They don't look like beauty queens right now.
Gardening gloves cover their acrylic nails. Blue jeans protect their ankles from bug bites and poison ivy.
On this Wednesday evening in July, the six contestants of the 16th annual Miss Liberia in the U.S. pageant, which is always in Philadelphia, are wielding pruning shears and stuffing paper bags with leaves in the overgrowth of Morris Park in Overbrook. But after their service project, in the days leading up to Friday's pageant at the Suzanne Roberts Theater, they'll don evening gowns, traditional Liberian dresses, colorful headwraps, and, yes, bathing suits — white ones, as per Miss Liberia in the U.S. tradition. They'll practice strutting in heels to an Afropop beat and waving like a pageant queen. They'll talk about their platform, the cause they're advocating, be it mental health awareness or young women's empowerment.
All are pageant first-timers. Some have traveled from as far as Atlanta and Minnesota's Little Liberia, while Miss Liberia Pennsylvania — soon-to-be Pennsylvania State University freshman Aba Aggrey — came just a few miles from Southwest Philly, where most of the approximately 3,000 Philadelphian Liberians live. They're students, administrative clerks, and models, all staying in a house in Center City for the week, and they're vying for a cash prize, an all-expenses-paid trip to Liberia, and, of course, the crown.
Many of the Liberians who came to the United States were fleeing the country's two civil wars, which raged from 1989 to 2003, and their children sometimes felt lost between the two identities of Liberian and American. The pageant hopes to give young women "the feeling of home," said Donaldson, 43, who works by day as a project manager at the University of Pennsylvania.
Among first- and second-generation immigrant girls — those either born in the U.S. to immigrant parents or who moved to the States from another country as children — it's not always easy to be proud of your heritage, especially in a country that encourages assimilation over integration and prizes whiteness as a standard of beauty.
Alberta Richards, Miss Liberia New York, said that when she was younger, she used to try to hide her Liberianness.
"I wouldn't say I was ashamed, but I was a little embarrassed," said Richards, 20, who grew up in Staten Island's Little Liberia.
But then she visited Liberia in 2012, and she said it made her realize, "This is who I am."
Now she wears her Liberian identity on her sleeve.
"I eat fufu and soup for breakfast," she said, making the other Miss Liberia contestants laugh. "If I wasn't Liberian, I wouldn't have torborgee," a spicy and bitter bean stew made with palm oil.
Miss Liberia New Jersey, 19-year-old Rudmita Mark of Trenton, moved to the States from Liberia as an 8-year-old, and recalls trying to be American. You have to be like them and talk like them, she learned, so they can understand you. As she got older, she became more comfortable with her Liberian identity. Now she navigates between both worlds, code-switching by turning on and off her Liberian accent depending on who she's with.
Though most of the girls said they didn't speak their parents' tribal dialects, most spoke Kolokwa, which the girls describe as "broken English with a Liberian accent." It's a point of pride for Mandie Paygar, Miss Liberia North Carolina, who says people ask her how she can speak it so well.
Since she was little, growing up in Willingboro, Paygar said, her parents instilled in her that she was Liberian. Her sister was Miss Liberia New Jersey in 2004. She frequently goes "back home," as many of the contestants called it, staying in her family's home in Monrovia, where most of her family still lives and where she's watched her country rebuild after the civil wars.
It's "bittersweet" that the first thing people in the States think of, if they think of Liberia at all, is the war, she said. "We're rebuilding," she said. "We're not broken."