The most beautiful girl in the world

by John Lamperti


María Isabel Arrieta Gálvez, always called Maribel, was a remarkable young woman, and, as several people commented to me, undoubtedly "the most beautiful girl in El Salvador." There is evidence to back that up. In 1953 she was chosen "Miss Latin America" from among 43 contestants and rode a float in Pasadena's Rose Parade. Then in 1955 Maribel represented her country as "Miss El Salvador" at the "Miss Universe" competition in Long Beach, California. She came in second to the entrant from Sweden, Hillevi Rombin.1 Maribel was a national celebrity when she returned to El Salvador after the competition, and a considerable crowd, including Enrique Alvarez and his brother Ernesto, was on hand to meet her at the airport.

In fact Maribel's friends had expected her to win the top spot in the contest. One of her classmates from Los Angeles still has a firm opinion:

She was NOT the second most beautiful girl in the world. She was the MOST beautiful (inside and out). We were all certain that she would become Miss Universe. Why didn't she? She did a very stupid thing. The day before the big judging, she went out on the beach and got a sunburn!!!!! Her skin was pink, pink, pink in that swimsuit! In fact, one of the judges did tell her that she lost points for that, and that's what cost her the contest.2

A history of the pageant (found on the internet) confirms that 1955 produced an unusual "scandal" because "a group" questioned the final judgment, insisting that Maribel, described as "the most exact double of Marilyn Monroe," ought to have won. In any case, Maribel had a couple of consolations in addition to her second place finish.. First, she was voted "Miss Congeniality" by the other contestants, their own choice for the nicest person among them. She also obtained a short-term contract and acting lessons from Hollywood's Universal Studios, and in November of that year starred in the Mexican film comedy "Nos veremos en el cielo" ("We'll meet in heaven"), which was screened in 1956. Unfortunately the film was less memorable than Maribel's Miss Universe appearance, and it seems to have been the only one she made.3

Maribel was also a serious artist, and studied at LA's College of Art during the early 1950s. In 1953 she received a prize for one of her lithographs and was accepted as a member of the Watercolor Society of Los Angeles. Decades later her paintings appeared in international shows in France, Spain, Belgium, the United States, and Italy. In 1983 one of her pictures won first prize at the International Exposition of Monaco.

One more interesting testimony to Maribel is that she unwittingly played the role of Beatrice for a young Nicaraguan poet in exile:

There in San Salvador, Rigoberto fell in love, with the most passionate Platonic love I have ever seen, with a beautiful young Salvadoran named Maribel Arrieta, the only Central American to win second place in the global contest "Miss Universe."

One day he showed me an exquisitely lettered album full of manuscript poems dedicated to Maribel. I believe that she never came to know Rigoberto personally, since all this happened by way of us.4

The Nicaraguan poet was Rigoberto López Pérez, who in 1956 assassinated the dictator Anastasio Somoza García and lost his own life in the act. For many (but of course not quite all) Nicaraguans he is a beloved national hero. The fate of the album of poems written to Maribel is, unfortunately, unknown.

For several years Maribel Arrieta and Enrique Alvarez were frequently together, and friends expected them to marry. Enrique was from a wealthy coffee-growing family; he was also a leading athlete in several sports and was described as "a divine dancer." Certainly he was one of El Salvador's most eligible bachelors.5 Maribel in turn was more than just good-looking; "she was a beautiful person inside and out," says Enrique's friend Antonio Cabrales:

She was fair, blonde, looked something like Marilyn Monroe, that type, but much more beautiful. Marilyn was more sexy, this girl was very humble, very nice--a beautiful girl. She used to come to the games, and that was [Enrique's] girl friend. I used to go with him to give her serenades, guitar playing and love songs, and he'd sing and everything ... I remember all those years.

He really liked this girl. For some reason something happened and he didn't continue with her. Otherwise I think his life might have changed, gotten married ... He never married.6

Another friend and colleague, Lino Osegueda, had this to say about Enrique and Maribel: "They were really in love and planned to marry. But her finish in Miss Universe opened for her a year of modeling and touring in Europe, and this led to their breakup. A bit later, Enrique was very upset to read that she was going to marry a nobleman."7

And so she did. In December 1956 Maribel was appointed chancellor of the Salvadoran consulate in Amberes, Belgium, where she served until 1963. There she met Jaques Thuret. When the two were married in April of 1961, Maribel herself joined the Belgian nobility as the Baronesa de Thuret. But after the death of Enrique Alvarez 20 years later, Lino received an envelope from Maribel with a photo from the 1950s showing her dancing with Enrique. She couldn't keep it anymore, she explained, since seeing it made her too sad. Lino speculates that the frustrated love affair with Maribel could be the reason Enrique never married, but he isn't sure, and neither is anyone else.

Maribel's marriage with Jaques Thuret produced three children, but their relationship was not a happy one; "Jaques was not a nice man," according to one of her friends. Fortunately Maribel had other interests. She kept up diplomatic work in various positions, and in 1977 became a cultural attaché for the Salvadoran mission to the European Community. Living in Europe also allowed her to continue to study and work as an artist--with considerable success, achieving her first international show in 1974 in France.

Maribel expressed her religious and compassionate feelings by caring for seriously ill persons making the pilgrimage to Lourdes in search of help. She even studied nursing (in Brussels) in order to do this work, and made many trips at her own expense. The Order of Malta in El Salvador honored her devotion with the "silver medal of merit Melitense" in 1981, and with the title "Dama de Gracia Magistral" in 1985. Maribel died in 1989 at the age of 55 years.



1) New York Times, July 24, 1955.

2) This comment, including all the emphasis, is from an email sent me by Maribel's Los Angeles classmate Joy Bartula Wyse.

3) This was not Maribel's fault, for the script was pretty silly. The film is described in Emilio García Riera, Historia Documental del Cine Mexicano (Universidad de Guadelajara, Mexico, 1993), volume 8, pages 138-140, including a photo of Maribel in her role.

4) From "Thinking about Nicaragua" by Ignacio Briones Torres, 9/23/99, found on the internet (in Spanish).

5) Despite his social position, Enrique Alvarez devoted his adult life to working for agrarian reform to benefit El Salvador's campesino population. In 1980 he became president of the Democratic Revolutionary Front, a center-left coalition of the political opposition to the existing government. He was murdered by elements of the military later that year. (See the biographical article about Alvarez and the chronology elsewhere on this web site.)

6) Interview with Antonio Cabrales, San Salvador, November 1997.

7) Interview with Lino Osegueda, San Salvador, November 1997.

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