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A Catholic Miss America: Angela Perez Baraquio

By Jay Copp

Keeping God and family close to her heart, the reigning Miss America uses her fame as a platform to promote positive changes.

Q U I C K S C A N

Family Television Awards

Photo by Dennis Oda, Honolulu Star-Bulletin

Taking time out to be with family, Angela Baraquio cradles her nine-month-old niece, Echo, before a parade through Waikiki.

Angela Perez Baraquio of Hawaii almost skipped the local pageants that eventually led to the Miss America contest. She was an honor student, an athlete and a sensible teenager who thought the swimsuit competition was degrading. Of all people, her parish priest, Father Maurice McNeely of Honolulu, convinced her to give it a try.

“He said to me, ‘You can do this. You need to do this,’” recalled Baraquio, interviewed over the phone in May while she was at a Holiday Inn in Fayette, Missouri. “He said, ‘Catholics need to be in the forefront more so they can witness to Christ.’”

The day was an “off” day for Baraquio and she had already done four interviews with the media. Since becoming Miss America 2001 on October 14 in Atlantic City, she has traveled approximately 20,000 miles a month, met with President Bush twice, given countless talks and interviews and has kept a schedule as busy as any pope or president.

Yesterday she had flown in from Las Vegas where she gave a talk on character education in schools and her platform as Miss America. Baraquio’s first day in Missouri included a press conference, an Internet chat session with several high schools, a talk at a Methodist college as well as another talk and dinner at the governor’s home.

Tomorrow it was off to Panama City, Florida. Everywhere she goes people expect her to be “Miss America”: beautiful, gracious, accommodating, untiring.

Baraquio, 25, has discovered that beauty may help win the crown, but something much deeper and more sustaining helps Miss America survive the 12-month whirlwind.

“When I’m alone, tired, scared or nervous, I can always count on my faith,” she says. “God is always with me, and he is using me as an instrument.”


Still Connected to God

Her whirlwind tour of America was supposed to start bright and early the Sunday morning after she won the title. Baraquio was scheduled to head to the bright lights of the Big Apple. Regis and Letterman were waiting. Good Morning America, too, wanted the nation to meet America’s new sweetheart.

Miss America officials had arranged for a limousine to whisk Baraquio to New York. There was just one problem: Baraquio told pageant officials she would meet all her scheduled obligations on time, but she couldn’t go to New York Sunday morning. She wanted to go to Mass.

Baraquio remembered what Father McNeely of Holy Family Parish had told her before she left for the competition in Atlantic City: “No matter where you travel, we’re all connected to the Eucharist.” Baraquio wanted to begin her year of service on the right foot, to keep her connection with God in the forefront of her year as Miss America.


Humble Beginnings

The story of Miss America 2001 begins in the Philippines, sometimes called the most Catholic country on earth because nearly all its people belong to the Church. Claudio and Rigolette Baraquio were teachers who wanted a better life for their children, even though it meant starting over. They came to America, settling in Oahu, Hawaii, in the 1970s.

The Baraquios believed that their children would be better off, but for themselves, things would be more difficult. Claudio swallowed his pride and took a job waiting tables.

The Baraquios were willing to sacrifice on lifestyle and status but not on their faith. Even though finances were tight, they enrolled their children in a Catholic grade school. All 10 of them eventually received a Catholic education.

There are seven daughters and three sons, each named after saints or feast days. The eighth child was born June 1, the day before Angels Day. That was Angela, of course.

“Angie,” as she became known, was polite, caring, outgoing. A spirited child quick with a kind word or helping hand, she also was unremittingly curious. She once asked her second-grade teacher what her name meant. “A messenger,” the teacher replied.

Baraquio also recalls wondering who she was and her purpose in life. Why was she born into a family of 10 children? Why into this family? It was strange and exciting. Even as a youngster she sensed something different in store for her.

“The thing you need to understand about Angie is that she grew up in a home where they lived the faith. They didn’t just talk about it,” says Tony Boquer, the principal of Holy Family Catholic Academy in Honolulu, which Baraquio attended.

Active in their parish, Claudio and Rigolette helped organize the rosaries, devotions and ethnic Filipino religious celebrations. They even cleaned the church on Saturdays. Their children sang in choirs at three churches. Being involved in the church was part of the identity of being a Baraquio.


'My Faith Is a Gift'

It wasn’t until high school that Angie questioned that identity. Her inquisitive side stirred up rumblings deep inside her. An internal whisper grew into a shout.

It wasn’t enough to automatically believe what her parents believed. She went to the library and checked out books on the saints, the Eucharist, the story of Jesus. She came to a conscious decision.

“I chose to be Catholic,” says Baraquio. “I understand now that where there is doubt that’s where you find faith. If you have a blind faith, you have nothing to fall back on.

“My faith is a gift. When I meet someone who does not believe in God, I realize how lucky I am. My faith gave me a lot of strength and built my character.”

But there was more to Baraquio than just church. She played keyboard and sang in an all-girl rock group called “High Tide.” She also played basketball and volleyball and ran cross-country.

She was also attractive. Anyone could see that. Baraquio, however, did not think in those terms. Yes, it was important for her to look her best, but looks were only so important. “I never thought of myself as extraordinarily beautiful,” she says. “I thought I was a good person inside.”

In her eyes, beauty is something more abstract and less physical than mere outer appearance.

“My mother used to say that eyes are the window to the soul,” says Baraquio. “Beauty is the inner soul that shines forth.” That inner soul was about all that her mother wanted Angie to show, anyway. The Baraquio girls were forbidden to wear bikinis.


Wanting to Make a Difference

Like all her siblings, Baraquio planned to attend college. Her parents had seized the American dream by starting a pest-control business. “My parents had to,” Baraquio jokes. “They had 10 children.”

Yet even though her parents were doing well financially, she needed the money to pay for tuition. The chance of winning scholarship money and Father McNeely’s encouragement gave her the incentive she needed to enter her first competition at age 18.

She won some preliminary contests before losing in the Miss Hawaii competition. Meanwhile, she earned her degree in elementary education from the University of Hawaii. Her teachers had inspired her to become one herself, particularly her second-grade instructor. The kindly teacher left notes in her desk telling her she was doing well. “Being one of 10 children, I didn’t get a lot of attention,” says Baraquio. “My teachers made me feel special.”

For Baraquio, teaching was a way to give back. “I wanted to make a difference, to leave a legacy. If I can have an impact on one child, affect one person, that’s great,” she says. “That one person in turn has a sphere of influence, and they can touch someone else.”

After college she took a job at her alma mater, Holy Family Catholic Academy, which is a mile from the Pearl Harbor Naval Base. More than 70 percent of the students are from military families. They respect discipline but, often on the move, they crave a sense of place, too; a place rooted in faith and people you can have faith in.


More Than a Coach

“Miss Angie,” as the students call her, taught gym to primary grade children, coached basketball, volleyball and track and field and served as athletic director. She set about teaching the children more than just how to make a layup or do a pushup.

Baraquio used a classroom method called the TRIBES program. It was based on community agreement, rather than rules. Students were taught to respect one another and to listen to one another. “They learned that if they couldn’t say anything positive about someone they shouldn’t say anything,” says Baraquio.

“She was always teaching manners, even though it was gym. She taught them to raise their hand if they had something to say, to listen when someone talks, to show respect to others,” Boquer says.

Baraquio also made sure to be a visible part of the school liturgies, coordinating the music and using her faith as part of her personality during the school day.

The junior high students trusted her as a confidant. She was one of those rare teachers who inspire students to open up and share worries and fears.

The faith she modeled, the manners she taught, the compassion she displayed were not lost on her students. “Even though she wouldn’t like me to talk about it, I considered her an evangelizer,” says Boquer.


Accepting a Dare

Baraquio’s third and final attempt to become Miss Hawaii began with a double dare. Baraquio urged two students to try out for the basketball team. Adolescent indecision gripped the would-be athletes. What if they didn’t make the team or embarrassed themselves trying?

Earnest but not pushy, Baraquio counseled the two hesitant students in her office one last time. “You don’t want to look back someday and say, ‘I should have and could have.’ You have to take a chance. It’s O.K. to fail.”

The students agreed to try out for the team but only if their teacher entered the Miss America competition again. Baraquio smiled. They were right. She, too, needed to follow her dreams.

Baraquio almost quit soon after she started. While Angela was in a local competition that led to the Miss Hawaii title, Rigolette suffered a heart attack. Seeing her weakened mother lying in bed was heartbreaking.

The local director urged her to continue. She relented, and her mother, who has “a will of steel,” regained her health. Baraquio won the Miss Hawaii competition, and the local basketball squad gained two new players.


Strength From Prayer

Next up was the Miss America competition, held in October in Atlantic City. Baraquio was not one of the favorites. In fact, no Asian-American had ever won the title.

Few Miss Hawaii contestants over the years danced the hula for the talent competition. That was considered too obvious a choice. Immensely proud of her roots, Baraquio ignored conventional wisdom and, while wearing an evening gown, danced the Polynesian ritual to the theme of the movie Hawaii, sung by a Miss Hawaii from 1975.

Baraquio also set herself apart in the evening gown competition. She wore a vibrant red dress while most of the other contestants chose black. The crowd oohed and aahed in admiration.

In the interview with the judges Baraquio said her platform as Miss America would be character education. She wanted America’s children to learn ethics and moral values.

Baraquio won the preliminary swimsuit competition. But her onstage interview with host Donny Osmond, according to one newspaper writer, was “unremarkable.”

Before each part of the competition Baraquio silently prayed, “Come, Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your faithful.” She did not pray to win. She had once suffered from stage fright and praying calmed her nerves. She prays whether she is on stage before a national TV audience or in gym class, whenever there’s a moment to spare. Praying is part of her inner life.

Baraquio made the final five. Beside her stood Miss California, Miss Mississippi, Miss Kentucky and Miss Louisiana. Most viewers expected Faith Jenkins, Miss Louisiana, to win. Jenkins had won two preliminary competitions. She sang “If I Could” superbly. Her platform, literacy, was considered appealing, especially because her mother was once illiterate.

Baraquio remembered what Father McNeely had told her before she left for Atlantic City. “I know you will win,” he joked. “I have an in with the man upstairs.”


An Unbelievable Moment

The teachers, students and parents of Holy Family Academy had gathered to watch the telecast at the school as part of a fund-raiser. They held their breaths as the five were whittled down to two, their own Coach Angie and Miss Louisiana.

Donny Osmond unfolded the card with the winner’s name and began to read the name. Baraquio gasped. The crowd at Holy Family erupted in wild cheering.

“My gosh, it was an unbelievable moment,” says Kehau Miyamoto, the school’s dean of students who knew Baraquio as a student.

“She always told us you can be whatever you want to be,” says eighth-grader Ashley. “She proved that herself.”

Shortly after winning the title, Baraquio returned to Holy Family Academy. The students rushed up to embrace her. The new Miss America was also the guest of honor at a reception at the Hilton Hawaiian Village. Wearing a white gown, crown and lei, she glided down the runway, lined with her students, their faces flushed with excitement.

Her poise and charm won over David Letterman and others. The late-night host, fond of making his guests squirm, had a photo of Baraquio in a swimsuit on his desk. After chatting for a while, he unobtrusively turned it over, shoved it aside and refrained from any wisecracks. She told Diane Sawyer of Good Morning America that she would like to see the swimsuit competition eliminated.


More Than a Pretty Face

Baraquio is not a mere figurehead of beauty but an activist who crisscrosses the country on a mission of goodwill. Her message is twofold: “Character in the Classroom: Teaching Values, Valuing Teachers,” which promotes higher pay for teachers and transmitting morals in the classroom.

“People think this is all glitz and glamour,” she says. “It’s definitely a job, especially because of my focus on character education.”

Her experience with Catholic schools has taught her that teaching values in school is entirely possible. Catholic educators “try to be a witness to Jesus Christ,” she says. “Character education is ingrained in Catholic schools. We’re not talking about it—we’re modeling it.”

Like all Miss Americas, she visits with legislators, civic leaders and journalists. But this Miss America reserves plenty of time for trips to Catholic schools and events.

In February she visited St. Mary Magdalen School in Wilmington, Delaware. Three hundred eighth-graders from seven local Catholic schools should have been in science, math or English, but they gathered to hear Miss America.

“There will be people who tell you that you can’t live your dreams, you can’t get your goals,” she told them. “You need to listen to the people who give you positive messages.”

That evening, Baraquio spoke to a crowd of 180 adults and children during a dinner at Ursuline Academy, sponsored by Catholic Youth Ministry. Baraquio recalled the words of wisdom that her pastor, Father Maurice McNeely, shared with her before leaving for the Miss America competition.

“Remember that what keeps us together is the Eucharist. So everywhere you go, you can go to Mass and we will be connected in Christ,” he said.

Baraquio also recounted the earnest prayer she made before being crowned. “The night I won I prayed that God’s will be done. When they were calling the winners I just prayed to God. I said, ‘I am scared. I probably won’t win. But if I do, give me the strength and courage to do your will.’

“And that’s why I am here today, to testify to the faith, because I am proud to be Catholic.”


Far From Home But Close to God

The title of Miss America brings over $100,000 in scholarship assistance. Baraquio plans to get a master’s degree and return to the educational field. Her ultimate goal is to become superintendent of schools in Honolulu.

For now, airports and hotels are a second home. Baraquio keeps in touch by letters and e-mail with the students who were closest to her. She travels with a chaperone. Except when a sponsor asks, she does not wear the crown, which she keeps in a velvet-lined wooden box. Instead, she wears a modest lapel pin in the shape of the crown.

Baraquio’s life is a blur of people and places. But on “off” days like this she can sit and reflect, putting the frenzy into perspective. The expectations of her are huge. “This can be so overwhelming,” she says. “When I walk into a room, it’s either ‘Wow, it’s Miss America’ or ‘What does she have to say?’

“I’ve learned so much about myself and about the challenges of being Miss America,” she says. “I couldn’t do anything without my faith in God.”

Being Miss America is an honor, not an identity. “The title of Miss America does not define who I am. I’m a daughter, sister, friend, aunt,” she says. “The foundation of who I am is my faith, family and education.”

Baraquio is grateful for her success. She says being Miss America has given her “a platform to say what I believe.” She has not forgotten her old school, her roots, her faith—or that her name means messenger.

------------------------------------------------------------------------

Jay Copp edits the alumni magazine for DePaul University in Chicago, Illinois. The author of The Liguori Guide to Catholic U.S.A. (Liguori, 1999), Copp lives with his wife and three young boys in La Grange Park, Illinois.


Places to Go, People to See, Good to Do

Here's a sample of Baraquio's crowded travel schedule:

April 3 Washington, D.C.

Baraquio addressed the National Guard Challenge sponsored by the USO. Senators, congressional representatives, military leaders and cadets were in attendance.

April 4 Washington, D.C.

Baraquio made a visit to the White House where she met with First Lady Laura Bush to discuss her character-education platform.

April 5-7 Orlando, Florida

Baraquio appeared as the National Goodwill Ambassador for the Children’s Miracle Network. She taped segments and promotions for the June broadcast, which raises millions of dollars for children’s hospitals each year.

April 11-13 the Philippines

Baraquio traveled with her parents to the Philippines, the island nation from which her parents emigrated 30 years ago. She visited the White Cross Children’s Home to disperse toys and to Malacanang Palace to visit with Philippine President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo. Baraquio traveled to the Walled City of Intramuros. She toured San Agustin Church and met with Cardinal Jaime Sin of Manila at the Archbishop’s Palace.

April 16

Baraquio spent the day with her family.

April 18 Honolulu, Hawaii

Baraquio gave the keynote address to about 250 high school students at the Universal Values for a Democratic Society forum, sponsored by the Department of Education in Hawaii. She also was photographed for the cover of In Flight magazine.

April 20-21 Los Angeles, California

Baraquio appeared on behalf of the Salvation Army of Los Angeles, visited a youth center and addressed a youth conference.

April 30 Washington, D.C.

During the day, Baraquio addressed the D.C. public schools on character education. In the evening, she was on Capitol Hill at a reception talking to legislators and corporate officials promoting character education.

May 1 Washington, D.C.

Baraquio was on Capitol Hill all day meeting with legislators to promote quality physical education programs in schools.

May 3 Washington, D.C.

Baraquio spoke at the White House and the Pentagon on behalf of the National Day of Prayer. Later she addressed an educational caucus on Capitol Hill. Later that evening she appeared at an event sponsored by the Atlantic City Convention and Visitors Authority.

 
 

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