My name is Saudi Garcia and I am a first year doctoral student in the NYU Department of Anthropology. My research interests lie at the intersection of race, gender, practice theory and digital media activism. This summer, I will be researching the natural hair movement in the Dominican Republic, historicizing and documenting the collection of people, places and digital spaces that together amount to a force that is visibly shifting Dominican society and culture. I will be talking to individuals about the impact that “going natural” has had on their lives, the lives of their families and Dominican society at large.
While much has been written about policies and norms that point to “black denial” in the Dominican Republic, few monographs have substantially covered the emerging efforts to develop Afro-identification and pride in the country. My work this summer involves learning about the journeys and struggles of the women (and men) who embrace natural hair in a place where wearing hair curly or afro has been interpreted as an act of rebellion that belies the Eurocentric aesthetic standards that have long been the norm among Dominicans.
It is fitting to begin with an introduction, because the tone of many of mine this summer has traces of the familiar-strange combination so often discussed in my discipline. I am from here, but I’m not from here. After immigrating to the United States at the age of ten to go to school, I’ve returned in the capacity of a researcher, activist and volunteer. Doing my research in Santo Domingo, a large, cosmopolitan metropolitan area with 3 million inhabitants is a far cry from spending time with my family in our small hometown of Moca, in the northeast of the country. There are many aspects of Santo Domingo that I am learning about each day, such as its imagined map of difference based on class-stratification and its public transportation routes. While I speak Spanish and I am quickly getting a handle on the many colloquial phrases that I do not know, there are tidbits of my presentation of self (like my light accent and even my dancing!) that give me away as a curious mix of “from here, but not quite from here.”
While the natural hair movement extends to a variety of spaces, I will be based at Miss Rizos salon, the first natural hair salon in the country. Contemporary anthropology involves a mix of participation, observation, and reflection. For scholars interested in doing their research about social movements, it is appropriate, ethical and necessary to contribute whatever skills we can to the sustenance of such movements. For this reason, I am focused on serving at the salon and contributing to its day to day, from cleaning dishes and organizing the hair collection for braids to answering phone calls, tending to clients and developing a system to track the social impact of Miss Rizos.
I have been in Santo Domingo for over three weeks. My first few weeks of fieldwork flew by in a flurry of hard work at Miss Rizos salon, enriching events and inspiring moments of seeing women leave the salon feeling happy, confident and ready to face the criticisms they claimed would come (and often do) after a gran corte (big chop) hair cut.
One of the first events I attended in Santo Domingo was the Miss World press conference where Yaritza Perez, Miss Dominican Republic 2013 and a Top-Ten Miss Universe contestant, put forth her candidacy for this pageant. Yaritza is a regular client of Miss Rizos and is usually the only contestant who wears her hair curly in national beauty pageants.
At this event, which was held in an upscale nightclub in Ensanche Naco, I learned about the class-based cycle that perpetuates Euro-centric beauty standards through pageants. Young women from affluent families can more easily afford the pageants costs, while those from working class and more visibly Afro-descendant families (like Yaritza) have a harder time competing and winning. While race and class are by no means correlative, the consistent institutional barriers that the visibly Afro-descendant population faces in the D.R. have created a situation of deep structural inequality.
When the winners of pageants like this continue to be young women from selected upper-class, European-descendant families, the message sent reinforces already-existing notions of beauty. This established and self-perpetuating cycle is simply one example of the challenges faced by the staff of Miss Rizos salon, its owner, Carolina Contreras, its clients and social media followers as they contend with shifting how curly and afro-textured hair is understood and valued in Dominican society.
There will be plenty more for me to share as my summer research unfolds. In the meantime, you can follow my adventures on Instagram @Saudisauds.