Leyanis Diaz is out to prove that beauty queens don't need to have silky-straight or Barbie-wavy hair to wear a crown with grace.
Miss Black Florida USA is among the Afro-Latinas in South Florida who are joining a natural hair movement. The African-American natural hair movement is rooted in a defiance against a painful racist history and is tangled up in a fight for equal rights.
Embracing their natural hair is a transition that goes beyond style choices or fashion trends. Diaz, who is an Afro-Cuban-American beauty queen from Miami's Little Havana, said her choice is about redefining beauty pageants and self awareness.
"Competing with natural hair for me was about self discovery," Diaz said. It's also about "self-knowledge and self-love."
When she competed for Miss Black Florida USA, she was wearing her kinky hair with pride and won the crown. This weekend, she was aiming to become the first Afro-Latina with natural hair to win the Miss Black USA Pageant in Washington, D.C.
The 24-year-old Florida International University graduate was born in Cuba. Back on the Communist island, hair color and texture remains a status symbol. The women in her family didn't have access to modern chemical straighteners or luxury weaves. African head-wraps were common.
When Diaz was a student at Riverside Elementary School in Miami's East Little Havana, natural hair how-to tutorials were appearing on YouTube. She was a Miami Senior High School student when Facebook and Instagram helped to nurture a growing community embracing natural hair.
It wasn't until she became the first one in her family to graduate from college that Diaz found the confidence to take a risk with her image. She joined the 24 million black women in the U.S. who are making the business of hair relaxers and straighteners plummet.
The natural hair movement counts on role models like Kerry Washington and Oprah Winfrey and it has become the foundation of a powerful industry -- now estimated at $700 million -- that is here to stay. In 2010, Dabur bought Namaste Laboratories for $100 million and four years later L'Oreal bought Carol's Daughters.
Diaz wore her hair straight when she won the Miss Black and Gold Pageant two years ago, and after she transitioned to natural hair last year she competed in the Miss Homestead and Miss Hialeah pageants. She was the only one with an Afro hairstyle.
"I aspire to make a name for myself and all Afro-Latina in the entertainment industry," Diaz wrote in her Model Mayhem profile.
The industry's marketing campaigns need models, but Diaz is also aspiring to be a role model. She volunteers as a mentor at the Embrace Girls Foundation, a Miami Lakes-based non-profit organization catering to girls at local elementary and middle schools.