She doesn't remember it, but Leyanet Gonzalez said she came to Miami
from Cuba on a small boat when she was an infant.
"My mom said it was scary, that there was nothing but flat water for days," said Gonzalez, now 20, of Dalton, Ga. "She said there was no way to know where you were. We had to go towards the Gulf of Mexico then to Miami to avoid the main currents. The Coast Guard expected us to go that way."
Now a legal citizen since 2000, Gonzalez says she does her best to make her family, still in Dalton, proud. That means straight A's, attending South College in Knoxville as a junior, pursuing medical school, and on May 18, winning the Miss Tennessee Latina pageant in Clarksville, Tenn.
Gonzalez will compete for the national title of Miss Latina US in Riviera Maya, Mexico, from Aug. 18 to 24. The winner of that competition advances to the international Miss Latin America of the World competition on Aug. 31, also in Riviera Maya.
How Gonzalez became involved in pageants she once saw as "materialistic" is "quite a ride," she said.
Gonzalez moved from Miami to Dalton in 1999 when she was six. She said she immediately felt unwanted while attending Whitfield County Schools.
"I started at Westside Elementary," she said. "I remember very clearly that there was this guy there who always said, 'You need to go back to where you came from.' I was a little girl at the time so I just started crying when I heard that. It was the first time I realized people like that existed."
Because of the federal Cuban Adjustment Act, Gonzalez and her family were allowed to remain in the United States for a year, even though they entered illegally, to pursue permanent residency. After she gained her U.S. citizenship, people continued to tell her to leave the country, Gonzalez said.
"I've faced racism and bullying when I was in school (in Dalton)," she said. "When I was younger, I didn't look like a typical Latina. I looked like I was white, with brown hair and green eyes. When people learned I was Hispanic, I got a lot of racist comments."
Middle school was particularly difficult for her, she said.
"It hurt a lot," she said. "I was at Westside Middle School in Rocky Face and there weren't as many Hispanics in that area. So I stood out."
Gonzalez said school bullying she experienced wasn't only race-related.
"I remember doing well on my report card and I got a lot of bullying from that and mean comments," she said. "It made me feel embarrassed. But then I got into (Northwest Whitfield High School). It seems like in high school you realize there's so many different people. And you just want to get along.
"But even then everyone was wearing Abercrombie and American Eagle. And I couldn't afford those things. I wanted to be popular and fit in, but all I had going for me was academics. But eventually I took on this idea that, 'If you like me, cool. If you don't like me, that's cool too.'"
That's when things began to change for her, Gonzalez said. She went on to be part of the Northwest homecoming court even as she began full-time classes at the Northwest Georgia College and Career Academy where she graduated in 2010.
"I wasn't even at Northwest that much my junior and senior year and people enjoyed me and voted for me," she said. "That was big for me. That helped with
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