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There was a time the politically progressive Evelina Molina couldn’t imagine having anything to do with a competition that has young women displaying themselves on stage in gowns and crowns.

And yet, here she is, up to her ears in preparations for the second Miss Latina Wine Country judging.

“I kind of rolled my eyes at first,” said Molina, a Sonoma County activist whose work includes helping Latinos find environmentally responsible work. “I thought, ‘Oh my god, a beauty pageant.’ ”

With the approach of the July 10, bilingual, open-to-all Miss Latina competition at Graton casino, Molina finds herself putting in long hours assisting pageant director Crystal Rangel and the nine hopefuls.

Those nine bond more tightly as they practice self-defense and public speaking, they refine their poise, healthful decisions and ability to think on their feet, and they consider how and in what realms they might enact their potential and contribute more to their community.

Molina tells of changing her perspective after hearing why Rangel created the pageant last year and seeing how it can benefit the women.

“Latinas need to empower themselves,” said founder Rangel, who has a background in bilingual radio in Sonoma County and works at Santa Rosa’s Julie Nation modeling and talent school, a key supporter of the pageant.

Too often, said Rangel, “Their self-confidence is too low.”

She and Molina speak about wanting to help young Latinas rise above what the culture may think they’re destined to, to what they’re capable of. Molina said she has come to view Miss Latina Wine Country as an opportunity for contestants to overcome fear, insecurities and the limits imposed by their own assumptions and those they may encounter at home, in their neighborhoods and in the community.

“This is not just a beauty pageant,” Molina said. “This is redefining beauty.”

Nearly a year after the first Miss Latina Wine Country competition, the 2015 first runner up, or Princess, Cathia Sanchez, has become a busy and much-photographed face of Sonoma Raceway.

The first Miss Latina Wine Country, Zaira Valencia Reyna, days ago declared on Facebook that dealing with detractors has been one of the benefits of her reign. In her post, Reyna wrote that there’s only thing she can say to those who attack or criticize her.

“Thank you,” she posted. She said dealing with the adversity has made her stronger.

“A crown does not define who I am,” Reyna wrote. “I define what to do with the crown and my determination, strength and wisdom ... Thank you with all my heart to all those who have supported me and also thanks to those who don’t.”

The 2016 pageant happens at the casino in Rohnert Park from 4 to 6 p.m. on July 10. The women paused during a rehearsal last week at Gerardo Sanchez’ Cali Kicks Martial Arts Academy to reflect on why they’re seeking to become the second Miss Latina Wine Country.

“It’s something I never thought I can do,” said 23-year-old Elizabeth Villaneuva, who serves at Cotati’s Mi Ranchito restaurant.

“I want to improve myself and show myself and other Latina women that we can believe in ourselves, and believe in our dreams.”

The pageant appeals to Karla Abrica, who’s 22 and on the kitchen staff at Kendall-Jackson Wine Estate & Gardens, because her ambitions include going into nursing and becoming less bashful.

Abrica said some of her relatives and friends thought it was odd she entered such an event “because I’m a really shy person.”

Contestant Jessica Rivas, 24, works both at Acre Coffee and at Healdsburg’s Barndiva. She hopes the Miss Latina Wine Country experience will move her closer to two primary goals: to run her own business and to help the members of her family who have trouble finding work because they don’t possess Social Security numbers.

Said fellow contestant Carmen Ramos, 27, and an employee of Stark’s Steak and Seafood, “I want to lose my fears.”

Already, she credits the program with helping her “to be sure of myself.”

Ramos added, “I want to be an inspiration for my family. My whole family is in Mexico; I’m the only one here.”

The Miss Latina Wine Country competition’s Vanessa Estrella is 23 and a dental assistant at SAI Dental Care in Santa Rosa.

“I haven’t done anything like this before,” she said. “It’s really not a competition, it’s more with myself.”

What most motivates Estrella is the chance to inspire other Latinas — “especially my younger sister.” The message she’d like to promote: “If you want something you go and get it, rather than wait for it to come to you.”

The prospect of inspiring others inspires 28-year-old Fabiola Razo, a child advocate for the Child Parent Institute in Santa Rosa.

“I decided that win or lose, I want to be a role model for young Latina women,” said Razo. She added, “I definitely feel that my self-esteem has grown from this experience.”

Also in that vein, hopeful Estrella Field, who’s 29 and operates a Napa health studio, Star Fitness, said, “More than anything, I want to show every young Latina woman you can accomplish every dream you have.”

Nineteen-year-old Edith Loza, a student at Santa Rosa Junior College and a Boys & Girls Club employee, said “little by little” what she and the others are doing to prepare to do on July 10 is helping her with one of the challenges in her life.

“I have a fear of being in front of an audience,” she said.

And what brings Nadia Castro of Windsor to the pageant? Castro is 21 and a vineyard worker who aspires to elevate herself to a profession, perhaps as a model.

Keen also to inspire young Latinas, Castro said at first some members of her family were skeptical about her taking part in the Miss Latina Wine Country competition.

An example of the familial resistance: “Mexican fathers don’t like girls to be exhibiting their bodies,” she said.

But as she has progressed toward the judging event, Castro said, her mother has told her she will come up from the Mexican state of Sinaloa to watch her perform.

And her father? He’ll be there, too, Castro said.

Chris Smith is at 521-5211 and chris.smith@pressde mocrat.com