Perhaps lost in the political scuffle between NBC and Univision’s decision to drop the Miss USA pageant, in light of offensive immigration comments made by pageant co-owner Donald Trump, are the contestants themselves, some of whom have real-life immigration stories they were hoping to share as part of their push to take home top honors in the July 12 competition.
ET sat down with Miss California, Natasha Martinez, and Miss Texas, Ylianna Guerra, to hear their stories and their thoughts on the media whirlwind that has surrounded this year’s pageant.
"My mother immigrated here when she was 12 years old," Martinez, whose parents are Nicaraguan and Mexican-American, told ET. "So, I know firsthand, as the child of an immigrant, that immigrants work extremely hard to come to this country and most of the time, it’s for the love of their family and it’s a huge sacrifice. It was definitely hard to hear some of the comments, but I think that this is a great opportunity for Latinos to rise up and prove themselves."
Guerra, a second-generation American citizen whose grandparents immigrated from Mexico, agreed that Trump’s statements were a disappointment, but insists that her drive to represent not only her heritage, but her home state of Texas transcends any qualms about remarks made by one of the pageant’s co-owners.
"We were not going to let our states down," she said. "It’s taken a lot of hard work and determination to get here and we’re just really focused right now on the pageant and focused on Miss USA and being here. It’s a one in a lifetime opportunity."
Both women sang the praises of the Miss Universe organization for keeping the pageant running smoothly amidst the controversy and protecting the 51 contestants from the media circus surrounding this year’s competition.
"It’s definitely been an experience that’s going to separate our class from any of the other classes before. In a way, it’s been great, because it’s given us a lot of opportunities to really be able to speak our minds about the issues," said Martinez, who advocates for breast cancer awareness in honor of her mother. "And not only that, but to share with the world why we’re passionate about being contestants for Miss USA 2015."
"It’s not that we’re standing by Trump or against Trump," Guerra explained. "The Miss Universe organization has a lot of women representing from all kinds of walks of life, all ethnicities and all backgrounds. Educated women, powerful women, strong women, that’s what it’s about. It’s about being confidently beautiful and it’s about serving your community. It’s not about anything political."
While both contestants admit to being disappointed, both by Trump’s comments and by NBC and Univision’s decision to drop the pageant, they both say that dropping out themselves is something that never crossed their mind.
"Not once did I think about dropping out of the pageant," insisted Martinez, who competed in her state pageant four times before winning the title of Miss California USA. "I feel very passionate about my family’s background and their ability to grow in this country. My mother was a microbiologist and my dad is an engineer, so I knew that it was extremely important for me to be able to represent my family, my state, and my community."
"It's not just about me," Guerra agreed. "So many people helped me along the way and I was not going to let them down, or let my state down, for that matter."
While both contestants are disappointed that Univision's decision to drop the pageant means that friends and family members in Latin America and Mexico won’t be able to watch them compete, both were excited by the news that Reelz Channel has stepped in to air the pageant live for audiences in the United States. Martinez and Guerra told ET that Miss USA/Miss Universe president Paula Shugart flew to Baton Rouge, Louisiana to tell them the good news in person.
"That was very comforting and very cool that she came in and spoke to us as contestants," Guerra said. "We've all worked very hard, not just the girls, but the staff and crew as well, and the people here in Baton Rouge have done so much for us. It’s just great to know that the show’s still going as planned."
"I could have cried because I was so happy," Martinez said of finding out Reelz Channel had picked up the pageant. "I’m happy because us 51 contestants will have the dream fulfilled of possibly having that crowning moment on July 12 and letting the whole country be able to see that, especially for our fans and our family members who aren’t able to be here in Baton Rouge to watch us."
The Miss USA pageant airs July 12 at 8 p.m. ET/PT on Reelz Channel.