The Kinkier the Hair, The Better the Hair
Written By: Pamela Tiburcio Espinal
“The puertorican kids on the block couldn’t stop laughing when they saw my hair, they called me Blacula, and the morenos, they didn’t know what to say… but my mother was the worst. It’s the last straw, she screamed. The. Last. Straw. But it was always with her. Mornings when I came downstairs she’d be in the kitchen making her coffee in la greca and listening to Radio WADO and when she saw me and my hair she’d get mad all over again…”
– Junot Diaz, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao
Junot Diaz is one of my favorite Dominican authors. That line is the best damn thing he has ever written because I know many Dominican girls could relate to it.
I was taught to envy long straight hair. My Dominican parents never complimented my hair. Ever. Whatever came out of their mouth about hair it would either be ‘Pamela, let’s do rolos on you’ or ‘That girl has nice straight hair;your hair would look good like that.’ What is wrong with the texture of my hair? That is the question I still continuously ask our Dominican community. Since I was a young girl, Dominicans and other Hispanics have said all kinds of things to me because my hair is not straight:
“Can I touch it?”
“You should straighten it.”
“It always looks dirty.”
“Does your hair even grow?”
I have been told to my face by my Mama’s friend at a Catholic church that I was lucky to have been born light skin but if I had had long straight hair I would have been “complete,” or being told by a cousin of mine I visited in Manhattan whom I had not seen in a long time that my hair was ugly and I needed to comb it (comb?! But my hair is curly!). I even have had to end a relationship with this one man because he hated the natural texture of my hair.
It is well known in the Dominican community that straight is pelo bueno and kinky, curly hair is pelo malo.
Pelo malo has become my middle name. Just hearing those words make my head hurt more than all the days I sat on the floor with my hair out while my Mama combed through it for hours. Hearing the rough sound of my Mama’s brush going through my hair and my hair strands snap while the smell of coconut oil filled the air is a memory deeply embedded in my childhood. It is the epitome of my Dominican identity and experience with antiblackness as a Dominican.
I will never understand the obsession Dominicans have with hair. Since forever, straight and wavy hair has been valued and considered more beautiful than kinky and curly hair. Women who do not have straight hair go through the pressure of straightening it to be seen more feminine and professional. Getting rolos done is like a hobby for us Dominican women. In a community that sees straight hair in connection with a Dominican woman’s beauty and femininity, it is no wonder so many of us would feel the need to do this even if we do not truly want to.
We put ourselves through hours of pain and intense heat sitting under a hair dryer to get straight hair because we are told that it will make us more beautiful. We damage our natural beautiful coils, kinks, and curls to live up to our racist, Eurocentric beauty standards.
I think it is time for us Dominicans to move past this thinking. We are so much better than to equate a woman’s beauty with the texture of her hair. This is the result of the long-lasting pain our community still goes through because of European colonialism and slavery. We see European features such as pale skin and straight hair superior and more beautiful than African features such as dark skin and kinky hair. Women and girls like me grow up feeling we are not beautiful and can never be because our natural features do not live up to Eurocentric standards. I spent a good portion of my childhood feeling less beautiful than Dominican girls with straight hair. I was just embarrassed about the texture of my hair, and unfortunately it is not always just about hair.
I could talk about the colorism my Papa has faced for his dark skin – the colorism that breaks our community apart and puts down our dark skinned Dominican brothers and sisters and the rise of skin bleaching creams to get whiter skin. I am tired of seeing my Mama and her family use skin whitening creams, dying their natural hair blonde and continuously straightening it in an effort to look more white.
Never will I forget the pain my ancestors endured as they were stolen by Europeans from Africa and shipped to Hispaniola in screams of agony only to be met with a life of treacherous labor and dehumanization under white supremacy. My ancestors blessed my Mama and I with curly kinky hair and they blessed my Papa with dark skin.
It is sad to me that my parents still see our African roots as a source of shame meant to be concealed and forgotten. I remember asking my Papa what did his great grandma look like and he was hesitant and embarrassed to say that she was a dark skinned African woman. Growing up I was very disconnected about my African heritage. It never occurred to me that I am a person of the Afro-Caribbean Diaspora. I feel like it is because my parents never spoke to my brothers and I about it, but how could they when they’re still thinking that we are pure white Spaniards?
I want my Dominican people to realize that the antiblackness that plagues us is very real and it will keep us divided. Black is beautiful – it is not inferior to whiteness, given the fact that many of us do have African roots like Haitians. Black is like a bad word no one wants to associate themselves with. From what I seen, it does not make sense to me for Dominicans to see Haitians as inferior because we see them as black while some Puerto Ricans do the same to Dominicans. This is how antiblackness keeps us divided even though all our countries were slave colonies and those of us who do have African roots, which is many of us – we share a similar struggle and history with antiblackness and European colonization. Africa influences all our cultures, like the foods we eat, the music we dance to, the apparent textures of our hair and the brown and dark colors of our skin. Dominicans come in all colors; those of us who do not have straight hair or white pale skin does not make us any less worthy and beautiful.
I am taking the time to unlearn our community’s Eurocentric beauty standards and learn to love my natural hair. I say this to everyone in my life who has given me a hard time because of my hair: I do not need straight hair to be beautiful by your standards. After years and years of straightening, I now wear my hair natural and proudly. It feels liberating to say the least, I know my texture is beautiful and I truly believe it. It was a hard thing for me to finally come to when long straight hair is the standard of beauty everywhere. I want all my Dominican sisters with natural hair to realize that our hair is PELO BUENO!
About the author: My name is Pamela Tiburcio Espinal and I am a first generation student studying political science in New York. My parents came here from Santo Domingo and I grew up in a community with many Dominicans that was heavily influenced by Dominican culture. I plan on pursuing law school for my J.D. and a M.A. in political science.