The first essay in our "(De)Tangled" series comes from Pelican Bomb staff member, Rosemary Reyes, on her hair experience as an Afro-Latina.
As a small child, my mother made sure that my hair was neatly contained in a peinado, a ’do that would keep my greña, my unruly kinky hair, at bay. Back then, my favorite peinado was tres colitas; let’s call it “three tails”— two pigtails on each side smoothed into barrel curls with one extra pony tail right above my forehead. I looked like a small Latina unicorn and was all about it. So were all my neighbors and friends. Needless to say, when I left my fellow Dominicans in Washington Heights and moved to a predominantly white and Asian suburb across the bridge in New Jersey, three tails was no longer a cute look. I spent the entirety of fourth grade experimenting with new ’dos that would make me feel more comfortable in my new environment—mostly those that would bring me less attention, make me feel less isolated, less humiliated, less urban. After first ruling out a heavily gelled, laid-back look resembling a Jheri Curl and then braids, which my working mother no longer had time for, I landed on a sloppy low bun.
As my hands got bigger and my dexterity increased, my bun became neater and neater, so that by the time I was 15 my hair was pulled back so tightly that my large forehead would reflect light, giving the impression that I had no hair at all. Only on special occasions would I let my hair down, a mane that was more often than not still chemically straightened and blown out, as Dominicans do so well.
I was raised by white-passing parents—wonderful, hard-working, but nevertheless ignorant and ashamed, white-passing parents. I was told that, because I am Dominican, I was exempt from blackness, a denial of my visibly black relatives and my country’s African roots. For my parents, passing was just a part of being a civilized and well-mannered woman. The ritual of hair straightening, however, was not always a conscious attempt at looking whiter. It was, as our Queen of Truth, bell hooks, noted nearly three decades ago in her essay “Straightening Our Hair,” an entrance into womanhood and “a ritual of black women’s culture of intimacy." Much like hooks describes, for the muchachas in the salon on the corner of 178th and St. Nick, it was talking shit about Fulanita, eating pastelitos, and sipping on café con leche for hours with the neighbors passing through. For me, it was excruciating.
I finally began wearing my hair naturally and “out” when I went away to college in Chicago. There my blackness, Dominican or otherwise, was made known to me quite aggressively. (One of my new classmates freshman year referred to me as her first “colored friend.” She soon became an ex-friend.) People would comment on my curly hair often, but it was when my hair “grew out,” blooming into a velvety, lush ’fro, that the comments really escalated. While living in China during graduate school, the most common question I received was “how much did it cost?” Though this question was somewhat incongruously accompanied by a look of dismay and anguish, it now seems tame in light of my recent experiences back in the United States. I don’t know whether it is me and my trauma, them and their ignorance, or the time in which we live, but the large majority of public reactions to my hair seem to be framed by a curiosity rooted in white supremacy. Just today, while I was brainstorming this very topic at my desk at work, a white woman—a complete stranger—accosted me, asking to touch my hair while she was already touching it in foolish admiration.
We’ve reached a moment of strange and often self-serving celebration of black beauty. Here I’m talking about last year’s media fixation on Lupita Nyong’o’s face and dare I say our national obsession with the extremely talented black Barbie we know as Beyoncé. And as adulation meets fetishization mixed in with continued vehement and systemic black oppression, I find myself longing for a step forward. I’m not a novelty. The fact that I wear my hair naturally is not a political statement, and though it took a good 20 years, it really has nothing to do with anyone else but me. My Afro is mine; it is not yours to touch or question. It’s mine to wear in 95-degree heat, allowing it to expand and create a fluffy, protective aura of blackness around me. It’s mine to leave behind for the birds to cushion their nests. It’s mine.