Kate Kilpatrick reports on Miss Rizos, a hair salon that embraces “natural hair” in the Dominican Republic and how this curly-centric hair salon teaches Dominican women to love their pajón [see previous post At a Santo Domingo Hair Salon, Rethinking an Ideal Look]. She says that Miss Rizos “uses African and African-American hairstyles to affirm blackness in straight-hair-obsessed country.” [Many thanks to m. s. Worrell for bringing this item to our attention.] Here are excerpts; see full article at Al Jazeera America.
[. . .] In a country where more than three-quarters of the population is of mixed African and European ancestry, it may surprise foreigners that curly hair — pelo rizado — could command such attention, let alone disdain. After all, the Dominican Republic ranks fifth among countries with the largest black population outside Africa, according to the Institute for Cultural Diplomacy, a Berlin-based nongovernmental organization, behind Haiti, with which the D.R. shares the island of Hispaniola.
But in the Dominican Republic, straightened hair is not only big business; it defines the standard of beauty. There, Afro-textured hair is unabashedly called pelo malo, or bad hair. Dominican hair salons are renowned from Harlem to Houston for their smooth blowouts and chemical straightening treatments that coerce the most stubborn curl into submission.
And so [Carolina] Contreras, who was born in the Dominican Republic and raised in the U.S. since the age of 4, is on a mission to teach Afro-Latin women to embrace their natural curls. At her Miss Rizos salon, which opened in December 2014, curls are defined, protected, appreciated — and never straightened. She is part of a broader wave of young Dominicans raised or educated abroad who are bringing a new sense of black identity and pride to their culture. Academics say these transnational Dominicans, or members of the Dominican diaspora, are more inclined to draw parallels between negrophobia they have witnessed elsewhere (for example, how black Americans are treated in the U.S. or Dominicans are treated in Puerto Rico) and the pigmentocracy and anti-Haitianism they witness in the D.R.
“Certainly there are a lot of Dominicans that are aware of their blackness and embrace it. But those are the minority. I think the biggest influence is those of us who lived abroad and come back,” said Yesilernis Peña, a researcher at the Instituto Tecnologico de Santo Domingo who studies race in the Latin Caribbean.
“If we’re going to make claims as Dominicans abroad around not being subjected to white supremacy … then we have to bring that same ethics to our heritage country,” said Ginetta Candelario, an associate professor of sociology and Latin American studies at Smith College and the author of “Black Behind the Ears: Dominican Identity From Museums to Beauty Shops.” According to her, there’s symbolic power to the location of the Miss Rizos salon in the picturesque Zona Colonial — just a short walk from the Plaza España and a prominent statue of Christopher Columbus. “She’s centering black identity in the heart of the colonial project and affirming it,” she said.
Contreras, 29, says she has been racially conscious since a young age. She grew up in Somerville, Massachusetts, and she read Cornel West’s “Race Matters” as a young teen and co-chaired the first Latino youth higher education conference in Boston. “I was a proud black lady as a 15-year-old, and still I could not let go of the relaxer,” she said. “I still felt like I could only be beautiful when I straightened my hair.” By the time she graduated from Ursinus College with majors in peace and justice studies and French, she had traveled extensively — including stays in Paris, Dubai and Dakar, Senegal — but craved a deeper connection to her Dominican heritage. She decided to backpack around the D.R. “And I did just that. I found my roots,” she said, tugging at a springy lock of hair. About six months after arriving, she cut off all her hair and went natural.
Women on the street would ask her questions about her hair, so she started a Spanish-language blog on how to treat and care for natural, textured hair.
But along with the followers came plenty of side-eye looks and disparaging comments.
“It shocked me that I was experiencing these things in my country with my people, people who looked like me,” said Contreras.
Sometimes the insults came from her family members. Her mother threatened to relax her hair in her sleep. Her grandmother was even more appalled. She wanted to know what Contreras had done to her hair. Why did she look African? “I said, ‘Grandma, I have African in me.’ She said, ‘No you don’t.’” (Both women have since changed their views, with Contreras’ mother following in her daughter’s footsteps and going natural too.)
Academics says the obsession with straight hair in the Dominican Republic is deeply rooted in income inequality in a predominantly black country where a small white elite holds disproportionate political and economic power and the government has long perpetuated a stigma against Haitians.
In her research, Peña has identified six predominant racial categories in the country that are closely intertwined with class: blanco (white), mulatto (mixed race), trigueño (olive), indio (Indian), moreno (dark) and negro (black). Dominicans can move up or down the ladder, depending on how they manage their appearance, for example, using skin bleach or sitting in the sun. Or how they style their hair. [. . .]