Three interviews about going natural in Dominican-American culture
Many cultures and countries often face challenges that set them back or create division among their people. Separatism isn’t conducive to a healthy and thriving society, in any country, but what are a people to do when the very thing that is destructive to their unity and inhibitive of their growth is also tightly woven into their social thread? If everyone seems to be ok with what is actually wrong, is it even wrong; will it ever change? In my culture, you’ll grow up hearing terms like 'pelo bueno' and 'pelo malo' when referring to the contrast between the soft, straight hair of Dominicans with more of European or Asian descent and the stigmatized dry, kinky and curly hair of those with more of African descent. The terms mean nothing more than good hair and bad hair. I don’t know when Dominicans started using these terms to refer to their own hair textures, but they have been embedded into our culture as being completely normal and acceptable ways of referring to people’s natural hair textures.
Considering that the Dominican Republic has experienced a significant level of conditioning and oppression, dating back to the time of its colonization, I can understand why certain features; skin tones; and hair types are regarded by a vast number of Dominicans as being inferior to that of others. It’s not unusual to find a Dominican of the opinion that people of fair-skin and European facial-features, eye-colors and hair-types are more attractive than those of dark-skin, African facial-features and coarse/curly hair. In fact, a person of dark skin; naturally straight hair; and European facial-features is typically referred to as 'una morena linda' or 'un moreno lindo', i.e., an attractive Black-Person. If said person has lightly-colored eyes, he or she is typically admired or fawned-over by Dominicans because of their 'unconventional' beauty. We have generations of brainwashing and oppression that we need to confront and deal with, but sadly, many of us aren’t even aware of how distorted and illogical these ideals and values are, which makes the fight against this perception very challenging for those who are embracing their African roots and identify as 'Afro Latinos'. I interviewed three Dominican women who shared with me what the experience of wearing their naturally dry and curly hair has been like for them.
“People don’t want you to wear your hair natural,” said Noelia, a seventeen-year-old high school Senior. “As a child, it was difficult. I went through a lot of self-hatred and self-doubt because I thought that my hair wasn’t good enough. My cousins would tell me ‘Don’t worry, your hair is going to be good one day’. As a kid, it was hard– I did get bullied. I just remember, like, getting made fun of. I got a relaxer when I was around like ten [years old]…it ruined my hair like crazy,” Noelia stated, in what seemed to be a regretful tone as she shared these memories with me. It seemed as if she was ashamed of ever having been ashamed. Somewhere around the fourth grade, she decided to take her haircare regimen into her own hands. “I wanted to take control of my own hair. I just felt like I needed to grow up a little. I wanted to try something new with my hair and see what I was capable of doing. I didn’t even know how to take care of it. I would detangle it from the root, yanking it,” she proceeded to tell me. It took a while for her to finally accept her natural hair, going back-and-forth from wearing it natural to straightening it in the way that she was learning from watching YouTube tutorials. “I guess I wasn’t ok with my natural self,” she explained, as she shared her past reluctance towards 'going natural' with her hair.
Noelia didn’t fully embrace her hair-type until she reached high school, and even then, she faced some ridicule. Walking into work one day, someone made an embarrassing remark about her hair, but the irony in this is that people eventually began to compliment her on her hairstyles and accept her natural look. “I knew that I had to start small. I knew that if I started wearing my hair down and trying new things, my confidence would evolve,” said Noelia about her nerve-wracking first steps into freedom.
Leonalis, a 23-year-old Dominican Woman, said that as a child, she hadn't been aware of the fact that her hair was curly. “I have pictures of me when I was, like, small, with some little curls. I was never like, ‘Oh my gosh, I have beautiful curls! Oh yes, I should leave my hair naturally curly because I have curly hair;’ Never!” Leo explained, as she discussed being brought-up around people who had a distorted understanding of how naturally curly hair relates to beauty. “I thought that when I moved to Saint Croix [US Virgin Islands], I would find people who embraced their natural hair,” expressed Leo, sharing her disappointment in discovering that many of the islanders shared negative sentiments about coarse, dry, curly hair with their Dominican neighbors.
Leo shared her perspective on the ever-changing standard of beauty and suggested that people should refrain from trying to measure up to it– “I was looking at a video…[on the topic of beauty standards throughout history] [starting] maybe in the 60’s, [and moving] all the way into the 90’s; being skinny was the thing. Then, 10 years later, having curves made you beautiful…then being tough was what made you beautiful. The standard of beauty has changed in so many ways, and it drags people along with it. You don’t know how you’re supposed to look to actually be and feel beautiful because it changes [so frequently]; everything makes you think about your own beauty...you’re always thinking about somebody else [in comparison to yourself]…Why am I not like her? Why doesn’t my hair wave in the wind?” Leo mentioned that in the past, mainstream media indirectly played a huge role in distorting POC's self-perception because the lime-light lacked diversity and made handiwork of hurting the self-esteem of minority girls with what it didn’t show them– proper and frequent representation.
“I started watching videos from girls in the natural-hair community on YouTube. My roots started growing in; my hair was curly up top and straight near the bottom [because of the damage it had endured], and my relatives offered to pay for my hair to be dyed and processed...but I didn’t want to do that anymore. I was being influenced to keep my hair natural by the girls in the videos that I was watching. I thought...if I let my hair grow, it’d return to its natural state. I remember watching the videos and thinking, ‘She’s really pretty…I want my hair to look like that,’ but I didn’t want to cut away the damaged parts of my hair because everyone around me thought that having long hair was pretty. If you were going to have curls, they needed to be long, bouncy curls because a short, curly afro would be called nappy,” said Leo, as we discussed her transition into wearing and embracing her hair's natural aesthetic.
When you love your hair’s natural aesthetic and texture, you’ll do whatever it takes to get it to a healthy state, so that you can show-it-off. There are a number of 'Naturals' out there who need to spend a significant amount of time caring for their hair, letting it grow and styling it; but each person’s hair may require its own unique process and time. Although hair doesn’t have a personality, it definitely knows what it wants, so be patient and take pride in giving it just that; Leo was beginning to understand that with every video about natural hair that she watched on YouTube.
Leo eventually learned a powerful lesson while on her journey to freedom. “I learned that every type of hair is good because it’s you. How can something that is growing out of you [the way God intended it to] be bad? That’s not possible, you know?...something that God created you [with]…how could that be bad? He doesn’t make mistakes...El no hace cosas a lo loco [He doesn’t do things crazily]. If He gave you the hair that you have, He knew it was going to be good. He knew that it would work for something."
As a man of faith, I believe that God created everyone exactly the way that they would've needed to be in order for them to have properly and comfortably inhabited certain places of specific climate and living-conditions. Here's a theory I've sat on for a while– In Ancient times, dry; curly; kinky or coarse hair may have been better-suited for certain geographical areas that other hair-types would not have been. Although many hair-textures; body-types; and skin-tones probably have more to do with people of different races mixing with each other than it does with adaptation, the differences in skin-colors; facial features; and body-types among the races are likely to be the result of people's adaptation to different environments. Places where people with long, straight hair would have thrived, may have proven to be quite the trying-experience for those with other hair-types, not because of the hair-types in and of themselves, but because the hair-types would've been good indicators of where the wearer belonged, in terms of geographical area. Even if your hair-type isn’t the result of a slow and steady anatomical transformation process and is more like a concoction of your Jewish Grandmother and South-American Grand Dad’s genes, it’s still something that grows naturally from your body and is supposed to be there, so I encourage you to learn to accentuate and celebrate it, instead of hating it, even if it doesn't meet the stupid beauty standard.
As the conversation progressed, Leo began to tap into her empowered, Afro-Latina self and shared the perspective that kept her thinking and feeling positive amidst all of the opposition that she had faced when trying to go natural, “I had to start talking about it– 'this is good hair. Your hair is good too. It’s not that your hair is better than mine, or that mine is better than yours; it’s just hair, something that grows out of you...it’s natural…it’s not going to be perfect, and that’s what I love about my curls and everybody’s curls. There’s no way that you will have the same curls [as anyone else]…it’s going to do whatever it wants to because it’s natural, and it’s going to do what it’s supposed to.' I had to train myself and other people [to understand this concept]. When I would go to the salon to get my brows done, [Hispanics] would say, ‘Hey, when are you going to straighten your hair, to make it different? You’re going to look more beautiful!’ They thought I looked more beautiful when my hair was straight, but there were some people that would tell me that [although] they liked my straightened hair, they loved my curls.” Many Afro-Latinos have admitted to having experienced times in their lives when they've felt ashamed of being themselves, a feeling that has reduced many of them to being mere conformists, reluctantly adhering to their society's destructive norms.
In an attempt to further illustrate how deeply-rooted these issues of prejudice and self-hate are within my culture, and to support my claim that the 'pelo malo' and 'pelo bueno' notions are undoubtably racist, I'll provide this example– there’s a widely accepted notion amongst Dominicans regarding dressing up for special events or job interviews, which is that you should straighten your hair in order to look more presentable; respectable; and professional. Truthfully, if a potential employer were to ever deny a qualified candidate an employment opportunity solely on the basis of their personal issues with the candidate's hair-type, they’d be putting themselves at risk of being slapped with a lawsuit for discrimination!
Leo and I discussed the likelihood of the 'pelo malo' and 'pelo bueno' notion stemming from a deep, dark place in our country's past. “Being morena [black] in Santo Domingo, I would hear people would tell me, ‘Tienes que mejorar la rasa [you have to improve the race],’” Leo testified. The term “mejorar la rasa”, as used in the context above, is evidence of the racist mindset that still lingers in a sizable chunk of Dominican society; It suggests that mixing people that have traditional European facial-features and fair-skin, with black or brown Dominicans, will improve the Dominican race because the offspring would be born with 'better' features and lighter skin, i.e., resembling their European colonists.
I began to make a connection between how people of color in the Caribbean perceive themselves with how people of color in the US: self-hate is the common thread. Leo’s story helped me realize that although each group’s tendency to have a distorted self-perception were rooted in different types of afflictions, all POC plight has been the same– a fight against injustice and prejudice. The rejection of naturally curly, dry, or coarse hair by the very people it grows on is plainly a cry, heard from the gallows, i.e., the mind of a self-hating individual; That self-hate is absolutely an indirect symptom of centuries of conditioning and oppression.
In my interview with Elizabeth, a 27-year-old Vet Tech in Boston, she opened up to me about her experiences as a child, but what made her story so much more interesting is that it is still being written. Eli said, “I was brainwashed at a very young age. All I knew was that I had 'bad hair' and that straight hair was considered good hair. I always blow-dried my hair, and once the flat iron was widely available, I started to flat-iron my hair, every minute I could because I hated curly hair and thought I looked ugly [wearing it]. Curly hair was viewed as having an 'off' day and was not accepted as being an every-day hairstyle by the Hispanic community because it made you look 'crazy'. I would receive more negative comments from my own Hispanic community than I would from any other communities or cultures. Most of my support came from White Americans at my job that would compliment my hair every day. Hurtful, negative comments people make in our community [about hair-types similar to mine] has made other people not want [to take] the natural route. Curly hair is still not widely accepted by our [Hispanic] community, and that is so sad. I stopped relaxing my hair in high school; however, I continued to blow dry and flat iron it. Back then, even clothing irons were used to straighten hair. I fought a mental-battle when I decided to leave my hair curly for my engagement shoot, and my mother did not approve of it being curly for the photos, in turn, making me second-guess my decision to keep it natural. Ultimately, I did [blow-dry] my hair for the shoot. Growing up, I thought white hair [white people's hair] was beautiful and that it was the only type of hair that was presentable and appealing [because it is usually naturally straight]. While on my natural hair journey, I received many insults like, ‘Go run a comb through your hair,’ or ‘Why don't you straighten your hair?' I didn’t think curly hair was acceptable in professional settings, so I always blow-dried my hair for special events. Now, curly hair makes me feel FREE, LIBERATED, ALIVE, fun, corky, crazy, different, brave and confident. Wearing it gave me my confidence back, and I no longer have to pretend to be something that I should never have pretended to be in the first place. I broke the mold that society tried fitting me into. When God said, ‘love your neighbor,’ He meant for us to love each other for who we are and as He created us.” Eli did a great job at sharing her perspective with me during this interview, and I could both see and hear the passion in both her voice and mannerisms as she shared her story with me. Eli is a huge advocate for natural hair, and I'm honored that she gave me the opportunity to discuss this issue with her.
Here's a final thought– imagine that sporting an afro or a curly hairstyle was the new trend and everyone and their momma was walking around in a wet Jerry Curl. Now, imagine yourself walking up to a white girl of naturally straight hair and telling her that she needs to put a curling iron to it so that her 'bad hair' could look more 'beautiful'. Let's just say that this stranger decides to take your advice and endures a lengthy and exhausting process in order to get her hair to curl-up into a faux-fro; How long do you think it'll be before Becky drops that silly hair regimen and goes back to letting her hair do what it does best? That hot iron will be back at the store faster than closet-racists say 'All lives matter'. Do you really think Becky would consider her own hair to be 'bad hair' simply because the curls wont stay in? I'll answer that for you– no, she wouldn't; It would just mean that her hair isn’t meant to neither curl nor puff up into an afro, that’s it. She would probably just pop-on a crop top, jump into some skinny jeans, and slide into a pair of Vans then strut confidently down the street as her hair blows majestically in the wind, period(t).
How ridiculous did the idea of telling Becky that her hair is 'bad' just because it's different seem to you? I hope it was one of the dumbest ideas you've ever heard. So, why are we allowing people to tell our little girls and boys that they have to change themselves in order to either be accepted or feel beautiful? Better yet, why are you allowing people to do that to you? Look, it’s ok to try new looks; if you have straight hair and want to curl it, go ahead! Straighten your hair if it’s always curly; however, never change your hair’s healthy, natural state just because you hate it that way. If you hate your hair's natural texture and aesthetic, even when it's in a healthy state, you need to ask yourself where that stems from. Rejecting your natural self is a form of self-hate, and no one is born thinking or feeling that way about themselves. Think about it this way– you wouldn't call a Lamborghini a bad car simply because it's not good in off-road situations; I think you'd just stop driving your Lambo through the woods. Essentially, it doesn't make sense to consider your natural, healthy hair bad simply because it doesn't straighten easy or even remain straightened when wet; You just have to realize that if you're going to make it do something that it was never meant to do, you're going to run into some obstacles.