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Miss Minnesota 2012: A Lao-American refugee

February 12, 2012 (2 min read)

"Ask most folks in my home state to conjure up an image of Miss Minnesota and they will most probably come up with a tall, blonde, blue-eyed beauty who looks something like this:

This year, however, Minnesotans chose a woman named Nitaya Panemalaythong, who was born in a Thai refugee camp into a large family that had fled the war in Laos.

Although she's not the first person of non-Scandanavian origin to hold the title, Nitaya is the first Asian-American immigrant.  Living in a home she helped purchase to house nine other relatives, Nitaya reports that she entered the contest in order to get a shot at the $45,000 scholarship money that is granted to the winner, enabling her to resume the college education she was forced to put on hold. The Minneapolis Star Tribune reports that Nitaya experienced a life familiar to so many immigrant kids - acting as the family translator and working hard to support a large brood of extended relatives. Finally, with that prize money, she says, she can "focus on myself instead of worrying about everyone else."

Even though I'm not normally a fan of beauty pageants I find this story delightful for a couple of reasons.  First, even though  Nitaya was initially told when she tried to get a job modeling that she didn't have "the Midwestern look",  it shakes loose a few of the stereotypes about what a Minnesota gal headed for Miss America should be. Second, on a larger scale it reminds us that even the American heartland has evolved to become a place rich with diverse immigrant stories.  Minnesota, in particular, has a large re-settlement community, with 25%-50% of its immigrants arriving as refugees (as compared with 8% nationally). Home to one of the largest Somali and Hmong communities in the country, Minnesota has made some remarkable demographic changes in the past couple of decades.  

Of course, there are still some things that never change, such as Minnesotans' passion for ice hockey. Nitaya, as Miss Minnesota, can be seen here doing her bit for the state by pulling on her woolies and cheering on the team.  Go Minnesota!"