UPDATE 7/27 The new Miss Seafair is Emily Rio Barber. Tania Santiago is first runner up.
As a little girl, Tania watched the Blue Angels perform at Seafair and wanted to be an Air Force pilot when she grew up.
She can’t be.
Tania Santiago is not a U.S. citizen and she lacks legal immigration status.
She is involved in another Seafair tradition though. After winning the title of Miss Hispanic Seafair in May, Santiago is one of 15 candidates competing for the Miss Seafair crown.
“I never had an interest in pageants because I think that pageants can be demeaning to women sometimes, but this program really emphasized the importance of women being leaders in our community and they look at our grades and our community service,” Santiago says. “So it’s more than just wearing a crown and a pretty dress.”
Santiago is the first contestant to challenge the Miss Seafair Scholarship Program’s 63-year history of only allowing legal permanent residents to compete.
If she wins the crown Saturday night, her reign will include 100 appearances throughout the state, beginning with a ride on a convertible Corvette for the Seafair Torchlight Parade.
That’s far more stylish than the life she was born into.
“I was born in Mexico City and my family and I grew up in inner city poverty where we literally had to eat out of the garbage can,” she says. “We were very, very poor.”
Her family came to America when she was 4 years old. They moved to Redmond, which is the only place she calls “home.”
“It terrifies me thinking of going back to a country that I don’t know anything of other than the culture,” says Santiago. “I have no connection to Mexico. This is my home and I meant it when I pledged allegiance to the flag. This is the country that I stand with.”
Santiago, a senior at the University of Washington and paralegal in a Bellevue immigration attorney’s office, is allowed to work in the U.S. and has been granted a reprieve from deportation under a program the Department of Homeland Security authorized last year – Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals.
If all goes as planned, Santiago and her family will have legal status by the fall. They want to become citizens.
For now, Santiago is an undocumented resident. Some people call her an illegal immigrant or even worse, in her view, an “illegal alien.”
“It’s a very demeaning word. It’s like calling an African American the N-word,” she says.
“There is this sense of ‘They don’t belong here’ or ‘They’re criminals’ but I think that we forget that immigration has a face,” she says.
The faces belong to students who have been a part of the community for years and have “played soccer with your children, were a part of the dance team, tutored your children,” and are politically engaged.
Miss Seafair is chosen based on community service, academics, and talent.
“It would be more than just me winning. I think it would be a whole community and a whole city winning to show that in Seattle, Washington there is room for everyone and we can set our differences apart and come together,” says Santiago.
In addition to the $5,000 scholarship she won as Miss Hispanic Seafair, Santiago could receive a $20,000 scholarship if chosen as Miss Seafair.
She would use the money to help pay for law school. She has her sights set on Yale. Eventually, she’d like to become superintendent of Seattle Schools.
Even without a crown, though, Santiago plans to be a leader and inspiration for other young people.
“I wanted a young woman in the Yakima Valley or Redmond, Washington to see if she’s undocumented, I’m undocumented as well. There is no limit to what we can do,” she says.
“It goes beyond just your immigration status. It’s for anyone who has ever felt out of place. That’s not the case here because we welcome everyone. I would be very privileged to wear the crown and continue sharing that message.”
By LINDA THOMAS