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 inhibiting 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 our country experienced a significant level of brain-washing and oppression, from the time of its colonization and leading into the era of Trujillo, I can understand why certain features; skin tones; and hair types are regarded as being inferior to that of others, by a vast number of Dominicans. It’s not unusual to find a Dominican of the opinion that lighter-skinned people with European facial features, eye colors and hair types are more attractive than those of darker skin with African facial features and coarse or curly hair. In fact, a dark-skinned person with naturally straight hair and European facial features is often referred to as 'una morena linda' or 'un moreno lindo', i.e., an attractive black person. If said black person has light colored eyes, he or she is admired, and sometimes, 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 are identifying as 'Afro Latinos'. I interviewed three Dominican women who shared with me their experiences as girls with naturally dry and curly hair in our culture.
“People don’t want you to wear your hair natural,” says Noelia, a seventeen year old high school senior. “For people who don’t have hair like me, it’s easier for them to just leave it down. 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. My mom would tie my hair, and she would want me to go to the salon. 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 incidences with me. It seemed as if she was ashamed of ever having been ashamed. Somewhere around the fourth grade, she decided to take her personal hair-care and hair-styling 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 with my own hair; with my natural hair…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,” is how she explained her reluctance to just 'keeping it raw'.
Noelia didn’t fully embrace her natural hair until she reached high school, and even then, she faced some ridicule. Walking into work one day, someone made a remark regarding her hair being in its natural state that both embarrassed and emotionally wounded her. The irony in this is that people would eventually begin 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-racking first steps into freedom through practicing self-love.
Leonalis, a 23-year-old Dominican native and former Saint Croix resident, said that she didn’t know her hair was curly when she was a child. “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 talked about 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, but she also shared her disappointment in discovering that many of the islanders shared the very same sentiments about coarse, dry, curly hair with their Dominican counterparts. Leo shared an interesting observation she had made regarding the ever-changing standard of beauty, discrediting it and emphasizing on its inconsistency- “I was looking at a video…maybe in the 60’s 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…Everything makes you think about your own beauty...you’re always thinking about somebody else…Why am I not like her? Why doesn’t my hair wave in the wind?” Leo mentioned that in the past, the media played a huge role in distorting colored people’s perception of themselves because content lacked diversity and made handiwork of hurting the self-esteems of minority girls, particularly those of African descent with what it didn’t show.
“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. This is a lesson that Leo eventually learned on her journey. “I learned that every type of hair is good because it’s you. How can something that is growing out of you be bad? That’s not possible, you know?...something that God created you to be…how could that be bad? He doesn’t make mistakes, so 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,” was Leo’s opinion of the whole 'good hair-bad hair' issue, and I completely agree with her.
As a man of faith, I believe that God created everyone exactly the way that they would need to be in order for them to properly and comfortably inhabit certain places of specific climate and living conditions. In Ancient times, dry; curly; and upright hair may have worked better in certain geographical locations than other hair types would've. Although many hair textures; body types; and skin tones have more to do with people of different races mixing-in with each other than it does with adaptation, the differences in skin colors and even in certain features of some people-groups’ faces and bodies are likely to be the result of their ancestors’ adaptation to their differing 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 [Insert cliche 'I was built for this']. Even if your hair-type isn’t the result of a physiological transformation and is more like a concoction of your Jewish Grandmother and your South American Grand Dad’s genes, it’s still something that flows naturally from your body, so I encourage you to learn to accentuate and celebrate it, instead of hating it.
As the conversation progressed, Leo began to tap into her empowered, Afro Latina inner-self and shared the perspective that kept her sane 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 new 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 they liked my straightened hair; however, they loved my curls.” Afro Latinos have been made to feel as if we've had to conceal this part of ourselves; Other Latinos' experience has been quite different and much more pleasant when it comes to this. It's obvious that something is 'off', and we, Afro Latinos, have dealt with this type of oppression in almost every area of our lives for ages.
As an attempt to further illustrate how deeply rooted these issues of prejudice are, I'll provide this example- there’s a common notion among Dominicans that if you’re going to wear a nice dress to a special event, or if you’re going to attend a job interview, that you should straighten your hair. Truthfully, if a potential employer refuses to hire a qualified candidate because of their personal issues with said candidate's hair-type, they’d be toppling over and into the muddy waters of discrimination; It'd be as ridiculous as a hospital refusing to employ a fair-skinned Doctor for not sporting a spray-tan during med-school.
She expressed her concern for how this issue is affecting minority-youth, “This curly and straight hair thing has damaged a lot of kids…They feel like their hair is not pretty…I’d see girls that had beautiful, natural curls straightening their hair because they thought it was ugly…so when they saw me wearing my hair out, they would ask me why I was doing it, and I would just tell them that I wore it like that because it’s me…They loved it…they would come and touch it [I know], commenting on how bouncy it was.”
We explored the theory of how the issue of 'good hair' versus 'bad hair' in our culture may stem from a deeper, much darker place. “Being morena [black] in Santo Domingo, people would say, ‘Tienes que mejorar la rasa [you have to improve the race],’” said Leo. The term “mejorar la rasa”, used in the context above, is evidence of the racist undertone that still lingers in a sizable chunk of Dominican society- It suggests that mixing people that have European facial features and fair skin with black Dominicans will, in fact, improve the Dominican race because the children of said black Dominicans would be born with 'better' features and lighter skin. Sadly, this type of oppression hasn’t been exclusive to black Caribbean Islanders. The lies that have created so many insecurities in people of African descent also infested the eastern coast of the US and into the minds of beautiful, black American-youth as they sat in their bedrooms, reading beauty and fashion magazines and watching culturally bland television shows, lacking in diversity. I began to make a connection between how people of color in the Caribbean have perceived themselves with how people of color in the US have. Leo’s story helped me realize that although each group’s distorted self-perception seemed to be the byproduct of slightly differing afflictions, all black people’s plight has been the same one, in essence. The rejection of naturally curly, dry, or coarse hair by the very people it grows on is merely a whispering cry from the gallows of self-perception in Black people's minds.
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 readily available, I started to flat iron my hair every minute I could because I hated curly hair and thought I looked ugly with it. Curly hair was viewed as having an off-day and was not accepted in 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 community, and that is so sad. There is no such thing as bad or good hair. Hair is hair, and it’s beautiful whether it’s straight, wavy, curly, or frizzy…I try to correct every person that uses those terms. 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 deciding 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 end up blow-drying my hair for the shoot. I loved when my mother did the turtle hairstyle on me [as a kid] because it felt like I had straight, long hair even though my curls were hidden in braids. Growing up, I thought White [people’s] hair was beautiful and that it was the only type of hair that was presentable and appealing [because it is usually 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 to fit 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 putting this issue into perspective for me during this interview.
As a final thought- imagine that sporting an Afro or curly hair was the trend and that everyone and their momma wanted a fro or some Jerry-curls. Then imagine yourself walking up to a White girl of naturally straight hair during this era and telling her that she needs to put a curling iron to her hair because she has 'bad hair' and that it would look more beautiful if she lived up to this current standard of beauty that is the Afro puff. Now, pretend said girl would need to endure a lengthy and exhausting process in order to get her hair to curl-up into a full fro; would the White girl’s hair be considered bad then? No, it wouldn’t. It would just mean that her hair isn’t meant to curl-up into an Afro, that’s it. Becky would probably just pop-on a crop-top, some skinny jeans, and some high-heels; strut confidently down Newbury Street in Boston; and let her hair blow majestically in the wind 'cuz ain’t nobody got time for that'.
It’s ok to try new looks. If you have straight hair and you 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- that could be considered a form of self-hate. You wouldn't call a Lamborghini a 'bad car' simply because it's not good in off-road situations; You would just stop driving yours through the woods. People of color have a powerful story to tell and our hair is part of it, so please embrace it because doing so will help us move a step closer toward realizing our true value in this world.
- Citizen Yulfi