Despite winning the crown earlier this month, Miss USA Nia Sanchez said she'll always be the girl from Menifee.
Sanchez, 24, grew up in Menifee before moving to Nevada -- the state she represented when crowned Miss USA on June 9. Today, in an exclusive interview with Menifee 24/7, the former Menifee resident turned beauty queen talks candidly about being raised by a single parent, going back to school and practicing Christianity. She also reveals who's following closely in her footsteps.
You were raised by your father from age 8 to high school. What was it like to leave your mother and move to the Menifee Valley?
“I remember being nervous at first, but it ended up being a really good thing. I feel like I’m really balanced now because of the way I was raised with my dad. He’s in the military, he was raised in a military family, he worked in a prison as a sergeant, and he owns a taekwondo studio. I learned how to be very aware of my surroundings and to be very independent. I had my mom who was always there for me as well, even though she was in Washington. I got the best of both worlds.”
Your father raised you and your brother all by himself?
"Yes. We did have my grandparents as well, who would help watch us when he had to go to work and everything. But yes, he raised us as a single parent."
That's interesting that you were raised by your father. You'd think most children would want to be with their mother during a separation.
“It was a court decision that the children weren’t really involved with. I think it was just that he was the breadwinner and had a full-time job and the finances to really be able to take care of us, and my mom was still getting on her feet and everything. It’s how I was raised, so I don’t know anything different. But it worked for me and my brother, and we both love our parents so much.”
What do you remember most about your childhood in Menifee?
"The first thing that comes to mind is playing with my friends. We played in the park right next to the Callie Kirkpatrick Elementary School. We lived right in that area, so we could literally hear my dad call for us when it was time to come home. So I just remember playing in the park, running around the lake and spending time with my friends."
"I do now. I remember when I was 18 and I had been to Europe and I had already moved to Washington, and I was trying to figure out what to do next. I was like, 'I don't want to go to Menifee; it's such a small town!' That was my 18-year-old mentality saying, 'I have to do something else!' But I feel like as I’ve grown up, I’ve come to appreciate the hometown feeling and every time I come home, it’s a cozy feeling, like you’re returning to your roots. I really love it.”
Do you still come back and visit?
"I do. Now that I'm Miss USA it's going to be a little bit less, of course, but I do plan on coming home to visit in the next couple of months if possible. My little baby brother, he's 7 years old, he's still there, and my dad, and my grandparents and aunt and uncle. When I was Miss Nevada I would try to come back like once a month, just because of my little brother; I miss him so much. I'd try to do like a little weekend so I could see my brother and hang out with friends."
You were very involved in church when you lived here. How did that start?
"I went to Revival. I was invited by a friend in sixth grade, and I was like, 'OK, cool, I'll hang out and do this whole church thing,' and I fell in love with it. My faith has always been an important part of my life ever since then. I just loved being involved with the church. We would go on mission trips, I would volunteer for Sunday School, and I'd be an usher. I did a little bit of everything. It was an important part of my life, and still is.”
What kinds of things did you see during your mission trips?
“One of the things that always really impacted me and I still remember to this day is when I was in Africa, and the people there had absolutely nothing. Literally like tin walls for a family of 5 or 6, or just one room for all of them. They were so happy with absolutely nothing. Even the people in Mexico, they had nothing and they were still joyful. It really put things into perspective for me. It’s not about material things, it’s not about what you have, but it’s about what’s in your heart that’s most important. Seeing the way people live and still have happy spirits is something that impacted me.”
After you graduated from Paloma Valley High School in 2008, you started taking classes at Mt. San Jacinto Community College. What was the plan back then?
"I just wanted to make sure that I at least started my education off. But then I had these wonderful opportunities to travel. I feel like life experience is really important too, so I got to go to South America, Central America, and eventually work in Hong Kong. Now I'm excited to be able to go back to school. With Miss Nevada, I received a $46,000 scholarship and from Miss USA I also get a scholarship to New York Film Academy. There's so many opportunities now, and I'm really excited to pursue those after Miss USA."
What will your major be?
“I'm still deciding. Anything along the lines of working with children, and that I can use towards working with children. Even like a psychology degree, so I can be like a counselor, anything with kids. I just love children and helping them learn and grow.”
Let's talk pageantry. One of your first competitions was for Miss Menifee Valley, and you won that in 2008. Any advice for the latest local beauty queen?
“Funny enough, that’s my sister (Alena Arriaga). She just won the title last weekend. I love her so much. I tell her to always keep a positive outlook. Just be positive and encourage others, because when you lift other people up, it really makes yourself feel good as well.”
You have a sister?
"Yes, she's my stepsister."
"Often, yes. I was on the song team at Paloma Valley High School, and she joined the song team when she went there. She did some pageants here and there after I had been doing pageants. She's a sweetheart, I love her to death, and I feel like she looks up to me and I try to make an example."
“I want my children to do whatever they’re happy with. If she wants to do pageants, I would let her compete. I would never force my child into something they wouldn’t enjoy.”
One of your previous coaches said you used to be the girl next door. Even though you're Miss USA, is there still a part of you that is the girl next door from a small town?
“I feel like it’s really important to stay true to who you are. I want to always be relatable to people and never forget where I come from. Menifee is such an important part of my history, and it makes me who I am. I’ll always be the girl next door, the girl from Menifee, always.”
(Above photo courtesy Anne M. Bowman)