For Some Latinas, Embracing Natural Curls Is a Declaration of Freedom

Elena Nicolaou
·11 min read
Photo credit: Thomas Barwick - Getty Images
Photo credit: Thomas Barwick - Getty Images

From Oprah Magazine

  • Paola Ramos's Finding Latinx: In Search of the Voices Redefining Latino Identity is testament to the Latinx's community inherent diversity in the U.S.

  • Ramos, a Vice News correspondent, a range of Latinx people around the country, from Guatemalan Maya residents of Georgia to transgender undocumented immigrants.

  • In this exclusive excerpt, Gomez writes about the significance of natural hair for Afro-Latinas, like her girlfriend.

Over the course of 11 months, journalist Paola Ramos drove across the U.S. to write and research Finding Latinx, a book that breaks down the monolith "Latinx" to find all the diversity the demographic contains.

"I'm not even a good driver, which is the best part," Ramos jokes to OprahMag.com. "After months on the road, I feel like I know the U.S. a lot better, and there's even more I don't know."

Ramos, who is a Vice News correspondent, comes from a lineage of journalists: Her father is long-time Univision anchor Jorge Ramos. Ramos was raised in Miami and Spain, and returned to the U.S. to study and work in politics. She served in the Obama administration and as Deputy Director of Hispanic Media for the 2016 Hillary Clinton campaign.

The evening of the 2016 election made the Cuban and Mexican American realize how estranged she was from the Latinx community—so she set out to meet them. "I don't actually know who Latinos are," she recalls thinking in November 2016. "We got something wrong, and part of it is that we didn't understand all of the different identities that were among this massive bloc of 60 million."

The results of the 2020 presidential election are just the latest high-profile instance in which a politically unified Latinx monolith (the so-called "Latino Vote") was proven to be a myth. Despite turmoil at the border that defined President Trump's term, the incumbent president picked up more Latino voters, with 32%, compared to 28% in 2016, according to CNN. It's clear the Latinx community does not all vote the same—because they are not the same. Finding Latinx is testament to the vast diversity within the demographic, which makes up 18% of the U.S. population, according to Pew Research.

Structured as a series of vignettes starring people around the country, Finding Latinx does with stories what statistics never can. In the below segment, Ramos—who intertwines her personal life with others' stories—writes about Afro-Latina women's relationships with their curly hair, and why going natural is often a major leap toward self-acceptance.

Through this portion of her book, Ramos says she was trying to look at beauty standards and identity. "There's such a drive to assimilate and succumb to beauty standards in the U.S. But the story is, how they started owning their beauty. And recognizing their skin and hair is beautiful as is."

When I finally come home to my apartment in Brooklyn, De’Ara, my girlfriend, is brushing her hair in the living room. Her hair is black and curly. Her hair is one of the first things that caught my eyes.

When De’Ara and I started dating, so much of the beginning of falling in love happened while we weren’t even pay-ing attention—while we were mindlessly performing our daily routines. Except that what was routine for me was not for her, and vice versa. She’d see me brush my teeth and leave the cap off the toothpaste every night; and I’d see her wear her silk nightcap to bed and apply deep conditioner to her curls. Now, because I’ve memorized her routine after all these years, I know that each time we land in a foreign city, one of our first stops will be at the local supermarket so we can find the best shampoo and conditioner for De’Ara’s curls. I also know that, usually, when I’m in charge of picking that hair product for her, I always get it wrong.

De’Ara loves her hair. But don’t take that love for granted.

I see how much maintenance her hair takes. I see how much care it requires. How much energy is needed. And, more than anything, I see that it takes love. But I need to understand that the beauty I see in De’Ara’s hair hasn’t always been accepted by Afro-Latinas. Loving their hair hasn’t always been as straightforward as we may think.

When social norms, mainstream media, and traditional professional etiquettes all tell the masses to straighten their hair in order to “look good” and “presentable,” curls become the curse of that image. When white people get to set beauty standards—dictating what’s acceptable and what’s not—curls are to be suppressed. And when the color of one’s skin can make them a moving target, curls must be hidden from the eye of the beholder. Tamed as much as possible. It’s true that it’s a lot more common to see Afro-Latinas like Amara La Negra posing on magazine covers with their glowing natural curls, but this hasn’t always been the case. That liberation, too, is still being fought for.

Now that I’m back in New York, I decide to get in touch with Carolina Contreras, an entrepreneur who’s also known as “Miss Rizos” or “Miss Curls.”

Carolina is a young Afro-Latina from the DominicanRepublic who opened the first ever beauty salon for naturally curly hair on the island. Carolina is now on her way to opening another salon in Washington Heights. I had already heard about Miss Rizos before I met her. One of my sister’s close friends from college, Shaday, has often sworn that Ca-olina sells the “best hair products” for curly hair. For as long as I’ve known Shaday, I’ve always known her rocking those beautiful curls of hers. That’s exactly what Miss Rizos envisioned when she launched her business: for Afro-Latinas to feel proud—not ashamed—of themselves. And that’s not something Carolina always felt. Carolina learned to love her curls.

When I sit down with Carolina, I ask her to take me back in time to the first relationship she had with her curls. As with all relationships, love goes through phases—resistance, pain, evolution, then maybe even love.

“I remember my mom pulling my hair...it was instilled in me from being little that it was a problem,” she tells me.

As Carolina explains, without any general knowledge about how to handle curly hair, her mom resorted to what countless Afro-Latina moms did: relaxing Carolina’s hair. Relaxing one’s hair was synonymous with having an easier time in school, an easier time finding jobs and navigating reality. It was, as she says, the normal thing to do and a positive reinforcement that was code for “feeling beautiful.” As her mom taught her, Carolina passed on those very same traditions to her sisters—fixing their hair, relaxing their curls, and literally causing pain for the sake of assimilating.

“I would burn their scalp with the relaxer,” she states. “Literally, that’s what I did to my sisters, and that’s a violent act.”Trauma, Carolina reminds me, can be hidden in many forms.

She continues, “I was physically causing harm on them [her sisters] and making them cry. I was thinking that I was also doing them a favor by making them more beautiful and by also having them conform to what’s normal. I was assimilating to become more Eurocentric,” she states. And that pressure to assimilate to European standards was felt both on the island and in the United States, as Carolina and her family moved from the Dominican Republic to Massachusetts when Carolina was very young.

“And, at what point were you able to see this pain for what it was?” I ask. “At what point did you realize what was happening?”

As she tells me, the consciousness of how her hair was an extension of her skin color dawned on Carolina when she was in high school. “It was then that I started to think a little bit more about what I was doing with my hair in relation to being Black,” she tells me.

As she got older, Carolina began educating herself about race, leading her to find pride in her blackness, to find a voice in advocacy, and to start questioning a lot of the assumptions she grew up with. Although by the time she got to college Carolina had grown increasingly skeptical of the norms that were ingrained in her as a child, she still couldn’t let go of the practice of straightening her hair. As we all know, routines are really hard to break.

“I just felt that it was so normal to straighten my hair. I compare it to brushing your teeth. It felt like showering. It felt like if I didn’t relax my hair every two months, I felt dirty.” Carolina did explore leaving her hair curly a couple of times in college and even upon graduating, but each time she either was overcome by fear or thought it was too impractical.

At some point down the road, things really changed. As with so many others in the Latinx community, there was a specific moment that marked Carolina’s transition. It was the moment she realized that there seemed to be a disconnect between the values she preached and the actions she took. As she recounts, one day she found herself sunbathing in the Dominican Republic when suddenly her friend told her, “What are you doing in the sun? Get out of there; you’re going to get dark like a Haitian! Te vas a poner prieta comouna haitiana.”

Carolina recalls feeling angry and confronting her friend for making such a derogatory comment. But here’s what Carolina didn’t expect: her friend’s response.

“What are you talking about? You straighten your hair.”

Carolina tells me that in that moment, she didn’t know how to defend herself because she couldn’t get herself to genuinely say that it was her choice to straighten her hair. “I didn’t have the language then because it wasn’t the case,”she states.

The next day, Carolina cut her hair. The next week, she cut a bit more. The next couple of weeks, even more was gone. By the end of the month, Carolina had chopped off most of her hair. Everything she was holding onto, gone.

I ask Carolina how she felt after she cut off all her hair. She tells me she went through a lot of emotions. At times feeling like a boy, other times feeling like un pollo, sometimes feel-ing beautiful, and most times feeling ugly. But eventually, she felt liberated. And that very feeling—that discovery and unearthing—was the beginning of the birth of “Miss Rizos.”

“I think without those feelings, I probably wouldn’t have the same journey towards discovering Miss Rizos and being able to help other people, because I lived it.”

After blogging about her journey and developing a big online presence, Carolina became one of the most influential voices in natural hair care for Afro-Latinas. From sell-ing her own beauty products to answering hundreds of questions from followers to seeing customers in her living room—people from all over the Dominican Republic were seeking Carolina’s advice.

“Little by little, I started feeling that there was something really special about what was happening,” Carolina says. And years later, in 2014, Carolina successfully opened Miss Rizos, the island’s first hair institution dedicated exclusively to natural curly hair.

But the thing is, Miss Rizos is more than just a salon. Miss Rizos has become a space where people find a type of support they’re unable to grasp elsewhere. Where they find a beauty they didn’t know they had or a power they didn’t even know belonged to them in the first place. Where all of a sudden, they feel understood. As Carolina says, a woman may come in wanting to detangle her hair, but she leaves know-ing what to tell her husband each time he says he doesn’t like her natural hair. She may come in for a simple treatment, but she leaves in awe of a body she just discovered. She may come to learn how to handle a burned scalp but leaves with a box of tissues because she now knows that it’s okay to feel pain from trauma. She may come alone, but she leaves with a group of women who now support her and her daughters and granddaughters.

With each chop, treatment, and conversation that takes place inside those walls, it’s not only strands of hair that fall to the floor but years of abuse. Of pain. And of trauma. And with the past death of each curl comes newfound birth. Now, stronger than ever. More resilient than ever. Healthier than ever.

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