For many people of color, there are distinct images that surface when they hear, “I just got my hair done by the Dominicans.”
As a child growing up in Jamaica, I was always aware of the idea of Pelo Bueno/Pelo Malo or Good Hair/Bad Hair. I was and still am often times treated or viewed differently because of the texture of my hair. From a very young age, my grandmother would always tell me “Your hair is your beauty.” At the time, I thought she meant that my hair had to look a certain way in order for me to be considered beautiful, but now that I’m older I understand the phrase to mean so much more. I now understand it to mean that your hair is YOUR beauty and that although it is not the only thing that makes you beautiful, it’s an essential part of self-love.
This realization however, is a long time coming. For the vast majority of my teenage years, I spent my Saturday mornings at the hair salon. What’s more, I looked forward to it. I loved getting my hair straightened and styled. I loved the heat of the blow dryer and I enjoyed watching the magic of my hair and myself transform with the straightening wand. I straightened my hair because I thought it made me prettier and that I’d fit in with the white kids at school. If I told you that I felt more confident with straight hair, that would be an understatement. I hated my natural hair and I never wore it curly in public. After years of living this way, I made the decision to stop using heat on my hair due to how damaged it was becoming, but also because of my little sister. After hearing her tell me “I wish I had pretty hair like you” one day, my heart broke. At the time she was only five and yet, she had begun to see the difference between our hair texture and skin tones and was making conclusions about herself based on these differences. I realized then and again after my recent visit to Miss Rizos, that as an older sibling it’s my job to instill in my sister the importance of self-love and acceptance and in order to do that, I made a promise to remind her as often as I could that she was beautiful and I loved her hair.
With all of this in mind, it’s no wonder why I was anxious about coming to the DR. During the time leading up to my arrival, I received a lot of information and suggestions on what to expect and how to deal with certain things in this country pertaining to race and identity. In the pre-departure information I received from my program, I thought it was interesting that a blow dryer was on the suggested packing list. As skeptical as I was, I went back and forth about bringing one. I didn’t want to have any issues if I wore my natural hair so in a moment of weakness, I caved: not only did I bring a blow dryer, but I even straightened my hair prior to leaving for the DR.
Within my first week in the country, I had seen so much of everything I had only read about regarding race and identity. It was clear to me from early on that the straighter your hair was, the better off you’d be. On many of the billboard ads outside and TV shows here in Santiago, I’ve only seen people with straight hair and Eurocentric features. Again during orientation, we had a discussion on what to expect while living here and los estudiantes de apoyo (support students) informed us not to be surprised if a student of color (particularly of a darker skin tone or sporting their natural hair) was denied access to a discoteca or bar. The way they spoke about such a thing made me realize this was the reality here: Eurocentric features equaled more power/privilege in the most literal sense.
My visit to Miss Rizos was refreshing to say the least. After my friend’s host mother (who owns and operates a hair salon in her home) tried to convince me that I needed to get a Keratin treatment and straighten my hair, I was relieved when I entered Miss Rizos’ salon. I was able to meet Carolina Contreras, the owner and founder of Miss Rizos, the first all natural hair salon in the DR, and hear her talk about her mission and the reason behind the salon.
After living in the US for a while, Carolina Contreras aka Miss Rizos moved back to the Dominican Republic with a plan to change the standards of beauty. She told us about the time she was turned away at a bar in Santo Domingo because of her hair and how she is considered a deviant because she is going against the norm. She told us about how parents would come in asking for her to straighten their children’s hair because they aren’t allowed to wear their natural hair to school for that could mean the loss of a scholarship or not being able to return to school altogether. It was one thing that older women who worked at let’s say, the bank, were required to straighten their hair or else they wouldn’t have a job, but the fact that a little girl’s education could be at risk for something as trivial as her hairstyle really hurt me.
As I mentioned before, Miss Rizos is not your typical Dominican salon: specializing in natural hair and protective styles, it has a different vibe to it compared to the many other Dominican hair salons I had been to. Carolina shared her mission with us, which she said is to empower young girls and to teach self-love. Hearing the passion and genuineness in her voice as she spoke truly awed me. I also thought it was interesting how she came up with the name “Miss Rizos”: she informed us that it was in reference to the Miss World/Miss Universe beauty pageants.
After I got back home to Santiago, I called my family to tell them about my trip and my mother encouraged me to tell my sister about the salon. I told her about the little girls I had seen getting their hair done and reminded her that I loved her hair and she should too. Although she’s eight years old, I’m not entirely sure she understands exactly what I’m asking of her and why it’s important for her to love her hair, but after leaving Miss Rizos, I felt empowered, proud, beautiful and determined to make sure my sister felt the same.
Yo ♥ mi pajón…and you should too!
From the Dominican Republic…with love,