After being crowned Miss Minnesota Latina 2018 in November, Carina Ruiz’s main goal now is to give back to the community as much as possible. Not a simple task with a her busy schedule. She’s a nursing major at St. Kate’s, a part-time employee at a nursing home, a Multicultural and International Programs and Services (MIPS) club member, a dancer and a volunteer — at least 50 hours a year — at her local community center.
For Ruiz, receiving the Miss Minnesota Latina title means more than pageant glamour or winning the crown. She hopes it is a testament to all young girls facing hardships that with help and hard work they, too, can be successful. Only 19 years old, Ruiz has overcome many barriers in her life, and she’s proving to be the role model she, herself, did not have as a young girl.
Forced to grow up fast
Ruiz is a Salvadoran-Mexican-American and grew up in poverty with her Salvadoran single-mother on the west side of St. Paul. At just 12 years old, the traditional roles of parent and daughter switched when her mother had a stroke.
“I became homeless at that time because she was my only guardian and she was in the hospital for quite a while,” says Ruiz. “She survived her stroke and, after that, I became her caregiver.”
Ruiz also faced physical and sexual abuse from the age of three. It’s important to Ruiz to share her experiences and how much she’s overcome. She expresses that not enough people speak openly about their past. “I wish I had a role model I looked up to when I was younger,” she says. “I wish I would have been able to say that there was a strong woman who looked like me and had made it despite of damaging experiences.”
Ruiz refused to give up on her dreams and today hopes to inspire youth to take control of their lives. Her motto? “Your past is your past, but you determine your future.”
Despite adverse circumstances, Ruiz always stayed in school and was an A-student. She graduated one of the top students of her class at Saint Paul Conservatory for Performing Arts. And her hard work and dedication to school paid off.
After high school, she had the opportunity to train as a dancer in New York, but at the last minute she decided to go to St. Kate’s and pursue a career in nursing. She would not have been able to attend St. Kate’s without multiple scholarships, Ruiz discloses, and is grateful for the opportunity to continue into higher education.
“I wanted to do it all,” says Ruiz. “I didn’t want to give up something over another, and if I had gone to New York I would have only been able to afford to dance.”
Today, however, she gets to do both — and does not regret her choice to keep her passion for dance as a hobby. Along with her dedication to St. Kate’s rigorous nursing program, Ruiz attends TU Dance classes that are open to the public. She recently was invited to audition for Curio Dance’s “Drop the Mic!” show in March at The Cowles Center in downtown Minneapolis.
What's next for Miss Minnesota Latina?
Ruiz’s current focus is combatting human trafficking, promoting higher education, and being an active figure in her community through volunteerism.
Specifically, Ruiz hopes to focus on literacy issues. “Children of color have a harder time with literacy, and it’s evident with the scores that schools are receiving,” she says. With her newly attained platform, she wants to make a greater impact — and she plans to start in the school system.
With elementary students, Ruiz wants teach a dance class to work fuel self-discovery. For middle schoolers, she hopes to give motivational speeches geared toward preparing students for high school and the importance of school. And, for high school students, Ruiz wants to instill the value of further education by facilitating college tours and possibly providing a scholarship.
"Personally, it means more than the crown or the glamour. It shows that resilience will bring you through. I felt like I made a statement for those younger girls who I see myself in."
She also plans to get more involved with Breaking Free, a St. Paul-based organization taking efforts to stop sex trafficking, an issue Ruiz notes is of heightened urgency with the upcoming Super Bowl.
In less than a year, Ruiz will travel to compete in the Miss U.S. Latina Pageant in a yet-to-be-announced Latin American country — winning the state title earned her a roundtrip-ticket, wardrobe and preparatory classes for the nationals. To get ready for the larger stage, Ruiz says that she will continue to work on her walk (a trickier task than it looks like in a ball gown!) and her speech.
At the Minnesota pageant, Ruiz explains that the majority of the audience spoke English, so she delivered her speech in English. However at the national competition, the majority who attend or watch the event will be Spanish-speaking — and so contestants will be expected to not only be fluent in Spanish, but to be grammatically correct and articulate. Ruiz says she will prepare through continued investment in her culture and her language.
In reflecting on her Miss Minnesota Latina (and Miss Congeniality) title, Ruiz says it’s been an empowering experience. Instead of seeking validation from the pageant judges, she saw her journey through the pageant as self-validating and reaffirming that anything is possible.
“It felt like I had achieved something not just for myself but for a larger community,” she says. “I grew up with many hardships and barriers. I knew that when I was crowned, there were a lot of girls looking up to me and, hopefully, they felt like they made it too.”