Some princesses have an animal sidekick, angelic singing voice, or a Prince Charming.
What princesses Diana Perez and Erica Benton of Wellington each have is far more valuable. They each have a rich heritage they represented at the Lorain International Festival last weekend.
Perez has never gone a day without a helping of rice and beans. Despite being far from her father’s native land, she says she feels closest to her origins when served a hot plate of la bandera, a traditional dish made of white rice, kidney beans, and meat.
Perez credits everything she’s learned about the Dominican Republic to her father, who has always believed first in the power of family.
“He’s always reminding me and my sister that we have to love each other and we can’t fight because family is all you have,” Perez said. “It’s something that I didn’t understand until I traveled to the Dominican.”
Every Christmas, Perez and her sister travel to the Caribbean to celebrate. On Christmas Eve, they dress up for a friendly stroll around the town. Music from nearby bars lingers in the air and encourages people to find their friends and dance in the street, Perez said.
“This whole experience — being a part of the International Festival, being a princess — it has made me realize how much I take for granted being with my family,” Perez said. “It’s really amazing how much family I have and how much love there is.”
Benton, whose ancestry is Native American, said that unlike Perez she grew up feeling disconnected from her heritage.
But with the help of Ancestry.com, she learned that her great-great-great-great-grandfather was a horse trainer for his Cherokee tribe.
“My mom and I both grew up with horses but I never understood why. I didn’t think we had as many traditions as we do,” she said. “There’s really more than meets the eye.”
Now her family celebrates graduations, birthdays, and wedding announcements by dancing around a ritual bonfire. Even chilly winter nights don’t stop the celebration — a woodburner sits inside each family member’s garage. A ceremonial hog is roasted in honor of familial bonding and community, said Benton.
“My family is loyal and honest no matter how much it hurts,” the Native American princess said. “If you’re honest to each other and honest to the Lord, you’re a good person.”
Every time a bald eagle soars over her head, Benton feels special.
“An eagle is the closest thing to God for us,” she said, “I feel like someone looking down on me and I know everything is gonna be OK.”
Laurie Hamame can be reached at 440-775-1611 or @HamameNews on Twitter.
Diana Perez’s costume was handmade by her grandmother. This tri-colored dress represents the Dominican flag and is traditionally worn to carnivals and festivals.