Written by: Alexa Lemoine
Towards the end of her life, my grandmother had very few pleasures afforded to her. Doing a crossword puzzle, watching repeats of her favorite telenovela or being freed from the kitchen after making the last meal of the day, collected into brief moments of quiet joy.
During the summers, I would stay with her throughout the week in days long spurts. She waited for me to wake up with the bathroom looking something like a Catholic church: the artificial avocado green hair mask mixed in one of the kitchen bowls, expensive shampoo, and conditioner that was an indulgence solely for me, and enough combs to craft a crown.
I was always unwilling. My textured hair was the burden of not only me, but my mother, my grandmother, my other grandmother, and the women at the salon who deemed my hair, unceremoniously, as difficult. Spurned by my negligence, my hair tangled and fell onto my back in bunches of cattail reeds. I had no desire to put the time into something I had an aversion for, but my grandmother took it as a ritualistic breaking of her own routine, something to put her hands to work.
Dominican women, notorious for their attention to detail when preparing hair to be seared into submission, are not often seen with their natural hair. My grandmother was the one exception among the women in my family. She cared for my hair as if she were caring for her own, which had always been cropped short, like a bonnet, because it took the least amount of work to maintain. The only way she could have tolerated the labor of fixing my hair was if she loved it like it was her own.
The same year my Nana passed away, I took to the salon my mother frequented and saturated my hair with protein to encourage straightness for the first time. This began a painful affair exacerbated by middle school insecurities and my living in a predominately white neighborhood. The blow dryer was ever wrapped around one wrist, with the flat iron shackled to the other. It was assimilation with a culture I wanted nothing to be part of; I had spent my teenage years rejecting the island that had given my family, and me by proxy, everything. But I wanted American assimilation on my own terms, like the girls at my high school who had agency over their middle-class mall brand clothes and their blonde highlights. At that point, and for seven years later, ethnic ambiguity became the essence that drove my identity.
The re-embracing of my hair at the beginning of my twenties didn’t feel like a celebration, it felt much like a clumsy death, where I not only had to deal with the ramshackle mess on top of my head by myself, but also had to learn how to nourish it. A few months after Donald Trump was elected was the first time I let the veil of performativity wilt and disappear. Perhaps, subconsciously, these two events did coincide. There is a lot to be said about femininity and hair and the implications of both those things, even more about cruelty and the stripping away of dignity that happens to people every day at the border. To allow myself to exist, textured and brown and clumsy mouthed et al was, at the time, an uneducated reclamation. I never talked about it, but just cautiously existed with my hair in a thousand little riots. I couldn’t yet form the words to be angry, to see the whole of me as bomb detonating in slow motion in time with America.
One of my favorite things to mindlessly do on the internet is to watch Cardi B yawp on her Instagram story, bare-faced and decidedly un-made-up. Her hair, black and fervent in the way it frames her face like an angel’s halo, is the kind of subtle affirmation I wish I had when I was a teenager. Watching Amara La Negra pointedly defend her Afro-Latinidad on Love and Hip Hop both made my insides somersault and wonder if she would have quickened my process of acceptance. It’s no coincidence that they are both whip-smart and politically outspoken.
There they were, these women that simply by existing, challenged my sensibilities and my own shyness. They exist in flux, like many Dominican women that accept their hair as it grows: not accepted on their island, not accepted in America. In a different reality, I imagine meeting them, asking what part of the island their families are from. Musing over who’s cousin knows who and the wistful possibility that we’re related. I’ve imagined the scenario enough to have perfected the tone of my voice when I declare the Dominican Republic such a small place. Everybody knows everybody else’s business, where they shop for their clothes or how they wear their hair. Cardi and Amara enthusiastically nod their heads in agreement. Sí, coño, ellos lo saben todo.
I still sometimes cautiously put my hair behind my ear when talking to someone new, like I’m taming an animal. I’ll repeat this scolding motion more than a few times throughout a conversation, alternating with petting my bangs away from my eyes and fluffing it all forward in a fretful dichotomy of order and intimidation. Even this small form of micro resistance makes me wonder if I should go back to straightening my hair so boys will think I’m pretty again, or relish the strange joy of being asked if my hair really grows out of my head ‘like that.’
An ex once exclaimed upon seeing my natural hair, for probably the first time, that it was the most Latin he had ever seen me. It’s a curiously new identifier for me that has eradicated any ethnic ambiguity I once held. I walk into the local downtown coffee shop a spiraling, brown mass. I see a picture from an immigrant detention camp where children sleep with aluminum foil blankets and am still a spiraling, brown mass. The ICE detention centers in South Florida further turn me into a spiraling, brown mass.
Perhaps it’s this kind of outward show of identity that I should be scared of. My being a citizen affords me the privilege of negating a certain type of fear surrounding my relationship to this country. I stand to benefit, however strenuous that contract is, from the institutions that now prohibit immigrants from entering this country peacefully, people like my grandmother. I think about how she would have looked, sitting in her bed, watching the news of this administration, as I fix myself in the mirror every morning.
Yet, it’s this responsibility of visibility that is now as essential as every other hair product I use. I’m very ready, if not shakily, to hold the torch for the rest of my life if it means that white men would have to look around my head at the movies, if it gives pause to those I tell about the immigration crisis, even if it takes that same pause away, even if my entire history is laid bare at my feet with the wild hope of restoring one million humanities.
Alexa Lemoine is an artist based in Orlando, Florida. She has poetry appearing in The Blood Orange Review, among others, and currently edits poetry for Burrow Press.