From the time I was a young girl, my hair always played a weird supporting role in my life. I remember sitting on a chair at my paternal grandmother’s house while she applied permanent relaxer to my seven-year-old scalp. It would itch and burn, and as I twisted and complained in my seat she would say, “Beauty is pain.”
What was beauty to a young girl? I don’t have young memories of my natural self, besides the pictures of me as an infant sporting a fro. Being Puerto Rican and African American my ethnic roots run deep. Yet, I was this pale little girl deemed “nappy” by my Black friends. My Latina/o friends would ask me why wouldn’t my hair grow, after the relaxer proved too strong for my roots and resulted in daily breakage.
But what really stands out are the acquaintances, who saw me, and cognitive dissonance immediately set in. Why did she look like that? For those that believed I was 100% Latina from first glance was confused as to the texture of my hair. Even though hair of coarse texture or better put tightly wound coils, is prevalent in the Black culture, it wasn’t very well known (even by me at the time) that Puerto Ricans fall on a wide spectrum. Someone with my fair skin and kinky hair could easily be found on la isla. But not knowing it at the time, I based my standards on the norm of what I saw around me. My Boricua cousins with their manageable heads of loose curls.
My mom too had issues with her hair while growing up. She fell right in the middle of her mother’s seven daughters and was the only one to have kinky hair. What did my wela know about managing hair like that? Just to tell her to hold on tight while she used a brush to try and work out the knots.
Throughout my teen years when I would meet people and they would tell me they knew I was half Black because of my hair. I would dismiss their disrespectful comments as ignorance. But it took me awhile to become comfortable in my own skin. In college, I got mircobraids. Yes, they were a common trait of a culture I felt I didn’t belong to but they were beautiful. I admired how they freed up women to feel attractive while go on with their lives. Sometimes I heard the laughter behind my back from Latina/os and Black people alike. But some Latinas would come up to me and tell me how much they liked my hair. In a way I was helping to break the boundaries of traditional culture roles.
Even though my braids were a hit, I never did put them in again. Not because of the occasional looks I received but because the braiding processes was painful. I sat in a chair for over five hours while a Jamaican women skillfully wove miniature braids into my hair. The constant pulling of my scalp caused me to hold my breath, and l almost passed out. I just couldn’t put myself through it again.
In my adult years, I went through both clip-in and sewn in extension phases, and the breakage continued. It wasn’t until last winter when I had enough; I went to YouTube for answers. In the past, the lady bloggers helped fill my knowledge gaps in makeup and skin care applications, so I wondered if they could help in this area.
Naturally Curly Movement
What I discovered was a community of natural hair divas. The women whose video’s I took a liking to were African American, and I turned to them to be an expert on how to manage our frizz prone curls. While I’m still a big fan of these women, I also found a smaller subset of naturally curly Latinas on YouTube, Instagram and Tumblr. They were Dominicans and Boricuas who were throwing away their relaxers (They got perms too? I thought I was the only one!) and embracing their curls.
The wealth of knowledge on how to apply natural oils and butters to keep hair soft was eyeopening. But these women also embraced their occasional or consistent frizz. This is what I believe is the key to the movement. The European look of straight flat-ironed strands that result in breakage and heat damage is no longer in vogue. Women of color are in style. The curly fros that stand tall at attention is what’s considered beautiful now. But the real point is that it always was, but the judgmental veil of society didn’t let some of us see it until now.
*Look for my interview with Diosas al Natural on their Facebook page that follows the naturally curly movement in Puerto Rico.