Carolina Contreras: The Woman Behind Miss Rizos
When I first heard of Miss Rizos I was immediately interested in knowing more about Carolina Contreras. As a Dominican woman, her success and subject matter on natural hair appealed to me. Three months later we started planning for the magazine and I got the opportunity to sit down with her. I met up with Miss Rizos in a small diner in Midtown to get to know the person behind the name.
For the past year the Miss Rizos movement has been making headlines, from workshops and meet ups around the world, to the opening of the Miss Rizos Salon. While eating breakfast for dinner, Carolina Contreras and I sat down to discuss her experience as a Dominican of the Diaspora, her love for bacon, the beginning, and future of the Miss Rizos movement.
I: What does being Dominican mean to you?
M: I grew up in Somerville, Massachusetts. It’s a very diverse place but there weren’t a lot of Dominicans. It was mostly Haitians, Brazilians, Salvadorians, and that was pretty much it. So, I grew up being very aware that I was Dominican. For me, what made me Dominican was the ability to cook arroz, habichuelas y carne, dancing a little bachata, and speaking Spanish fluently. It was those three things, food, music, and language that I felt connected me to my heritage.
I: You went back to DR for two months and you ended up staying there for 4 years. So, what made you stay?
M: I really loved and hated it at the same time; so much so that I was like, “I can’t leave here until I figure it out”. So, when I was at the airport on my way from Boston to DR, before I knew I would stay there for 4 years, I wrote on Twitter that I was “on my way to the DR to find my roots.” That same day, on another account, I wrote “on my way to the DR to find my personal legend.” Personal legend is a term that Paulo Coelho uses and it is that thing that brings you enthusiasm. It’s that thing that God has blessed you with – your calling. That is your personal legend. So, I wrote those two things never in a million years imagining that I would discover Miss Rizos in the Dominican Republic. So, I feel like the reason why I stayed is because I was destined to find Miss Rizos. I was destined to return to my natural hair and to create this community.
I: Did you have any difficulties being a Dominican-American in DR?
M: Absolutely. It was awful because I felt like I wasn’t Dominican or American enough. I fell in this weird limbo. I thought, “Oh wow, I speak the language, I can dance, and I can cook, but I feel like a foreigner here because I think and do things differently.” There was a lot of culture shock. It was really frustrating because when I was in college I studied about the Dominican and the Haitian situation. I read about all these things in Africana studies about Dominicans and blackness and all that. It’s all in the textbook, all in the comfort of your air-conditioned classroom. But when you are in the DR and it is happening to you in your face, it is really hard. And I actually kept a blog. It was called misaventurasaroundtheworld.blogspot.com and if you go on there, it is literally a diary of how I felt when I returned to where I was born, my experiences, my struggles. I was struggling a lot. It was really difficult at first; it still is sometimes. I mean, I still feel like I’m not fully from there.
I: So, why hair? Why did you choose to focus on hair?
M: I’ve been an activist all my life. I’ve been a very conscious person about my blackness; it’s not something I just discovered. But I didn’t choose to write about hair because of my activism. I feel like hair chose me. It was a genuine discovery; a journey of my own hair. That’s what Miss Rizos is. It’s purely my, at least in the beginning, own experience. I returned to my natural hair four years ago. For the first year I wasn’t fully comfortable with my hair and then finally when I was people started asking me, “How did you do it? How can I make my hair look like that? What products did you use?”
So, I thought I needed to create a place or something where I could put all this information and people can easily find it. So, that’s where it came from. It came from wanting to share this journey with other people and also to inspire other people to do it too. Once I realized that it was catching fire, people were reading it, and it was becoming bigger. I definitely aproveche and used this idea of hair as a vehicle and channel, to have difficult conversations about race and color in the Dominican Republic. Miss Rizos is essentially a portal or a space that celebrates blackness and who we are as Dominicans and as Black people. But for me it’s about hair first because it makes it easier for us to talk about these things. Si Miss Rizos se llamara African hair, or Black hair, or Negra cabello, no one would read it because those things are not llamativo; people are trying to escape from that. If I’m called Miss Rizos people would come and learn more. And hair…why hair? Hair is the first thing that when you look at someone, te puede demarcar su diaspora, osea su representación de negro. Your hair is a huge statement.
I: How old were you when you got your first relaxer?
M: Eight or nine years old. I can’t remember. I was very young. I did it for 15 years.
I: You went the majority of your life relaxing your hair. So, what made you go natural?
M: I had wanted to do it for a long time; for many reasons. I was simply curious, at one point, and wondered what was under the relaxer. Another part, was wanting to embrace who I was completely. You go to the hair salon, get a relaxer to get your hair straighten because you are centrally or mostly, this is not always the case for all, you are trying to achieve a standard of beauty with your hair that doesn’t really resemble people who look like you. As I went to the hair salon and did the same process that everyone else did, I was conscious that I would never be white. I would never be European. I almost felt like I was cheating myself and it wasn’t a good feeling. I didn’t feel whole. I didn’t feel good. It felt like I was literally running a marathon that I would never be able to complete. It’s tiresome to try to constantly look like someone that you will never resemble. Because I will never be white, I will never have those things. In an attempt to embrace the fact that I would never be that way and that it’s totally okay because what I am is beautiful, the last step for me was my hair.
I: So before we start talking about Miss Rizos, do you want more bacon?
I’ll have a piece of bacon. Miss Rizos eats bacon. I love bacon. I’m not sure I can go vegetarian just because I don’t think I can stop eating bacon.
I: Why start this movement? Because I think Miss Rizos is a movement. Why start this movement in DR? And do you think that there was a need for a natural hair movement in DR?
M: Miss Rizos was a blog. It was a blog and it has become a movement. It is a movement that has been going on for the past 10 years in the U.S, the natural hair movement, that has now caught fire throughout Latin America. Miss Rizos just happens to be a part of it. And why start a blog like this in the DR? I returned to my natural hair while I was in the DR, I noticed there was a need for it, especially because there weren’t a lot of portals online that were speaking to the Spanish speaking community. There was a huge need for a Spanish speaking blog, I lived in the Dominican Republic, and the people asking me the questions were the women on the streets. This was a face-to-face thing that turned into a blog. I used to have meet ups with my close friends at my house. This is all stuff that was happening outside of an online space that then was moved over; it then grew and it’s now what it is today. It wasn’t like I thought about it before. I feel like Miss Rizos has been part of my own natural hair journey.
I: What does the future hold for Miss Rizos? I know that you are busy doing so many things.
M: Oh my god. There is so much. I’m getting ready to open up a space and this is huge because Miss Rizos will have a headquarters, you know; it will have a base, a phone number, and an address. We’ll have a space where we will provide services to women with curls in the Dominican Republic. And that’s a huge step and it’s where we are headed to, which I am so excited about. The cool thing that is happening to Miss Rizos is that Miss Rizos has been Carolina Contreras for a very long time and now it’s Nikol Ramírez, Irving Rivas and all these amazing people who are intelligent, giving, passionate, hopeful, talented and who are gifting their time and talents to Miss Rizos. Miss Rizos is now a team and it’s growing. That’s really exciting because it means that more people can continue something that I started three and a half years ago. That’s something that I am really happy about: having a team, having a space, and through these things being able to reach more people in Latin America. So, that’s the future. I want to really reach as many niñas, adultas, y señoras that have longed to be who they are a hundred percent and feel comfortable. Help inspire them and teach them to inspire the women in their neighborhoods.
After this interview, Carolina returned to the Dominican Republic and opened the Miss Rizos Salon. Women from around the country come to visit Carolina and the Miss Rizos team for advice, a new haircut, Miss Rizos merchandise, or simply for a visit. The salon is located at Calle Isabel la Católica #260 esq Restauración, Zona Colonial, RD.
Note: On February 8th Locs Revolution will be hosting their 2nd annual Know Your Roots fundraising event. They will be raising money to support the Miss Rizos space. For more information go to locsrevolution.com
Images: Joan Encarnacíon for La Galería Magazine
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