 when one afternoon several breeders came to their house to ask her if she would run as a candidate for queen of the Corpus Christi festival.
González, who had already been “student queen” at her high school the previous year, was happy but not overwhelmed.
“These things hardly affect me,” she said. “I was contributing to my city.”
But González, who married a rancher and now writes poems for a local newspaper, saved the crown for more than half a century. A photograph taken at her home in Papantla shows the then-teenager smiling, her hair covered in confetti that the crowd threw into the air as she arrived at the theater for her coronation.
Josefa Vargas Riaño, 71 years old
1. Josefa Vargas Riaño, 71, poses with the crown and wand she won at 19. 2. Vargas Riaño holds a framed photo of her as queen in 1972.
The race for Josefa Vargas Riaño to become queen of Corpus Christi was simple. Vargas, then 19, and two other candidates from what she called “the biggest party in town” drew envelopes from a crystal bowl. Vargas was stunned when she saw that hers said “queen.”
Photographs of her coronation hang on the wall of Freijoó Casa Vintage, the hotel she owns in Papantla, which will soon host an exhibition on the history of queens.
“It was a really nice time in my youth,” said Vargas, who also works for Pemex.
On the 50th anniversary of Vargas’ coronation, about two dozen former queens gathered to celebrate.
“A big congratulations for all the honor you have given us over the last 50 years,” declared the mayor. “A Queen or Princess of Corpus Christi only officially serves for one year. Even after renouncing the crown, in reality, she never, ever ceases to be a member of the royal court.
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