Pelo Bueno, Pelo Malo
Written by: Jorge Romero
For Dominican women, the hair salon is their mecca. It is the place where many come to converse and hang out while their hair is being done. On weekends, they make a habit of bringing their kids to watch the transformations happen, with the boys watching their mothers and sisters get their hair straightened after a few rounds with machines, rolos and washes. Before any big social event, the hair salon and the art of doing hair always come first.
In Dominican culture, hair is a symbol of beauty. As with much of Latin America, European colonization and the slave trade led to the wipeout of the indigenous Taino peoples, and the survivors were mixed in with the European and African populations. Over time, the Dominican Republic’s population has become comprised of people of varying skin complexions, from light to dark.
No matter the skin color, the same long, straight, Eurocentric style of hair was deemed by society as the ideal for Dominican women. Afrocentric hair is considered by many to be unsuitable and dirty, and even in today’s modern society, Afrocentric hair in the Dominican Republic is largely shunned.
For Katherine De La Cruz, a 21-year-old Hunter College student majoring in anthropology and dance, embracing her natural hair after a childhood of living by societal norms allowed her to truly understand her identity. “I think my country has a lot of issues with understanding and embracing our black heritage,” she said of the Dominican Republic. “Blackness is not celebrated in Dominican culture so when I left my hair natural, I received a lot of attacks from family members.”
At 16, De La Cruz decided to embrace her natural hair after years of chemically treating it to be straight. Hair chemicals are displayed like books in salons, and the steamy smell emanating from the straighteners and hair dryers was the typical aroma of a beauty salon.
“All my childhood I had no idea what my hair really looked like and it wasn’t until I was 16 when I did a big chop that I really saw what my natural hair was like,” De La Cruz said. “Growing up my hair was a problem that needed fixing. It caused a lot of self-esteem issues because I wanted my hair to flow in the wind but I could never achieve the silky straight hair my Central American friends at school had.”
Being born in the Dominican Republic, De La Cruz’s mother owned a beauty salon in the country. “I spent a lot of time in the salon and I remember distinctly all the posters in the salon advertising hair products featuring usually white or racially ambiguous women with straight or wavy hair,” De La Cruz said. “None of these women ever looked like me, which I think created a lot of inner anxieties about what the standard of beauty was and whether I could live up to them.”
With her natural hair, De La Cruz feels free from the beauty standards that hold up Eurocentric hair on a golden pedestal. Often times, she gets braids to style her hair differently and experiment. “I love braids so much. Right now it’s my third time ever getting them,” she said. “I love them because they keep my hair protected from the harsh elements and this allows it to grow faster and more healthy. For me they are just another variation of the beauty and versatility of black women’s hair and I wear them proudly!”
De La Cruz said she feels like Dominican culture attaches women’s beauty to their hair. “Growing up I felt I had to achieve a certain look to be beautiful and the look was long, straight hair. Now I think that I attach my beauty to my hair in a different way. When I look at my hair now, I see all the hard work I put into learning how to care for it, the moments of frustration and fear that I made a mistake leaving it natural,” she said. “But mostly I see the strength it took to keep going and accept my natural beauty when there were no images to help me. Therefore, I attach the idea of beauty to my hair because it marks my resilience in declaring that black womanhood is beautiful and needs no ‘relaxing.’”
For Christine Reyes, 24, the difference between what she learned about her hair from society and from her mother was stark. “I grew up with a free-spirited Dominican mother who always allowed me to express myself, taught me how to be comfortable with who I was and love every part of me. Especially my hair,” she said. “Society always made me feel like I had to fit the norm. When I was in elementary school, my third-grade teacher would tie up my hair because it wasn’t done like the other girls.”
Reyes now sports a silver-colored buzz cut hairstyle, whereas before she would either have curly or straight hair. “I grew up in Washington Heights, where in every corner you see a beauty salon lined up with women and their daughters waiting to straighten their hair,” she said. “At the time — sucked into this idea that beauty meant straight long hair — I began to hate my curls. Eventually, I found myself (there) every Sunday morning, waiting just like those other girls.”
Reyes said her mother allowed her to express her hairstyle however she wanted to when she got older and didn’t object to her decisions. “There were also times when people couldn’t believe I was my mother’s daughter because she naturally had straight, long hair. And there was little old me standing next to her with my curly Afro,” she said. “I would see the looks on their faces and see how much they judged and separated me from my own family.”
Despite her struggles with the way society would perceive her style, Reyes eventually grew to accept herself. “I was the only one in my family with curly hair and society made me feel like an outcast,” she said. “Over the years, I have learned more about myself and started to analyze the things that really matter and make me who I am.”
Jorge Romero is a photojournalist and creative who is focusing his work on the Dominican culture and the essence of minority youth in New York. He has a number of projects in the works about these subjects and is working on launching his own content about these matters.