Amid the flap over pageant host Steve Harvey's initially announcing the wrong winner of Sunday's Miss Universe contest (it was Miss Philippines, not Miss Colombia), relatively few viewers may have paid attention to the eye-popping national costume worn by Iroshka Lindaly Elvir as Miss Honduras.
Those who did may have puzzled over the number of decorative skulls, trailing behind in the gown's train and in the crown of her headdress. It turns out they have many layers of symbolism, touching on ancient culture, modern-day violence and even health care in Honduras.
According to press interviews with Elvir, the original inspiration for the costume was the Mayan goddess of death. But many Hondurans on Twitter "used it as a basis for sort of black humor about the national homicide rate," says Rosemary A. Joyce, professor of anthropology at the University of California, Berkeley.
The double meaning about cultural origins and present-day violence was probably no accident, Joyce continued: "[Elvir] uploaded pictures to her Facebook page in which she is wearing that outfit holding a sign [that reads] 'CICIH YA' which is a call for an independent, U.N.-appointed anti-corruption task force to be appointed for Honduras." This kind of task force, many hope, would help reduce corruption and lower the country's extremely high murder rate, which the U.N. ranked as the worst in the world.
Joyce translated the Facebook post as reading in part, "I am losing hope to see so much blood flow and so much impunity, therefore it is necessary to exhaust all the means to capture the attention of the international organizations."
So Miss Honduras managed to channel ancient Mayan culture, reference the country's current sky-high murder rates and gain public visibility for the cause of political reform, all through the unusual means of a beauty pageant costume.
The skulls themselves conjure the Mayan archaeological remains of Copan, situated in the western part of Honduras near the border with Guatemala. There, at the only World Heritage site in Honduras, human skulls are depicted on the sculpted walls. "There are also real skulls that were carved into masks by the Maya, between 600 and 800 A.D.," says Joyce.
As for that Mayan goddess of death that Elvir says inspired her, she does not appear anywhere in Copan or Honduras, says Joyce. "We only know about that from manuscripts in Yucatan, Mexico." And that brings home the point that despite Honduran claims that Mayan culture was born in Copan, it actually developed in many places in Central America, says Joyce. Nonetheless, Honduras promotes its Mayan heritage, and "you get Miss Universe contestants trying to be more Mayan every year."
In contemporary Honduras, skulls may stand for something else. As one Twitter commenter posted (and Joyce translated), "Well yeah ... this is a good [typical] costume because the deaths everyday by violence and corruption are typical ... so that now it is part of Honduran folklore."
Sadly, statistics demonstrate that violence is part of today's Honduran reality. "Honduras has been having a serious homicide epidemic for more than the past decade," says Christine Wade, associate professor of political science and international studies at Washington College in Chestertown, Md. According to statistics from the National Violence Observatory in Honduras, in 2013, the homicide rate was 82 per 100,000. More recently, because of pressures put on the government to reduce the rate, those numbers have fallen to 66 per 100,000 in 2014, and for the year ending in 2015 the national rate will probably be about 58 per 100,000. But that's still on the high side: The World Health Organization defines a homicide epidemic as a rate of 10 or more per 100,000.
"Honduras has a weak state, a very corrupt police and a very corrupt government," all of which make it a good place for drug traffickers, says Wade. Add to that the presence of organized crime, gang violence, domestic violence against women and "extrajudicial" killings by corrupt police forces, and you have a situation where "you're talking about multiple forms of violence with different victims and different perpetrators. It's really complicated," she says. Moreover, approximately 95 percent of homicides are not investigated, leading to a sense of impunity. "About 5 percent of homicides are actually investigated; fewer than that make it to trial and even fewer result in some sort of conviction," says Wade.
And beauty pageants are a way of gaining visibility. "People pay a lot of attention to them" in Honduras, says Adrienne Pine, associate professor of anthropology at American University in Washington, D.C.
Of course, you have to be beautiful to be a beauty queen, says Pine, but the candidate, who represents a region or family or institution, wins only if her "team" sells the most tickets and raises the most money. This brings in "a lot of revenue for the municipalities, which is important because there is so little government funding as a result of everything having been privatized," says Pine.
Tragically, the last beauty pageant winner in Honduras to gain international attention was 19-year-old Maria Jose Alvarado. In 2014, Maria was crowned Miss Honduras. But she and her sister, Sofia, were gunned down before she was to leave for London to compete in the Miss World beauty pageant. Sofia's boyfriend confessed to the murders, saying the motive was that she had danced with another man, press reports said. "I think it's a really twisted irony that this is the costume [with its skulls] the year after" that murder, Pine comments.
Social media tweets have also pointed out another current political connection with the skulls. Joyce translates one: "It's a costume that represents the death of the patients of the IHSS," the national health care service.
"In addition to providing poor health care," Joyce explains, "[IHSS] was rocked by a scandal in which large amounts of bribes were paid [and] fake medicine was purchased." According to Pine, "the coffers [of IHSS] had been ransacked by the party of the current president."
The bottom line for the costume, says Joyce: "She did intend a political statement."
It's not exactly clear how much symbolism was intentional and how much was coincidental. And the TV viewing audience likely missed the point. But people in the Honduras heard the message of the skulls loud and clear.