As I sat down to write this blog to commemorate February as Black History Month, I began to think how I, as an Afro Latina born and raised outside of the United States, relate to this celebration. I quickly noted that many people see me as Black, not only because of my brown skin but due to the way in which I showcase my afro hair and celebrate my Black appearance.
Many people in the United States connect afros to being Black and proud, although many others nowadays identify as such, just to be “in style”. There have been several stories in the media about the meaning of hair, and in particular, when hair makes a cultural and/or political statement. For example, if you were any place near social media last week, you could not miss the feedback on Beyoncé’s “Formation” performance at the Super Bowl halftime show. Many eyes were fixed on her backup dancers and their unapologetic showcase of their so-called natural hair. For many Afro Latinas like myself, it was a celebration of our hair. I realize the afro or big, curly hair, is a common factor both African American women and Afro Latinas share. So for this African American/Black Heritage month, I share a piece of my own hair journey in this blog, with the hope that you will laugh, relate and relive my childhood memory with me.
When I was thirteen years old and still living in the Dominican Republic, my mother told me that my father was coming from New York to see me. At that moment, I realized I could not remember the last time I saw him. You see, my mother has been separated from my father even before I was born. My mother made it seem like Jesus himself was coming down from heaven. I was excited and nervous at the same time. I began to worry about what my father would think of me once he saw me; not so much about my personality, but more about my physicality. I wanted him to look at me and see a beautiful girl, one that he may not have the heart to leave again. I told my mother that this was the perfect opportunity to get my hair relaxed (straightened).
To straighten my hair! I’ve been looking forward to this moment for a very long time. I’ve been thinking about all the girls in school with their gorgeous straight hair. How boys always seemed to pay so much more attention to them. I thought about me. To be seen as a woman, showing my femininity to a world that didn’t seem to notice because I have tight curls. No more jalones de moño, no more spending twenty to thirty minutes detangling this “bad hair” that could never stay straight. Even the days when I had to sing in church, my mother would put my hair on the tabla de plancha and iron it like a wrinkled linen shirt, it caused so much smoke, one would think my hair was on fire. That ironed hair would remain somewhat straight until we walked to the bus stop and the humidity of a Sunday morning soaked it. By the time I walked to the podium, it would turn into a gran pajon con baselina. My mother, seeing the excitement in my eyes, that I could feel so good about myself, that I was not going to have time to sulk over my father’s reappearance and potential future disappearance; said YES.
At the time, my mother was in charge of my brother’s local bodega on the busy, main street of San Cristobal province. It was on a heavily-populated town called Villa Altagracia, which had one of the oldest manufacturing factories still in existence in the Dominican Republic. All day during factory hours, our store was full of workers and distributors getting their cafesito fixed up. The main Duarte road was full of cars and motorcycles carrying passengers and merchandise of all kinds. Directly in front of the bodega lived my mother’s friend who had a home hair salon. The owner was known for being a hair guru; the type of stylist who knows everything there is to know about angry and unmanageable curls. Just like mine.
My mother and I crossed the street to this salon and there I stood, wide eyed 13-year old Anyi, so eager to get the straight hair I’ve been dreaming of. The salon owner began asking me about my excitement. She has had so many other young girls sit on that chair before. Everyone looked at her as a fair, possessing the magic wand to change our lives for good. To me, she was the one who will be revealing the princess inside of me. I shared with her how my father was coming to see me and how I wanted to look my absolute prettiest for him. She understood. Somehow, she made me feel without a doubt when she finished with me, I was going to be the prettiest girl in Villa Altagracia.
She divided my hair into smaller sections, then showed me a container with white cream inside. Gasp! This is it. The magic potion. It looked so harmless yet potent; like a child could just play with it and fix his entire family’s greñas. She began applying it to each section of my hair. I remember my heart pounding so fast because I had so much riding on this. When one of the lower sections began to itch, she saw it in my eyes. “Is it already making you itch?”, she asked, to which I quickly said “No”.
Once I had the cream on my entire head, she began pulling my hair little by little and I could see it was working. My heart pounded faster. I told myself: “you have to deal with the burn, you have to deal with the pain, just stay focused on how beautiful you will look, on finishing, on the wall, on papi, on… get this thing off my head!”, but I didn’t say anything. She finally said “it’s ready let’s go take it off”. It felt like the entire world came off my shoulders. I thought it was over but I was wrong. When the water touched my scalp, it stung so bad I wanted to scream in pain. I could not understand if I still had hair but her soothing voice kept saying, “Wow, your hair came out beautiful Anyi, it’s going to look great, you are a señorita now”. Magic words for the magic potion. I didn’t care about the pain again. Then she told me it was going to sting a little but it’s part of cleansing. I closed my eyes because this was the first time she said something was going to hurt and I’ve already felt that burn. She poured this transparent liquid on my hair and I felt I’ve been to hell and back a few times. The smell of rotten eggs took over the entire room and I stiffened my entire face, and I thought I had actually stopped breathing because I felt I could not save myself anymore.
Two hours later, after shampooing, forty minutes under the dryer and thirty more with the blower, a new me has appeared. The young girl who arrived at the salon has vanished and in her place, a beautiful young lady. My straight hair fell about five inches below my shoulders. It was incredible. She smiled at me and I smiled back. In her eyes, I could see the sense of accomplishment, admiration and approval. I don’t think anyone outside of my family had ever looked at me like that. At that moment, I wanted her to be my mother, I wanted her to take care of me; she gave me my first taste of feeling like I was on top of the world.
Heading back, I crossed the street alone. I felt independent. The breeze first touched my face and it continued to slightly move through my long and smooth hair. I felt like everyone was looking at me. The cars and motorcycles all stopped to look at me. To admire me. I moved slowly as in camara lenta, even though my long legs were taking long strides. to be taking long strides. I turned my head to the right to let the wind blow hair across my face. All the men and women of the world were still watching. Some men stood in awe, mouths half open at the sight of such a beautiful young lady, at least, I thought.
Then, my eyes met those of my mother’s. The entire world moved around me again and I focused solely on her smile as I approached her. She was in front of the store waiting for me. She opened her arms and embraced me, brought my chin up towards her face and said: “You look so pretty mi hija that your father is going to be so stunned when he sees you all grown up”.
My hair relaxer experience is not unique. There are thousands of similar identity stories but I encourage you to think of how mine connects to your own childhood story involving the deconstruction of culture, of family approval, and self-love. Of your sense of beauty and what it means to you. In that connection, I hope we construct smoother transitions for children to grow to love themselves exactly as they are.
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Spanish words translated:
Jalones de moño – extreme hair pulling
Tabla de plancha – ironing table
Gran pajon con vaselina – big afro with vaseline (dixie peach)
Cafesito – small cafe
Greñas – extremely curly hair-sometimes used in negative context
Señorita – lady
Cámara lenta – slow motion
Mi hija – my daughter