The reigning Miss Universe made a triumphant return to her native Puerto Rico on Monday, kneeling to kiss a red carpet rolled out at the airport for her first visit to the island since she was crowned in July.
Zuleyka Rivera Mendoza, wearing a short green dress and waving a Puerto Rican flag, was greeted by the governor and first lady of the U.S. Caribbean territory as she stepped off the flight from New York. Since the contest, she has been touring countries including Japan and Indonesia.
"I'm proud to be Puerto Rican, to represent Puerto Rican women and to represent the Puerto Rican people," the 18-year-old aspiring actress said at a press conference, her voice halting with emotion.
Thousands of admirers were expected to line the route of a homecoming parade from San Juan's international airport to an 18,000-seat arena, where well-known Puerto Rican artists including Gilberto Santa Rosa and Black Guayaba were scheduled to perform.
Rivera, the fifth winner from Puerto Rico in the pageant's 55-year history, edged out first runner-up Kurara Chibana of Japan to claim the title July 23 in Los Angeles. She is the first winner from the island since Denise Quinones in 2001.
"Your triumph is the triumph of Puerto Rico because you represent the best of Puerto Rico," said Gov. Anibal Acevedo Vila, who invited the beauty queen to dine with his family and spend Monday night at the governor's colonial mansion.
Rivera, whose parents and two younger brothers also greeted her at the airport, planned to return Tuesday to her hometown of Salinas on the southern coast, reports AP.