In the 1960’s, natural black hair became a revolutionary political statement in the U.S. Wearing an afro was a physical expression of black pride and beauty. It was polarizing, but exciting. Who could forget Pam Grier’s sexy afro?
But relaxers, straighteners and weaves are still a 9 billion dollar industry in this country. In 2009, comedian Chris Rock directed a documentary called “Good Hair.”
In 2012, Olympic Gymnast Gabby Douglas was criticized for her kinky ponytail. Here she is talking to Oprah:
But in the Afro-Latino community, there really haven’t been that many cultural icons sporting natural hair. That’s were Carolina Contreras comes in. She created the blog Miss Rizos to connect with other Afro-Latinas who wanted to give their natural hair a try.
PART OF MY HYGIENE
Growing up in the Dominican Republic, Contreras started getting her naturally curly hair relaxed every 2 months at the age of 7. She says her family saw the painful process as an important part of their personal hygiene. “I have 3 sisters and I learned how to relax hair,” says Contreras, “I inflicted so much pain on them and I feel like it’s something that I’m still healing from.”
Her kinky hair required a lot of attention, but Contreras says what really led her to relax it was a feeling that her curls weren’t presentable. “If you work for a bank in the Dominican Republic, you’re most likely going to get a weekly stipend to go to the salon,” says Contreras,” they just feel like it’s not professional.”
She says that message trickles all the way down to little girls. “It’s frustrating to have to deal with that today,” says Contreras, “our hair has nothing to do with our productivity, our intelligence or with our knowledge about a particular subject or anything.”
LETTING MY ANCESTORS FREE
Raquel Cepeda is a journalist and author. She says in the Afro-Latina community, natural hair is still a political statement. “As soon as they see the curly hair the say oh she’s a leftist, she’s this, she’s that,” says Cepeda, “to me it’s a badge of honor, to me it’s how I honor my ancestors by letting them live freely in my scalp and in my hair.”
Cepeda says she feels free to wear her hair curly because she knows what it really means. “We really have to un-educate and re-educate ourselves and learn about our histories,” says Cepeda, “When you learn about your history you learn to start being proud of where you come from, and then the curly hair won’t be a thing.”
HAIR IS JUST HAIR
And once everybody understands their heritage, hair can just be hair.
Carolina Contreras says she’s inspired her mom and her sisters to stop relaxing their hair. Every time she goes back to the Dominican Republic she feels more hopeful. “I just get really excited because I see more women in the street wearing natural hair, I start seeing more ads on Tv and everywhere,” says Contreras, “I think we’re definitely headed in the right direction now.”
Beauty can hurt, sure. But grooming and priming is a form of personal expression. It can bee freeing, once you do it because you want to and not because you feel you have to.
Before coming on board as an associate producer with Latino USA, Brenda Salinas was awarded the highly competitive Kroc Fellowship at NPR. She has reported pieces for Morning Edition, All Things Considered, Weekend Edition, Weekends on All Things Considered and for KUHF Houston Public Radio. In college, she started her campus’ only student run foreign-language publication, Nuestras Voces. Brenda has a B.A. in Economics from Columbia University.
Photo courtesy of Flickr user Peter Klashorst.