If one single word could define Juana Burga, one may tentatively say ‘resilience.’ She faced many obstacles before obtaining her glamorous position and success. In the competitive fashion arena, Juana had to fight every step of the way. And yet, by displaying patience, resilience, and humility, this young woman transcended boundaries to become one of the World’s greatest Top models.
Her multiple talents also paved her entry into new artistic realms. Juana recently played a lead role in the futuristic film ‘The Unseen.’ Yaku, her character, is a Quechua girl who wanders through barren plains searching for water in a post-apocalyptic planet Earth. Juana had the rare chance of breaking into the film industry while raising awareness about an issue she deeply cares about: global warming. Although she claims she was lucky to land this role, this seems a reward for her years of hard work.
Juana has partaken in the most exclusive fashion events around the globe. But she has never forgotten her roots and where she came from. Barrios Altos is the oldest and yet the most historically significant district of Lima. Still displaying some antique buildings, the barrios were named ‘Altos’ due to its ‘higher’ grounds in relation to its periphery. In Colonial Lima, this neighborhood comprised a church, an army base, and various convents.
In the last century, though, Barrios Altos witnessed a transformation and became a working-class neighborhood. Despite its proximity to the Government Palace, Barrios Altos was and still is considered unsafe. But after hearing Juana’s detailed recollections of her neighborhood, such shady reputation seems fictitious. Born and raised in Barrios Altos, Juana enjoyed a marvelous childhood. The warmth of her neighbors was quite unique, she said. “The neighbors were like a family. That’s something you don’t see anywhere else. I miss living there, it made me experience different situations, along with my parents and brothers. It made me understand many things about life.”
Juana was born in 1991, during a decade of political strife. Amidst a violent internal civilian conflict, the war-torn Peruvian Republic inaugurated a phase of reconstruction. The high levels of poverty and unemployment then cast a shadow on the future. The repressive troopers were loose on the streets and arrested civilians without a warrant. There was a strong climate of fear and everyone remained alert.
Juana’s parents, Perla Cervera Chanamé and Abel Romero Dávila, did their best to protect their children. They took good care of Juana and her four siblings, Abel, Elenita, Paolo and Marcelo. They all were nurtured with strong values and discipline. For Juana, the love of her parents was very essential in her upbringing. Asked about those troublesome years, Juana replied that her parents provided everything she and her siblings needed.
In addition, Juana had an excellent education. She studied at ‘Virgo Potens,’ a nearby public school run by the ‘Sisters of Charity of Saint Vincent de Paul.’ The kindness of the nuns infused a virtuous environment in that neighborhood jeopardized by vandalism. Juana’s early years were spent at school, her home, and playing with neighbors on the street. Juana said she had ‘an incredible time.’ Even if she only lived there until she was eight, Barrios Altos had a magical influence on her. “I’m extremely proud of having lived there..it shaped me into the woman I am today. The solidarity of the people!..They even paid a visit if you were ill. I learned to trust people, and to never be afraid of anyone or anything,” she confided.
Eventually, Juana’s family moved to San Miguel, a district brimming with parks, retail stores, and residential buildings. By then, Juana’s horizons had expanded well beyond Lima. She recalls visiting her grandmother in the town of ‘Pimentel’ pretty often. “My mother’s family come from Chiclayo,” Juana told me once. The Pimentel port lies side by side with the Pacific Coast, in the Chiclayo district, northern Peru. The gorgeous blue sky, the dazzling sunlight, and the beaches fascinated her. Artisanal fishermen sailed over the seas using totora rafts, known as caballitos de totora. “I enjoyed the beach and nature overall,” she said. Juana spent many evenings with her grandmother, Dorita Cervera.
Dorita remains a source of inspiration for the young model. In her youth, Dorita was an elegant lady accustomed to wearing high-heels and fitted-waist dresses. As well as her granddaughter today, Dorita exuded beauty and sophistication. Dorita’s daughter, Perla Cervera (Juana’s mother), also inherited those talents. This is the reason why Juana is convinced that her passion for ‘style’ was well embedded in her genes. It all ran in the family. Dorita recalls that, even as a child, Juana wished to “learn how to walk in high heels.” As precocious as she was, Juana still set herself a high standard for her fashion style. Back in San Miguel, Juana also loved fixing her own hair. And whenever Perla left for work, Juana tried on her mother’s clothes before the mirror. Experimenting with colors and styles, the innocent girl was inadvertently forging her path.
Juana later attended Sor Rosa Larrabure, a Catholic school in Magdalena. At age 15, she had developed an obsession with fashion. She strived to reveal her inner essence through her look. Her style delivered her personal outlook on life, and she did her best to display her originality. She used her friends’ parties as opportunities to test new hairdos and makeup.
‘Many people said I could not model in Europe because, in that continent, a model is either black or white, but I never paid attention to them. I always followed my path and never let anything to stop me, not my own prejudices and much less theirs..’
In those years, Juana forged a friendship with Suset Thais, a girl also fascinated with fashion. It was Suset, currently a blogger based in Missouri, who told her about an upcoming local modeling contest. At first, Juana was reluctant. “I spent two months pondering over it. When I made up my mind, the enrollment was already closed,” Juana recalls. But her persuasive mother finally convinced the organizers to allow her child to compete. What happened later now sounds like an anecdote. One of the World’s greatest Top models did not even win her first ‘local’ competition. She was selected among the finalists, though. Juana attributes her defeat to her insufficient height. “I was only 15 and still measured 5’ 7’’ feet. The jury was searching for models over 5’ 8.”
The remarkable fact is that Juana took her defeat in good spirits. She never gave it much thought afterward. She focused on school and played basketball in her free time. Such a positive mindset has defined her career. In difficult times, Juana kept her hopes and dreams intact. She knew another opportunity would come. And months later, it did.
In 2007, the Ford agency visited Lima, searching for a model to represent Perú in the event the ‘Ford Supermodel of the World.’ Juana participated in the casting call, which was conducted by the journalist Maria C. Garcés. When she first saw Juana, Garcés grabbed the girl’s curly hair. “You have to trim your hair,” she ordered.
Immediately, Juana let the hairstylist Marco Antonio do the job. This was Juana’s first experience working with professionals. Juana learned then how hard and unforgiving the fashion industry could be. It all seemed glamorous on the outside, but backstage was off-the-charts stressful. “There are many things one can’t see about modeling, to have a career ..you have to endure many sacrifices.” Although Juana only ended up a finalist in that event, she built important connections.
A year later, the New York Agency ‘Elite Model’ also came to Lima, seeking to recruit top talent. The competition was extensively publicized, drawing over 5,200 participants. The winner had the option of settling in New York, the Mecca of the fashion World. This was the opportunity Juana had been waiting. At 16, she has meteorically made a name for herself. By then she had already taken part in many fashion exhibitions. Peruvian designers lined up begging her to wear their creations.
Fernando Torrejón, a recruiter for Lima Fashion Week, said that Juana’s success was not as easy. They all knew Juana was destined for success. But in her early stints in modeling, she also faced rejection. Following the industry standards, her looks and skin tone differed from ‘the norm.’ “In the beginning, nobody really wanted her.. at the time, most major brands and designers picked models who were blond, and with a lighter skin,” Torrejón said.
Juana has never mentioned if she faced racial discrimination. She was so focused on her goals that perhaps she chose to ignore it. Living in an era dominated by identity politics, she rather preferred to become a committed environmentalist. Once asked for what she hated the most, she replied: “I hate playing the role of a victim. I always set my thoughts higher than that.” And more recently, she emphatically said: “Many people said I could not model in Europe because, in that continent, a model is either black or white, but I never paid attention to them. I always followed my path..and never let anything to stop me, not my own prejudices and much less theirs..” It’s rather ironic that Juana achieved her success by neither endorsing identity politics nor any similar movement. Whether she believed in it or not is irrelevant. Juana only believed in herself. She refused to wait for the world to change. She only changed herself.
With such uncanny intelligence, Juana has clearly made a difference throughout her long career. Precisely, it was that same uncanniness which the jury of Elite model recognized. Thus, the beautiful Juana rose victoriously among the 5,200 contestants. She was officially named the Peruvian Elite Model 2007. Right after, local designers took her on a tour around Europe. She stayed in Prague for a month and was recruited by the most exclusive model agencies.
At 17, Juana moved to New York. The first months were the most excruciating of her career. Juana endured a tremendous cultural shock. Her English wasn’t too proficient then and the city’s fast-paced lifestyle overwhelmed her. Her New York agent facilitated a personal guide to help her move around the city. But, as the fiercely independent woman she has always been, Juana decided not to take him.
Juana regularly had to attend ten casting calls per day. Every night, she wound up exhausted and missing her family and friends. Despite her precocious maturity and determination, Juana also experienced self-doubt. One day, as she stepped off the train rushing to attend a job interview, a strong wind blew her files up in the air. She felt devastated. A gentle passerby helped her pick up her sheets.
In those grueling months of adjusting, Juana was nearly ready to give up. But she later reconsidered and kept fighting for her dreams. “There are often painful falls, but the universe will send you what you want if it is meant for you. One does not have to worry. I was also stressed for things I expected that did not happen or either took too long..But then I thought that perhaps these things didn’t happen because I stressed too much, and it affected my performance..” she once reflected. After surpassing such difficult stage, her career catapulted into fame. She has been featured in Vogue, Vanity Fair, and other reputed publications.
Although she resides in New York, Juana constantly travels all over the world and has a personal agent who manages her busy agenda. And yet, the multiple accolades, public praise, and success have not changed her a bit. That’s the impression she leaves when you first meet her. I bumped into her inside a hipster café on Avenue B, in the neighborhood of East Village. She smiled, shook my hand and said: “Hola, soy Juana.” Her penetrating gaze soothes you with an air of mystery and contentment. Besides her astonishing beauty, I was mesmerized by her deep sense of awareness, her compassion, and humility. Perhaps this is what has kept her so mature and grounded.
Juana is still the same unorthodox girl from Barrios Altos who judges the world by her own standards. In an interview before the screening of ‘The Unseen,’ a journalist asked her about her personal conception of ‘beauty.’ She reflected later: “What is the meaning of beauty for most of us? Clearly, it is not the inner beauty, but rather the superficial beauty, a slim figure and whatever else we wish to create before our eyes…But for me, the great challenge is to discover what real beauty means. And I think that real beauty is that inner energy which grants me the power to connect to the Earth and to all the difficult experiences that I assimilated as a woman.. I believe that is the real beauty, which my character Yaku is trying to portray, a beauty that dismisses any outward appearances and transcends far beyond the limits we are all able to perceive..”𝔖
Image: Courtesy of Solar and Michaela Dosamantes