A former beauty queen is trying to help inmates of a maximum security prison in southwest Colombia to make something of their lives by giving them embroidery classes.
The typical beauty queen ascends to her throne much like any politician, promising to make the world a better place. Carmen Eugenia Vallejo Montoya, the former Miss Cartago, is one former reina who has kept that promise to her people, the region that elected her in the Valle del Cauca department in 1986.
The city of Cartago is well known for its talent in the art of embroidery and Miss Vallejo has capitalized on that characteristic, sharing her talent with her people.
This reina is reaching out to populations that have often been ignored by popular society. Miss Vallejo’s students are prisoners, displaced people, single mothers, and indigenous communities.
In 2002, Miss Vallejo set out to conquer a tough audience: the gentlemen of the jails in a high-security prison in Palmira. At the first class, 16 fighters who had been incarcerated for crimes showed up with their needles. The beauty queen recalls that by the second class, there were only 6 people who wished to continue.
In a maximum security prison housing ex-guerrilleros and ex-paramilitares in a typically machista society, one hardly expects convicts to partake in an embroidery class peacefully. The original members endured the predicatble insults for their interest in embroidery. Miss Cartago went to speak with the prison director. Eventually, her class grew to 23 students, more than half of the total population at the prison.
Beauty queens are of course judged on their appearance, but an important part of the balancing act includes diplomacy.
“I never ask them what they are doing here, I just ask them what we are going to accomplish today” said Vallejo, “These people recognize they have made a mistake and they are paying for their crimes. If they have to miss a class for a court date, they come back to me and show me they have made up for the work on the day that they missed”.
Miss Vallejo knows her country; she has worked 23 municipals of el Valle del Cauca, including the military prisoners accused in the massacre of Jamundi at the Battallon de Alta Montana. She has traveled to Yumbo, Viges, Candalaria, Florida, Palmira, Dagua, Buga, Caicedonia, Buenaventura, Cartago, Sevilla, and Jamundi.
The Chamber of Commerce and el SENA, different parishes, the Rotary Club and the mayor’s office have all supported the cause. This initiative began in 1992 and the proceeds from sales of embroidered purses, home made cards, and embroidered decorations directly benefit the families of the prisoners.
Many of the prisoners decide to partake in the project in order to lower their sentences or to be able to contribute to their families. Around 1800 people have participated in Miss Vallejo’s project and each participant graduates with a certification in embroidery. Miss Vallejo hopes to create jobs and give participants an opportunity to do something with their lives.