Carnival Queens: Inside the Grand, Intriguing World of the Manila Carnival and Its Storied Beauties

For many daughters of de buena familias, the Carnival Queen title was a passport to further one's fame, fortune, and social prominence.

“Oh, meet me at the Carnival…”
Oh meet me at Manila
Beside the dreamy bay
Meet me at the Carnival
Manila, U.S.A.
For there you’ll find the coconut
The mango and bamboo
And there upon the Malecon
I’ll wait and watch for you
—from an old Manila postcard

Perhaps, no other event has piqued the interest and stirred a nation’s imagination more than the spectacular Manila Carnivals, held annually from 1908-1939, in the first decade of American rule. The two-week fair was organized as a goodwill event to celebrate harmonious U.S.-Philippine relations and to showcase the commercial, industrial, agricultural, and economic strides the country has made under a new colonial government. Spectacular parades, lavish international shows, fancy costume balls, firework displays and the crowning of the Manila Carnival Queen highlighted the "greatest annual event in the Orient." Years and even decades after the glorious carnival days were over, old folks would still recall and talk about that fabled era, which, though long gone, will never be forgotten.


MERRIMENT IN MANILA. The Manila Carnivals (1908-1939) held at the Wallace Field in Luneta, was a two-week national fiesta that was known as the greatest annual event in the Orient.

Fair beginnings

The concept of the Manila Carnivals was, in fact, inspired by the phenomenal World’s Fair or Exposition that began with the industrial exhibits in Paris, France as early as 1844. But the first real “Expo” was held seven years later at the Crystal Palace in London, under the title “Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations.” An idea of Prince Albert, the “Great Exhibition” was the first truly international showcase of progress, which he believed would impact the world’s societies.


Spanish Philippines was quick to participate in such events, and in 1887, the Philippines joined the Exposicion de Madrid in Spain, in an attempt to showcase the archipelago’s indigenous achievements. But the quality of exhibits—mostly fine artswas met with mixed reviews.

It was only in 1893 that America held its own World's Columbian Exposition (also called The Chicago World's Fair) to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Columbus’ discovery of the New World. Forty-six foreign countries participated, and over 26 million came to visit. Its scale and grandeur far exceeded the other world fairs, becoming a symbol of then-emerging American Exceptionalism.

A little over a decade later, the St. Louis’ World’s Fair held in Missouri to mark the Louisiana Purchase, dazzled the world with its grand attractions, led by America’s new colony in the Far East.

IGOROTTE EXHIBIT AT THE 1904 ST. LOUIS WORLD’S FAIR. The sprawling Philippine Pavilion was the biggest hit of the Missouri exposition, with its ethnic exhibitions of dog-eating Igorots, tree-climbing Negritos, Bagobo tribes and Visayan natives.


The Philippine Exposition drew large crowds every day with its exotic shows of tribal groups in recreated native settings. Here, bare-breasted Igorots, Aetas, Bagobos, Tagalogs, and Bisayans wowed hundreds of thousands with their daily performance of music, sports and regional rituals—including dog-eating—so strange to foreign eyes. Though heavily criticized for the manner in which Filipinos and other ethnic groups were presented, the exposition was a resounding success, attracting 62 countries and 20 million visitors.

Our love affair with fairs, carnivals, and expositions had begun.

A man, a plan, a carnival…

As early as September 1907, Capt. George T. Langhorne, aide de camp of the U.S. Navy, enlisted the support of businessmen, politicians, newspapermen, foreigners and prominent Filipinos in organizing an event to celebrate U.S.-Philippine friendship. After all, the Spanish-American War and the “Philippine Insurrection” were already a few years behind us, and the Philippine Assembly had recently been inaugurated. Feelings of hostilities had abated and Americans felt it was the perfect time for healing old hurts and wounds.


The idea was enthusiastically supported by Governor General James F. Smith and Major General Leonard Wood. Capt. Langhorne then asked the Philippine Assembly for P50,000 in funding to build a hall and “exhibit half-naked Igorots and set up amusements.” An immediate uproar erupted, with local newspapers protesting the very concept that reminded them of the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair, where tribes were displayed and shamed.

WILLIAM CAMERON FORBES. Commissioner of Commerce and Vice Governor of the Philippines (1908-1909) re-conceptualized the Manila Carnivals—from being just an ethnic exhibition to a showcase of Philippine progress under American tutelage. He later succeeded Smith as Governor-General of the islands.

Gov. Gen. James Smith, shocked at the tone of the planned carnival, asked Secretary of Commerce William Cameron Forbes to take over. Instead of a “human zoo,” Forbes designed an international exposition to make the world take note of the gains made by the country which he hoped would further drum up more economic opportunities. The government subsidy was reduced and money was raised through various means, like private companies’ sponsorships and the search for the queen of the carnival through public balloting.

The Carnival Association lost no time in enlisting the support of leading American, Spanish, and Tagalog newspapers of the day to promote the fair, scheduled for February 1908. There were sub-committees formed to take charge of the program, costumes, decorations, reception, illumination, tickets, food, publicity, music, and peace and order.

LA GERMINAL CIGAR & CIGARETTE FACTORY PAVILION. One of the major sponsors of the first Carnival, with offices at Calle Marques de Comillas next to the Ayala Bridge.


Invitations were sent out to major business enterprises like Fabrica de Cerveza de San Miguel, Botica Watson, Germinal Fabrica de Tabacos, Manila Electric Railroad, Edward Keller and Co., Alhambra, Sprungli and Co. (maker of Bear Brand Milk), and Clarke Soda Parlor, which were readily accepted. Local government bureaus and provincial governments also pledged their participation through booths and floats. International dignitaries from Ceylon, Singapore, Siam, Saigon, Hong Kong, Canton, Bombay, and Japan were also included on the guest list.

MANILA CARNIVAL GATE. Visitors to the annual carnival make their grand entrance through a carnival gate, an architectural wonder that took many forms through the years—from elaborate welcome arches, palaces, to neoclassical buildings. ca. 1922.


On 27 February 1908, the four gates of the first ever Manila Carnival were flung wide open. The site was the Wallace Field in Luneta and Bagumbayan, with its perimeters walled up with Pampanga sawali, isang umunat ang taas.”  The area was strung with lights, arches and blue and yellow banderitas. Entrance tickets were sold at the taquillas at 20 centavos each.

FANTASMAGORIA ON WHEELS. Fabulous floats bearing Carnival belles, as well as floats from the government and private enterprises, vied for attention while dazzling visitors and guests.


Once inside, the visitor was treated to even more dazzling theatrical shows, exciting rides, masquerade balls, band competitions, sports fests, and extravagant float parades—the likes of which had never been seen before. Provinces vied for attention and awards with their attractive booths that displayed their arts, crafts, agricultural, and industrial produce. The pavilions of Laguna and Bulacan were singled out for their attractive decorations. Iloilo showcased its fruit while Albay replicated its famous Mayon Volcano, made from abaca fiber. The booth of Cebu was decorated as the Pearl of the South, guarded by a figure of Magellan.

PHILIPPINE RED CROSS. One of the government agencies that regularly participated in the Manila Carnivals. 1918.


Government agencies did a bit of breast-beating by setting up booths of various bureaus like Public Works, Navigation, Forestry, and Commerce, that flaunted their achievements. The Bureau of Science, for instance, showed silkworms, different kinds of wood and minerals.

Foreign countries like Japan and China sent delegations to show off the richness of their culture with their commercial booths, while the United States strutted its mighty stuff with military drills and naval shows. Even the great battle between the naval squadrons of America and Spain in 1898 was recreated.

BEST IN CARNIVAL COSTUME WINNERS. Revelers walked the carnival grounds dressed like harlequins, pierrots, masqueraders, and fantastic characters.


A Hippodrome accommodated paraders that included cowboys, cavalrymen, Indians, clowns, and artists. Filipino aerialists, recently arrived from the United States, performed to the crowd’s delight. The highlight was a death-defying act where a lady descended from a height of 50 feet to the floor—held only by her hair. Music and street amusement continued no end, attracting hordes of people “as thick as ants.”  The gaiety and magic promised something extraordinary.

The quest for a queen

If there was one Carnival feature that would come to define and single out the fair’s lasting and singular highlight, it would have had to be the nationwide quest for Las Reinas del Carnaval—the Queens of the Carnival—who, just by their mere presence, inspired awe and excitement, mesmerized crowds, and captivated a whole country with their allure and achievements. Designed primarily to raise funds, it would signal the start of a beauty tradition that was to last for over three long decades.


REINAS DE LA CARNAVAL. The Oriental Queen and her retinue of proncesses and consorts, 1908 Manila Carnival.


While the carnival shows and exhibits elicited initial interest, it was the beautiful Carnival Queens who made more lasting impressions, and who proved to be the carnival’s main attractions and crowd drawers. After all, to qualify as a candidate, one had to have a good standing in la alta sociedad, with impeccable breeding, character, education, and personality—not to mention financial capability.


VOTE WISELY. Coupons such as these were printed on leading newspapers, to be filled with the name of the candidate, and dropped at designated outlets. This selection process was thought to have favored the more affluent contestants.


In the first years of the search for a Queen, the selection was done through public balloting. One had to subscribe to newspapers (like La Opinion, El Tiempo, La Vanguardia), where a coupon could be cut and filled with the name of his bet. These coupons were then put in drop boxes at designated outlets. The candidate who amassed the largest number of votes was proclaimed the Queen of the Carnival. This selection system—of buying votes—obviously favored the more affluent contestants.

CROWNED AND CAPED. The winning Carnival Queen, attended by her King Consort and princesses, was crowned in an elaborate evening affair, with pomp and pageantry befitting a new nobility. 1924


Daughters of de buena familias were recruited by provincial selection committees to join as candidates. For many, the Carnival Queen title was a passport to further one's fame, fortune, and social prominence. At her proclamation night, the Queen was crowned with “las diademasreales”— rhinestone diadems, specially designed by the country’s foremost maker of trophies and medals, Crispulo Zamora.

WALK LIKE AN EGYPTIAN. The coronation night of the 1925 Manila Carnival had an Egyptian theme with the Queen wearing a crown topped by a snake and her Consort garbed in a Pharaoh costume.

There was a coronation theme every year that added drama to the spectacle. In 1915 as well as in 1922, the royals were crowned in Roman costumes. In 1923, the coronation went Russian, with the queen dressed like a czarina. An Egyptian motif was adapted for the 1925 event, but the next year’s edition—which had a Hindu-Arabic theme—was the most jaw-dropping. The Queen was in the Coronation Hall seated on a howdah borne on the back of a real elephant!

HAIL TO THE QUEEN. Wherever the Carnival Queen went, her arrival was met with much ceremonial fanfare and exuberant cheers from the crowd. 1916.

For a full year, the Queen of the Manila Carnival met presidents and foreign dignitaries, was paraded, feted, wined, dined, and honored with songs. Her presence in these affairs always drew adoring crowds who shouted her name as she passed by. To rephrase a statement from a modern day Miss Universe, it was indeed, “both an honor, and a responsibility” to be chosen as a carnival queen, a role that came with high expectations that must not only be met, but exceeded.

Carnival royalties

PURA I, LA REINA DEL ORIENTE. The first Filipina Carnival Queen, Pura Villanueva of Iloilo, who reigned in 1908. She was the daughter of Emilio Villanueva and Emilia Garcia of Palencia, Spain.

Such was the experience of Pura Garcia Villanueva of Molo, Iloilo, who had the honor of being the first Queen of the 1908 Manila Carnival. “Queen of the Orient” to be exact, for she shared the throne with the Queen of the Occident, the American Marjorie Colton. Pura had not even been the original winner—Leonarda Limjap had topped the beauty polls, but declined the crown due to a scheduled family trip to Japan.

HOLDING COURT. The acclaimed beauty, Pura Villanueva, and her court of honor, in her official portrait as Queen of the Orient 1908.

With her impeccable credentials—Pura was already an established Spanish writer of repute for the newspaper El Tiempo, and the founder of the Asociacion Feminista Ilongga, a feminist group—she was fetched from Iloilo on a special boat, and whisked off to the grandstand.  

El Renacimiento reported her sensational arrival: “The Queen of the Orient, standing up in her car, and waving her handkerchief in answer to the enthusiastic cries of the crowd delirious with joy, was easily the most simpatico figure of the royal cavalcade. Dignified without descending from her rank... she had in her the beautiful amalgam mixture of the aristocratic and of the affectionate towards her people.”  Pura would marry lawyer and journalist Teodoro Kalaw, after her reign. She is known today as an author, businesswoman, and a women’s right champion.

1908-1912 QUEENS

Pura was succeeded by an Ilocana the following year—the musically gifted Julia Guerrero Agcaoili. Mementos of her reign are kept in the Piddig Museum. The next Manila Carnivals for the year 1910 and 1911, curiously, did not have a Queen, but by 1912, the search for “La Matrona de Filipinas” was revived. The winner was provided with an expanded court that included regional queens for Luzon, Visayas, and Mindanao—each with a retinue of princesses and escorts. The crown that year went to writer Paz Jurado Marquez, one of the pioneering Filipinas to be educated under the American system at the Normal School, who were dubbed as the “dormitory girls.” 

1913-1916 QUEENS

Julia Otero Arceo captured the 1913 Manila Carnival crown, the first Batangueña to do so. She relinquished her crown in 1914 to Dolores Perez-Rubio of Manila, who traveled to Australia as part of her reign. In one festival, Dolores was awarded a Golden Apple for being the most beautiful girl of the event. The Perez-Rubios were one of the worst affected families in Manila during the Liberation, which is the reason why very few pictures of Dolores exist.

The youngest Carnival Queen winner reigned in 1915—Concepcion Zurbito  Medina—the 15-year-old unica hija of a cattle rancher and mayor of Masbate. In 1916, another Manila colegiala, Manolita Delgado Barretto, garnered the most number of votes to become that year’s Carnival royal.

1917-1920 QUEENS


The only American to reign alone at the Carnival was Mela Kamakee Fairchild in 1917. She was the daughter of George Fairchild, publisher of Manila Times, a former sugar planter of Hawaii-Philippines and Cummins Elisabeth Kamakee of Hawaii. There were two Carnival editions when American girls co-reigned as Occidental Queens—in 1908 (Marjorie Colton) and 1920 (Virginia Harrison).

The Anglo-Spanish beauty from Cebu, Enriqueta Lasso de Vega Aldanese, triumphed in 1918. She had previously been the first Queen of the 1914 Cebu Carnival, and the 1915 Dia de Espanol Queen of Zamboanga.

No national Carnival was held in 1919, something that would be repeated in 1928, due to an inadequacy of funds. But there was much to celebrate in 1920 with the “victory of democracy” in the First World War. To mark that occasion, the Victory Carnival of 1920 was launched, with Bulaqueña Trinidad Roura de Leon reigning as Queen of the Orient. She would become the First Lady when her husband, Manuel A. Roxas of Capiz, became the first president of the Philippine Republic.


1921-1924 QUEENS

The 1921 event, on the other hand, was retitled the Magallanes Carnaval in observance of the 400th year anniversary of Magellan’s discovery of the Philippines. It was no wonder that Spanish mestiza Carmen Legarda Prieto of Manila won that year’s crown.


Laguna rejoiced when one of her daughters, Virginia Vidal Llamas of Pagsanjan was declared Carnival Queen for 1922. Her consort, Carlos P. Romulo, the young editor of “The Herald” and future diplomat and ambassador would become her spouse.

Batangas scored its second Carnival queen title with the victory of Catalina Castillo Apacible of Balayan in 1923. She was the only child of physician, patriot, and statesman Dr. Galicano Apacible.

Meanwhile, 1924 saw the crowning of a queen identified with the working class—Trinidad Fernandez of Cuyo, Palawan—whose win over well-heeled beauties surprised many. The highly-educated provinciana was already working at the Department of Public Welfare, organizing puericulture and health centers, women’s associations, and nursery classes, when the contest beckoned.

1925-1926 QUEENS


Carmen Arevalo Papa prevailed in 1925, another Manileña, and the only daughter of Lutgarda Arevalo, who died in childbirth, and Dr. Ramon Papa, a member of Quezon’s Philippine Independence Mission to Washington in 1919.

In 1926, a parallel pageant—the first National Beauty Contest—was held alongside the Manila Carnival Queen quest (won by Pampanga’s Socorro Borcenas Henson). It was an edition of many firsts—it was the first time that the delegates were titled after their province of origin—like Miss Cebu, Miss La Union, Miss Sulu, and so forth.

PROVINCIAL MUSES, In 1926, beauty delegates for the Carnival Queen crown were identified by their provincial titles for the first time.


It was also the year that the winner of that contest was called ‘Miss Philippines’ (won by Anita Agoncillo Noble, a Batangas beauty of ilustrado stock) with Misses Luzon, Visayas, and Mindanao forming her court. Henceforth, all future winners would be known as “Miss Philippines.” 

A significant change in 1926 was the organization of Special Jury that determined the winners—as opposed to public balloting—to equalize the playing field. This selection process was followed until the last Carnival.

A Carnival advertisement went so far as to proclaim that “the humblest girl from the most secluded barrio has a big chance to win the honor as the daughter of the richest haciendero”—so long as she possessed “beauty of face, perfection of form, and accomplishments.”  Despite this, the winners continued to come from landed families.

1927-1931 QUEENS

But regardless of background, every queen-elect took her role and the significance of her title very seriously. The 1927 winner from Tayabas, Luisa Fernandez Marasigan, in a message to her guests at a tribute given by her school Centro Escolar de Señoritas, downplayed the “beauty” aspect of the contest by declaring: “As representatives of the pride and flower of our land, we have duties to perform. We are not mere decorations or works of art to be exhibited in a museum. We are daughters of the Philippines endowed with physical qualities that should be utilized for the refinement and elevation of our moral and spiritual legacies...”

Indeed, in 1929, as if to emphasize the whole notion of “beauty with substance”, colleges and universities were invited to field their contestants. That year, a top UP law student was declared Miss Philippines (Pacita Ongsiako delos Reyes), complete with a retinue of four princesses. The new '30s decade began with the election of 17-year-old Iloilo teen queen in 1930—Monina Consuelo Acuña.


1932-1935 QUEENS

Manila had a three-year-winning streak beginning with Maria Villanueva Kalaw (1931) and daughter of the first Manila Carnival Queen, Pura Villanueva; Emma Gonzales Zamora of Quiapo (1932), and the statuesque Engracia Arcinas Laconico of Trozo, Sta. Cruz.


Marilao belle Clarita Villarica Tan Kiang’s win in 1934, would break the successful run of Manila girls, but by 1935, the crown would revert back to the capital city courtesy of the popular socialite, Conchita Chuidian Sunico of Binondo.

1936-1939 QUEENS

Mercedes Montilla of Kabankalan, Negros Occidental (1936), and Maria del Carmen Bayot Zaldarriaga of Masbate (1937) won for the south, two successive Carnival titles.

By then, the Manila Carnival National Beauty Contest was dropped in favor of the first Philippine Exposition Beauty Fair. Carmen’s win also coincided with the holding of the 33rd International Eucharistic Congress in Manila.

Ermita resident Guia Gonzales Balmori, who had Kapampangan roots, reigned in 1938, while Iluminada Mojica Tuason of Bataan, was the last Miss Philippines to emerge from the flickering years of the Manila Carnival.

Tempest over a title.

Just like modern day pageants, the quest for the Manila Carnival Queen was not without controversies and backstage drama. From the losing candidates’ camps, there were charges of cheating, vote-buying, ballot tampering, favoritism, disqualifications and cases of alleged discrimination.

MIRROR, MIRROR ON THE WALL... WHO’S THE FAIREST OF THE TWO? Dual queens Pura Villanueva and Marjorie Colton were often compared—from their physical beauty to the kind of reception they received at the Carnival.

The first Manila Carnival of 1908 was plagued with such issues. As dual queens of the first Manila Carnival, Pura Villanueva and Marjorie Colton held equal rank and shared equal billing, but media, egged by the crowds, played up the competition angle between the two, further fuelling more controversy, both real and imagined.

First, there was the question of facial beauty. The newspaper El Renacimiento was very vocal about who was the better-looking queen. The paper observed: “The King and Queen of the Occident were very simple in their attire. Perhaps because they had come from a trip. But they were very ordinary looking, including the members of their court. Not so, however, those of the Orient… Altanera sin pedanteria, augusta sin pretensions, producto su distincion de la sangre y de la cuna (Highborn but without ostentation, majestic without the pretensions, a product of refinement, in blood and in influence).

FAVORED AT THE FAIR? The Queen of the Occident, Marjorie Colton, and her court were allegedly treated better, as they were provided with cars and special amenities—including bouquets for her and her ladies-in-waiting, at Carnival functions.

Then there was the issue of the Americans getting preferential treatment. For example, when both sets of royalty arrived at the landing, the cars reserved for the Oriental court where nowhere to be found. Thus, Pura and her King Consort left for the grandstand unattended. Worst still, unlike the Occidental queen who was presented with flowers, there was no bouquet for the local queen!

The final insult was when the King and Queen of the Orient were refused entry to the Carnival fairgrounds. Although they introduced themselves at the Carnival gate as royalty of the fair, Pura and Manuel Gomez were not immediately let in by the insolent 'portero' who answered that 'not even Christ can enter without paying the entrance fee' of 20 centavos.

Pura was not to be cowed. She excused herself from one significant evening ball, alleging an indisposition, and the members of her court followed suit. As demanded by native decorum, the whole court of honor resigned their positions.


IT’S A TIE! In the 1926 Carnival, Miss Batangas Anita Noble and Miss Zamboanga Carmen Fargas tied not once, but twice. Another judge had to be brought in by Pres. Quezon to break the deadlock. But so close was the contest that—although Anita won—a special title was given to Carmen as “Miss Pearl of the Orient Seas.” 

In 1926, another problem arose, although a happy one. In the first balloting, Zamboanga’s Carmen Fargas and Batangas’ Anita Noble figured in a deadlocked tie for the first ever Miss Philippines title. A second balloting did not resolve the issue, and it was only past midnight when Pres. Manuel L. Quezon stepped in and offered suggestions to the tired jury for a quicker resolution to the problem. Another judge was added to further scrutinize the two contestants.

It was thus in this manner that the tie was broken—with Anita Noble pipping Carmen for the Miss Philippines crown. But so keen had the competition been till the last minute that another title—"Miss Pearl of the Orient" (Perlas ng Silangan) was awarded to the equally deserving Carmen. On proclamation night, Carmen shared stage with Miss Philippines Anita and Carnival Queen Socorro Henson, the only time that the Carnival had three beautiful muses reigning together.


ROCK THE VOTE. Just when everyone thought that Alicia de Santos (R) had the Miss Philippines 1931 title in the bag, an avalanche of coupons arrived for Maria Kalaw (L) just six minutes before the voting closed, wiping out Alicia’s lead, and her hopes for the crown.

The 1931 edition was also a contentious one as the leading candidates—Maria Kalaw and Alicia de Santos—had been engaged in a see-saw battle for ballots. When the deadline of February 4, 1931, arrived de Santos was still leading by a slim margin. But, six minutes before the boxes were closed, an avalanche of votes came in, courtesy of the Masonic fraternity brothers of Maria’s father, whom he had enlisted to collect coupons for months.

In dramatic fashion, Maria overtook the erstwhile leader, Alicia, with a lead of over a million votes! Alicia’s camp cried foul. Rumors spread that the carnival management itself threw in the million votes that made Maria win. But Maria Kalaw had won fair and square. Alicia, declared Miss Luzon, declined the runner-up crown.

THE RELUCTANT WINNER. Carmeling del Rosario won Miss Mindanao 1935 but there was no cause for rejoicing. Her studies were her priorities, but since she was so sure she would lose, she joined anyway—and came in fourth. Newspapers (see above) had already proclaimed her victory, when she gave up her title.

Two instances of royal resignations happened in 1935 and 1939, both involving Miss Mindanao. Carmeling del Rosario was a reluctant candidate as she entered the pageant just to satisfy her father’s request, whose friend, an editor of La Vanguardia, kept prodding him to have his newspaper sponsor her. Carmeling’s priorities were her studies at Centro Escolar at that time.

Thinking that Carmeling had virtually no chances of winning, her father convinced her to join. To her surprise, she came in fourth—and was named Miss Mindanao. The papers had already published the results with her pictures when her family asked the Carnival Committee to take her off the winners’ list. This decision ruffled a few of the carnival officials’ feathers, who believed her to be a “nuisance candidate.” Celia Araullo took her place. Less than a year after, Carmeling married her beau, Virgilio Rodriguez.

IT’S NOW OR NIEVA. Nieva Paz Eraña, a former Miss Centro Escolar, was another Miss Mindanao 1934 winner who resigned her title for a personal reason. The year before, she had been engaged and she and beau Jaime Velasquez had a wedding planned for 1939.

The same happened to 1939 Miss Mindanao-elect Nieva Paz Eraña, a former Miss Centro Escolar de Señoritas. She resigned for personal reasons (she was already engaged to Maj. Jaime Velasquez in 1938), but not before her official photos as Miss Mindanao had come out. These were promptly recalled and Nieva was replaced by Adela Planas.

But the biggest uproar yet happened at the 1930 Manila Carnival—the so-called ‘bathing suit incident’, a backstage drama that threatened to cast a shadow on the results of the Miss Philippines search. The furor lingered even after the contest was over, fanned by newspapers who published different versions of the incident.

But the basic account was the same—the six Miss Philippines finalists were invited to a party at the house of Antonio Torres, a Manila councilor. In the said affair, the panel of judges required the finalists to wear swimsuits and those who did not conform to this requirement automatically lost by default. The Philippine Carnival Association had received an invitation from the organizers of “The International Contest of Beauty and Pulchritude” which had a mandatory swimsuit competition.


SHRINKING VIOLET. Violeta Lopez of Iloilo stood by her decision not to wear a bathing suit during the final judging, which allegedly cost her the Miss Philippines crown.

In the center of the storm was Iloilo belle Violeta Lopez, a strong contender for the title and a candidate of The Tribune, who eventually dashed all hopes of winning when she flatly refused to wear a swimsuit. For this act, she was both praised and twitted, and a flurry of claims and counterclaims were hurled from both sides—Violeta’s supporters and the officials of the Carnival association.


Mrs. Leonarda Limjap de Ubaldo, the original 1908 queen-elect, came to her defense. “In these days of the breakdown of this womanly virtue of modesty, your example will be both an inspiration to all and an incentive to ideals helpful to our nation.”

MODESTY ASIDE. The controversial bathing suit incident involving Violeta was played up by media, with most observers supporting her move and praising her Filipina values. She would later clarify that she did not refuse to wear a swimsuit—she did not have one, so she couldn’t wear one.

Carnival official Nick Osmeña thought that there was much ado about nothing. “Stories praising Miss Lopez to the skies for refusing to put on a bathing suit are all but applesauce,” he said in a Herald interview, “Beside, she was already out of the running even before the party!”  This prompted Violeta’s cousin, Luis J. Lopez to accost Nicasio at the Cine Ideal where reports said he “attacked Nick, cutting his lips.”

Violeta Lopez withdrew from the contest, and to show that she bore no hard feelings, she hosted a party for media people at the close of the Carnival season. Eventually, Violeta would be elected Iloilo Carnival Queen, which was said to rival the pageantry of the national Carnival. She would also put the swimsuit controversy behind her, returning to the Manila Carnival two years later, where this time, she would win the Miss Mindanao title in the court of the 1932 queen, Emma Zamora.


Lights out on the Carnival

Looking back at the Manila Carnival, it may be easy for today’s marketing and political strategists to call those events a major public relations campaign suited to the times and tastes of people. Behind the gaiety and the remarkable success of the annual fairs lay the real unspoken motive of the Carnival, articulated only years later by the first Queen herself, Pura Villanueva-Kalaw: “In those times of joy,” she said, “the ones who enjoyed the most and the ones who made the most out of the carnival were the foreigners themselves. After all, the carnivals were an American idea, organized, managed, and animated by Americans themselves.” 

THE GODS ARE DEAD. The Philippine Exposition of 1939 would be the last carnival to be celebrated by Filipinos and Americans. The coming World War II would cast its shadow on the islands, and not even Billiken, the Carnival mascot and bringer of good cheer, could prevent the impending scourge.

"The Carnival is now over...," a paper wrote, "It will not be as a dream that has gone, but like a grand idea, useful, beneficial, which will be talked about by coming generations because of the many things we have learned from it."

Indeed, Pura, reflecting on the show of shows she had once starred in—had a belated realization learned; that, in the end, the Carnival was nothing more than a superficial attempt to divert the Filipinos from the real issues that plagued American colonial governance, a balm intended to soothe our wounded national pride.

Be that as it may, the Carnivals were still the perfect platforms for the exaltation of the Filipina beauty, her character, and her abilities. The window of opportunities the Carnivals have opened, enabled many of them to foray into fields that allowed them to explore their potentials, the limits of their possibilities, and empowered them to be great contributors to society.


Past winners and contestants became acclaimed lawyers, brilliant writers and educators, international diplomats, social leaders, women’s rights champions, senators, wives of statesmen, and one even became a First Lady. They leave behind not just a legacy of beauty but also of excellence.

PACK UP! After 3 decades, the Manila Carnivals end.


By the mid-1930s, interest in the Carnivals started to wane, losing their novelty and relevance, as another war, more terrible than the first, loomed on the horizon. The curtains finally drew to a close with the last Carnival of 1939, and with it came the end of an era—when beauty had more substance and purpose, as exemplified by the achievements of these Filipinas, who, long ago were chosen fairest of the fair.

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The Italian label can now measure its carbon footprint in pasta and wine.
Everything from a Harry Potter screening accompanied by live music, to the must-see auctions, to a Thai artist's debut exhibition.
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