Kataluna Enriquez has always loved creating things.
“At a young age, I was unable to play with the toys I wanted,” Enriquez said. “I remember walking up to my sister’s room so I could play with her dolls. I would cut up my socks and turn them into dresses.”
On Sunday night, Enriquez was wearing one of her own creations — a rainbow-colored sequin dress — when she was crowned Miss Nevada, making history as the first transgender woman to do so.
Enriquez, who immigrated from the Philippines with her family at the age of 10, now owns her own fashion business and designs costumes and evening gowns. She’ll spend the next several months preparing to compete for Miss USA in November.
Enriquez recently spoke with the Reno Gazette Journal following her big win and shared her experiences as a transgender woman competing for Miss Nevada.
This interview was edited and condensed for brevity:
What got you interested in fashion and pageantry?
Enriquez: Fortunately, I realized I was not good at math, and I could not be an engineer, which is what I wanted to be when I was young. I was really accelerating on projects where you have to build things, and then, somehow, I just landed into fashion design.
Pageant shows are very inspirational for me. There was a woman who was competing at one point, and her story reflected mine. She didn’t have much when she was growing up. There was a time when she and her family was starving. It was something that resonated with me.
I learned to look beyond her pretty face and her story to understand her as an individual.
Oftentimes, people think pageantry is just superficial beauty, but it’s beyond that. The direction of Miss Universe and Miss USA going forward is expanding the definition of beauty and the definition of womanhood, and that’s something I want to be a part of.
What were the steps you took to become Miss Nevada?
Enriquez: In terms of pageantry, there’s the closed-door interview, the on-stage interview, the evening gown and then there’s the swimsuit competition. But outside of that, I had to work on several things that were involving my past and my childhood traumas.
Communication is very important in the pageantry industry, especially right now. But speaking, at one point in my life, was an invitation to be attacked and bullied or discriminated (against). I learned to silence myself to survive, which also allowed me to hate on myself and not value myself. At one point, I wanted to die, and I prayed to not wake up.
So, there were just many challenges in terms of childhood trauma I had to overcome to get to where I am now. I’m thankful I was able to do that. I want to share those experiences in life so others can relate and have an understanding.
How did you overcome those challenges and learn to speak out?
Enriquez: Honestly, I have no idea. I was trying to live for someone else. I was tired of trying to please society’s social structure and expectations. Regardless of what I did, there was always someone commenting something. I got tired of that, and I was drained at constantly having to please people. It was about time that I chose to live for myself. It was either that or not live.
Can you talk about the moment you were crowned Miss Nevada?
Enriquez: I was scared. I was hopeful, but always accepting that it might not have been that case because it is such a huge jump.
It’s a huge deal. I thought that my possibility of winning was very low, regardless of how I performed. I know that I performed and I prepared myself really well, beyond what was expected of me and what was expected on stage. I performed more than that. But I still had feelings that maybe it might not work out because I am so different.
But when they called my name, I was so happy because it was one of my dreams to compete in Miss USA. Ultimately, it was one of those things that, when I was young, I had hoped to see someone be on the stage who was just like me and who could represent me. It just happened that I needed to be that person.
I know that feeling of winning, but I don’t know that feeling of making history. It’s hard to explain what that is like, but I am thrilled. I am beyond honored, and I’m grateful.
The first runner-up and the winner get a little moment where they hold each other’s hand and stand in the middle of the stage (before they announce the winner). That was a very touching moment for me because the first runner-up, she is a Black-Asian woman. She is beautiful and inspiring, so she could have taken the spot. We were just thankful and proud of each other. When they announced who the winner was, I was just in shock.
Can you talk about the importance of this moment for the LGBTQ+ community?
Enriquez: It’s Pride Month, and I didn’t know this, but this was also the 52nd anniversary of the Stonewall (Riots). This is a very important moment because, not only am I trans-bi, I’m a trans woman of color.
Oftentimes, trans women of color are not always given the opportunity to be able to be themselves. We are constantly murdered in our countries and throughout the world. A lot of us don’t have the opportunity to have a regular job without being discriminated, sexualized or objectified. We don’t get the same opportunities as everyone else. We are a minority within a minority.
So, to be able to win and to achieve this and to be represented is a big deal, not just for the trans community or the LGBTQ+ community, but for people of color—people who are minorities who don’t often get represented.
I was a woman who was a physical and sexual abuse victim, and I’m a survivor. That is also a representation for those communities as well.
What has the feedback been like?
Enriquez: It’s been good and bad. I’ve always received negative comments, and I’ve always received positive comments, but I always try to pay attention to the positive ones. I have no room for hate in my life. I would rather focus on creating a positive place for myself and for other people.
What do you say to people who react negatively to your victory?
Enriquez: I have nothing to say. Their opinions are their opinions. I did my part and I knew I fought for the crown, and I fought for my right to be there. I am eligible to compete. And like everyone else, I equally fought as much as I could to be able to have this title.
In terms of other negative comments about me and my identity, I have no words. I’m still going to continue creating a place where … we can live without hate and for all people to be represented, to have an equal chance to be heard and to have opportunities.
What is your family like and what has been their reaction to you becoming Miss Nevada?
Enriquez: I didn’t have much of a family experience. I didn’t grow up with a family. My mom was quite young when she had me. My parents were still trying to figure things out.
So, I didn’t have much in terms of memories when it comes to my family. I do have two sisters I love a lot, and they were very supportive. They mean the world to me.
They’re very proud, they’re happy. They’re happy that I’m able to thrive and succeed, regardless of the backlash I was receiving and what I went through at a young age. They were very supportive and thankful.
You also work as a healthcare admin who specializes in LGBTQ+ best care. Can you explain more about that?
Enriquez: As a person of the LGBTQ + community, our experiences are completely different from everyone else. We don’t get the same experiences and opportunities as everyone else. In terms of housing, job opportunities, quality of life, we are always below the standard everyone else is receiving. When it comes to health care, some people don’t have access to health care, especially people of color. A lot of them struggle with mental health. A lot of them struggle with how society is treating them. It’s just a bunch of layers and layers of adversities that people have to go through in order to just survive.
I’m basically advocating for the patient to help them find resources and get them what they need in terms of treatment or to better their life.
What does preparation for Miss USA entail?
Enriquez: For me, it’s always mental health and the message I want to put out there and branding myself and making sure that I’m in a good place to compete.
How do you balance it all?
Enriquez: It is hard to balance, but it’s part of my goal. It’s one of the things that gives me drive. It gives me purpose. There are things in life that I’ve experienced that I don’t want other people to experience. I think with that mindset … and I’m able to go through with it and push through it.
Marcella Corona is a reporter covering local underrepresented communities in Northern Nevada. Support her work by subscribing to RGJ.com.