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BATON ROUGE, La. – Controversy continues to surround presidential candidate Donald Trump's comments painting Mexican immigrants as criminals, but the women taking part in the upcoming Miss USA pageant Trump co-owns say the show must go on.
Several Hispanic candidates and one immigrant from Albania taking part in the contest sat down with The Associated Press to discuss the pageant and Trump's comments.
They said everyone has a right to their opinions but distanced themselves from his comments on immigrants, said they're proud of their roots and hoped the upcoming pageant would shed light on the contributions of immigrants.
"It was hard to hear," said Natasha Martinez, whose mother emigrated to the United States as a young girl from Nicaragua.
"I think it's important to understand that immigrants come here looking for a better life, and they do make these hard sacrifices like leaving their kids and their countries for long periods of time in hopes that they will be reunited and that they will be able to have a better life here in America," said Martinez who represents California.
Trump, a real estate developer, television personality and now-presidential candidate, co-owns Miss Universe which produces the Miss USA pageant. The Miss USA pageant is scheduled to take place on July 12 in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.
Trump slammed Mexican immigrants while announcing his presidential candidacy in June, blaming them for bringing drugs and crime to the U.S. and saying some are rapists.
The fallout was extensive.
Macy's dropped his line of business suits. The Spanish-language broadcaster Univision cut ties with Trump. NBC dropped its pageant telecast. Trump has also been a fixture on NBC as host of "The Apprentice" and its celebrity offshoot, but an agreement that he would no longer be on the show predated the current controversy.
Many celebrities tapped as judges, performers or hosts pulled out of the pageant.
But the pageant will be broadcast. The cable and satellite channel Reelz, which reaches 70 million homes, said last Thursday that they had acquired the rights to show the pageant because of a belief that the pageant and the women who compete in it "are an integral part of American tradition."
Miss Mexico pageant director Lupita Jones said Mexico would boycott Miss Universe. She said Trump damaged the pageant and its tradition of convening countries for an event that showcases "friendship, unity and breaking down cultural barriers."
But the women who spoke to the AP said they were determined to remain in the pageant and compete despite their personal feelings about Trump's comments.
The women arrived in Baton Rouge last week where they have been rehearsing for the Sunday presentation and taking part in a number of pageant related activities.
Anea Garcia, who represents Rhode Island, has a grandmother from the Dominican Republic.
"It's not fair, and it's not OK to generalize one group of people," she said.
Miss Texas Ylianna Guerra said she was determined to stay in the pageant for herself and her supporters back in Texas. She said she worked hard to get to this point and she "wasn't going to let anybody down."
Polikseni Manxhari emigrated to the U.S. at the young age of 5 from Albania and is now representing Massachusetts.
She said she's already brushed aside Trump's comments and is determined to stay focused on her mission — to live out her pageant dream and "inspire all immigrants to know that they can come here and make something of themselves and live the American dream."
The women also came out in support of fellow beauty pageant winner, Paulina Vega of Colombia who is the reigning Miss Universe. Vega has condemned Trump's comments but says she won't give up her crown, sparking Trump to call her a hypocrite.
"She's worked extremely hard to get to the position where she is right now, and I think she's been a great Miss Universe. She's entitled to her own opinion, just as he's entitled to his own opinion," said Guerra.
Santana reported from New Orleans.