The Vanilla Queens of Papantla, Mexico

In this Mexican town, some girls dream of a vanilla crown.

Papantla decorates his Corpus Christi festival reinasor queens, with the thick brown stems of the vanilla orchid braided, twisted and jeweled into aromatic crowns – a nod to the spice’s place in the city’s history.

Centuries ago, the Totonac people used the orchid here Vanilla planifolia as perfume; Then the conquering Aztecs at the time of Emperor Moctezuma began mixing it into a chocolate drink. After the Spanish invasion, Mexican vanilla spread overseas and Papantla gained international fame.

Mexico may no longer be the leader in the global vanilla trade – that’s Madagascar – but in Papantla the spice still reigns supreme.

Many of the city’s former reinas Decades later, they still treasure their braided vanilla crowns. The crown is a beautiful reminder of their youth, their city and their heritage.

“You can have a crown made of many things — diamonds, emeralds, pearls,” said Marichu Mondragon, who won her crown in 1981, “but a vanilla crown can only be found here.”

Marichu Mondragon, 59

Queen: 1981

one. Marichu Mondragon’s vanilla crown from 1981. 2. “The smell of vanilla when the crown is put on your head, I don’t know, it’s something that stays with you,” says Mondragon, 59.

Marichu Mondragon occasionally removes the jewels from her crown, bathes them in vanilla extract, and leaves them in the sun for several days. The crown’s vanilla braids absorb the extract, she explains, keeping it looking new.

Mondragon wears the crown every year at a celebration of Pemex, Mexico’s state-owned oil company and her husband’s employer. She also brings it with her to every Papantla event she is invited to as a former queen.

“The smell of vanilla when the crown is placed on your head, I don’t know, it’s something that stays with you,” said Mondragon, who remembers being crowned by the first lady of the state of Veracruz.

Delia Nunez, 94

Queen: 1949

Delia Nuñez’s Vanilla Crown from 1949, which she kept in a cookie jar and took out from time to time to show her children.

one. Delia Nuñez, 94, poses for a portrait with her vanilla crown and scepter. 2. Nuñez shows a photo from 1949.

Delia Nuñez was 19 years old and a teacher when she competed for the Vanilla crown. Her Papantla Carnival supporters held a bullfight to help her win votes and raise money for a new kindergarten where she would teach.

Years later, when she was raising her loving children, she took her crown out of its storage location—a cookie jar in her closet—and held it out for them to smell.

Delia Nuñez, energetic and optimistic despite struggling with memory problems, still has the crown, now dried out and damaged. At her daughter’s house in Papantla, she put it on and smiled while posing for a photo. Then she sat down and looked through a photo album from her time as a teacher before she won the money for the kindergarten that the Krone helped set up.

Tania Zayas, 27

Queen: 2014

Tania Zayas’ vanilla crown is braided and symbolizes a pyramid in El Tajín, an important Mesoamerican city that is now an archaeological site.

Zayas, 27, poses for a portrait with the vanilla crown and scepter she won when she was 17.

Tania Zayas didn’t want to be queen.

But her high school pushed so hard for her to be a candidate for Corpus Christi that the then 17-year-old gave in.

“I was embarrassed,” said Zayas, who now teaches physical education at a primary school in Papantla.

She doesn’t shy away now when people look for her as a former queen. Her crown is woven in the shape of a pyramid, representing the nearby archaeological site of El Tajín. It also contains two orchids and three hearts, a symbol of the region.

“Once I did it and was on the other side, I said it’s really an experience that all women should have,” she said. “It’s nicer because you stay in the history of Papantla.”

Alma Rosa Gonzalez Herrera, 85

Queen: 1958

Alma Rosa González Herrera, 85, poses for a portrait with her Vanilla Crown from 1958, when she was 18 years old.

González, 85, was declared queen of a Corpus Christi festival in Papantla.

Alma Rosa González Herrera was 18 years old, working as an accountant and living with her parents in 1958 when several ranchers came to their house one afternoon and asked if she would run as their candidate for Corpus Christi queen.

González, who had been a “student queen” at her high school the year before, was pleased but not overwhelmed.

“These things almost don’t move me,” she said. “I made a contribution to my city.”

But González, who married a rancher and now writes poetry for a local newspaper, saved the crown for more than half a century. A photo at her home in Papantla shows the then-teenager smiling, her hair covered in confetti that a crowd threw into the air as she arrived at a theater for her coronation.

Josefa Vargas Riaño, 71

Queen: 1972

Josefa Vargas Riaño’s vanilla crown decorated with hearts and jewels.

one. Josefa Vargas Riaño, 71, poses with the crown and wand she won when she was 19. 2. Vargas Riaño holds a framed photo of herself as queen in 1972.

The race for Josefa Vargas Riaño to be Queen of Corpus Christi was easy. Vargas, then 19, and two other candidates for what she called “the biggest party in town” pulled envelopes from a crystal bowl. Vargas was stunned when she saw that hers said “Queen.”

Photos of her coronation hang on the wall at Freijoó Casa Vintage, the hotel she owns in Papantla that will soon host an exhibition on the history of the queens.

“That was a really nice part of my youth,” said Vargas, who also works for Pemex.

On the 50th anniversary of Vargas’ coronation, about two dozen former queens gathered to celebrate.

“Congratulations on all the honor you have given us over the last 50 years,” said the mayor. “A Queen or Princess of Corpus Christi officially serves only one year. In reality, even after she gives up the crown, she never, ever ceases to be a member of the royal court.”

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