When Gabriela Taveras got into a fender bender just minutes before she had to check in for the Miss Massachusetts pageant, she didn’t get flustered. In fact, she didn’t even get miffed.
The car accident was simply a microcosm of her life: She took it in stride and made the best of the situation. Taveras chose to embody the platform she used to eventually win the competition: Face Everything and Rise.
“In that situation, you can get really mad or you can extend a moment of grace,” Taveras said. “I said to myself, ‘If this is the only time I’m going to meet this person, I’m not going to make them feel bad.’ ”
Taveras, who is of Dominican, Haitian, and Chinese descent, on Sunday became the first black woman to win the Miss Massachusetts pageant, a preliminary contest in the Miss America competition, according to Dolores “Buffy” Rabuffo, a pageant organizer. She’ll go on to participate in the Miss America pageant, held in Atlantic City, NJ. It airs Sept. 9 on ABC. (Another independent competition crowns Miss Massachusetts USA, which leads to the Miss USA and Miss Universe pageants.)
“I couldn’t believe it,” Taveras said of her win at the Hanover Theatre in Worcester. “I couldn’t see anybody and I couldn’t hear anything. All I remember is saying ‘I can’t believe I did it, I can’t believe I did it!’ ”
Taveras never expected be a pageant participant. She remembered getting postcards for the pageant competitions for younger girls when she was a child, but her mother wouldn’t let her participate. However, Taveras kept them in the back of her mind.
When she had an opportunity to take part in a pageant her sophomore year of college, she went for it. And after getting involved in her first pageant, she never looked back.
Hailing from Lawrence, Taveras encountered many hurdles on the path to Miss Massachusetts. She grew up in a single-parent household after her father was incarcerated when she was just 1 year old. He was deported after he served his sentence. She went to Catholic Central High School on partial scholarship, but had to make up the difference by working as a custodian after school and after wrestling practice. On most nights, she wouldn’t start her homework until 11:30 p.m.
“It’s a victory for all the trials and tribulations and setbacks I had,” Taveras said.
She also wants to set an example for the people and children back in Lawrence.
“If one of us succeeds, everyone succeeds,” Taveras said. “I hope [the win will] help the community band together and set the standard for young girls and boys who can say, ‘Look at where she made it. I can do that too.’ ”
Taveras, 23, credited her family for part of her success. She said her mother always made sure that she was on the right path, and taught her about being flexible and understanding. Taveras wants to set a similar example for her younger sister, 15, and brother, 10.
“I want to show them that you can be whoever you want to be, you just have to be willing to make the sacrifices,” she said.
Taveras hopes to be an inspiration for other young women of color who want to compete in pageants. She said that right after she was crowned Miss Massachusetts, a mother of an adopted girl from Ethiopia approached her. The mother told Taveras that her win was a big moment for her child so that she could show her the opportunities that the country offers if she works hard.
Taveras graduated from Emmanuel College in 2017 and currently works at Insight Global, a professional staffing firm, where she handles recruitment and new business development.
Every competitor in the Miss America pageant gets some amount of scholarship money. Taveras said she’ll use the scholarship money to help her get master’s degrees in International Relations and Business Administration.
During her undergraduate studies, Taveras took a class that allowed her to work with children with HIV and AIDS. That inspired her to eventually use those degrees to form better healthcare policies for children abroad.
“My motto is: I never got a break because I can’t be broken,” Taveras said. “I’m gonna get a curveball thrown at me every day, and I just have to keep moving.”
Correction: Due to a reporting error, an earlier version of this story incorrectly stated the nature of Gabriela Taveras’s win. She is the first black woman to win the Miss Massachusetts title.