Fresh perspectives from Garlic Queens

Top row, left to right: Stephanie Marquez, Megan Griffin,

It was 6:30 in the morning when Cristin Reichmuth decided to
venture alone into the streets of Takko-Machi. The freshly crowned
Miss Gilroy Garlic Queen awoke in Gilroy’s sister city
– itself known as the Garlic Capital of Japan – with a full
palette of school drop-ins and festival appearances ahead.
It was 6:30 in the morning when Cristin Reichmuth decided to venture alone into the streets of Takko-Machi. The freshly crowned Miss Gilroy Garlic Queen awoke in Gilroy’s sister city – itself known as the Garlic Capital of Japan – with a full palette of school drop-ins and festival appearances ahead.

Reichmuth, however, added a last-minute morning excursion to her itinerary. A member of the San Jose State University women’s swim team, Reichmuth wasn’t about to let several days spent out of the pool – and portions of Japanese cuisine fit for a queen – slow her down once she returned home. She grabbed her camera and went jogging.

In the midst of her cardio shutterbugging, Reichmuth came upon an elegant temple, its door slightly ajar. Peering inside, Reichmuth saw four elderly, Japanese men slurping down sake. They didn’t speak a breath of English. They noticed Reichmuth standing in the doorway and motioned for her to sit with them.

“I thought, ‘Sake at like 6:30 in the morning?'” Reichmuth said, as though the shock of the moment had never faded.

She overcame her skepticism and agreed to a single sip of sake before rushing off. Her words turned to laughter as she described the situation. Being Garlic Queen certainly had its unadvertised perks, she learned.

“That’s just one of the great moments,” Reichmuth said. “My life would not be the same without being the Garlic Queen.”

Reichmuth isn’t alone.

For the past 32 years, 32 different women have worn the crown of Miss Gilroy Garlic. Some traveled overseas to represent the Garlic Mecca. One, Kathy Bendel-Daniels, the first winner in 1979, was featured in Les Blank’s 1980 documentary “Garlic Is As Good As Ten Mothers,” a film shot partly at the inaugural Garlic Festival. Another, 2006 winner Sheena Torres, appeared on the Montel Williams Show to promote the festival. Two queens were sisters. Many became friends. All have professed their love for garlic.

One year later

Vying for the title of Garlic Queen isn’t something contestants decide to do overnight, said Lauren Iwanaga, who captured the crown last year.

“Growing up, we always knew about the Garlic Queen,” she said. “We’d always see them when we’d volunteer at the Garlic Festival.”

Twice a week for the two months leading up to the pageant, candidates polished their talent routines, sharpened their interview poise and made sure their mandatory

two-minute speeches were loaded with reasons why they loved garlic.

Although there could be only one queen, contestants couldn’t help but almost root for one another.

“In one way, you’re competing against each other, but it’s also like a support system,” Iwanaga said. “It’s not like any other beauty pageant.”

One year later, she still gets excited thinking about the moment her name was announced.

“The feeling of support from family and friends was amazing,” she said. “You feel this sense of pride, not just for the Garlic Festival, but for Gilroy itself. It was definitely an experience unlike any other. My heart’s racing just thinking about it again.”

Iwanaga, who is a second-grade teacher at Las Animas Elementary, was the first Japanese-American to be named Garlic Queen. Her grandparents, proud supporters of Gilroy’s sister cities program, invited Takko-Machi residents to stay in their Gilroy home in the early 1990s, Iwanaga said.

When she visited Takko-Machi, she met a woman who had kept photographs of her time spent with Iwanaga’s grandparents.

“It was really amazing,” Iwanaga said.

In the weeks leading up to the pageant, she tried to stay mum on her Garlic Queen aspirations around her students as best she could. Once she won, though, “it spread pretty quickly,” she said.

Her students were ecstatic.

“They really enjoyed finding out their teacher was a Garlic Queen,” she said.

Iwanaga has taught them, however, she won’t be the newest Garlic Queen for much longer.

“They know that the new queen is going to be crowned soon,” she said.

Queen sisters

For Lauretta Barsi-Avina, only one moment could match the thrill of being Garlic Queen: watching her sister take home the crown three years later.

Barsi-Avina was 19 years old when she was crowned Queen in 1983. She received a behind-the-scenes look at the Garlic Festival, served as an ambassador and even starred in a TV commercial to promote the festival.

“I really don’t remember everything,” Barsi-Avina said. “I was kept quite busy throughout the year.”

She added, “(The festival) was only 5 years old, but already famous.”

Barsi-Avina met an ambassador from Monticelli, Italy – another Gilroy sister city – allowing her to practice Italian, her native language. Her family moved to Gilroy from Italy when she was 8 years old.

Barsi-Avina’s sister, Franca Barsi, became the family’s second Garlic Queen in 1986. Avina was more than happy to share the title.

“As an older sister, I was very proud of her,” Barsi-Avina said. “I was excited. I couldn’t wait to help her.”

In fact, a gown Barsi-Avina wore in a later Miss California pageant was donned by her sister for her Garlic Queen pageant.

For 20 years, the two beamed as the only sisters to be crowned Garlic Queens. In 2006, tragedy befell the family, as Barsi was killed by her on-again, off-again boyfriend in her Gilroy condominium following an argument. David Vincent Reyes was sentenced to 32 years in prison in November 2007 after pleading guilty to voluntary manslaughter. At his sentencing hearing, Avina wore a pin with her sister’s smiling face on it.

Now, Barsi-Avina is pursuing a criminal and social justice degree online from Ashford University. She said she wants to be an advocate for victims of violent crime.

When Barsi-Avina was crowned, the queen was not yet allowed to travel overseas to represent the festival. A few years later, when pageant winners were first whisked away to Takko-Machi, Barsi-Avina joked she would run again just so she could travel to Japan.

Why stop at Japan, though, she said?

Barsi-Avina said allowing the pageant winner to travel to Monticelli also would be a good experience for the Garlic Queen – and whomever goes with her.

“Then I can be the translator and just have to go every year,” she laughed.

The first trip

Being Garlic Queen helped at least one self-labeled “sheltered kid” take her first steps on international turf.

Jennifer Speno, who won the 1987 Miss Gilroy Garlic crown at age 18, was the first pageant winner to travel to Takko-Machi. She made her royal presence felt in Fukuoka, Kyoto and Tokyo as well, and visited towns in Taiwan and Hong Kong.

They were big steps for the homegrown Gilroyan.

Speno was raised an only child, and her post-coronation excursion was her first trip outside California. She traveled with city officials and chaperones, seeing “a whirlwind of things,” she said. Schools, city buildings, festivals – all were on her itinerary. She said she can’t remember every place she was cast or every person she bowed to.

“I was in really good company,” Speno said. “We kind of traveled all over.”

The whirlwind settled and years passed, but Speno’s elevated adoration of her garlicky home wouldn’t cease. In 2005, she became the only pageant winner to serve as the volunteer Garlic Festival president.

“It’s a sense of pride being able to travel overseas and represent Gilroy and the Garlic Festival,” she said. “I definitely was able to appreciate what had been given to me.”

An exclusive club

Whoever is chosen to be the 2011 Garlic Queen will feel the same sense of exclusivity the other 32 Queens have experienced, Reichmuth said.

“Thirty-two,” she reiterated. “Thirty-two people in the world that get to be called Garlic Queen.”

On March 26, at 4 p.m. at the Gavilan College Theater, Stephanie Marquez, Megan Griffin, Tiffani Peterson, Melissa Davis, Alexis Guiza, Toni Eves and Heather Brodersen will compete to be No. 33.

The winner will keep her crown and sash and be thrust off to her own queen-related adventures. She will still be queen long after a new one is crowned, Reichmuth said.

Fifteen years after winning, she said people are still elated to find out they’ve met a pageant winner.

“I still get people who find out and say, ‘You were a Garlic Queen?’ ” she said. “It’s exciting.”

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