by Saudi Garcia (Department of Anthropology Doctoral Student)
In my salon ethnography, I am trying to capture the sounds, the sights and the texture of life at Miss Rizos Salon. I spend an average of eight or nine hours a day in the salon helping with customer service by answering calls, booking appointments and serving soft drinks. Behind the main floor, I organize the social impact wing of the salon, though, as salon owner Carolina Contreras rightfully claims, the services provided by the salon themselves are a form of social impact. In between completing these tasks, buying supplies and carrying out my own ethnographic interviews with women and men who wear their hair curly or in afro, my days in Santo Domingo have been quite busy.
In this photo essay, I wanted to present and explore aspects of life at the salon that I find representative and interesting. I took photos of quiet moments and symbolic items that, in my interpretation, point to the philosophy of the salon and to the state of the natural hair movement in the D.R. at large.
From my interviews and conversations, it is evident that women’s families often react negatively to seeing their loved one’s short, curly hair. In a place where long, flowing locks have long been prized, people use words like “Caco e Macho” (lit. “Head of a Man”) and “Caquito” (lit. “Little head”) pejoratively. These terms often challenge the sense of femininity and the confidence of clients. In response, I have witnessed stylists partake in a verbal routine that I jokingly call “The Baptism.” This involves verbally showering clients with encouragement, creating a barrier of confidence between themselves and the sometimes negative reactions of the people in their lives. Often, stylists tell clients that whatever mental state and body language they present to their family members will shape how they see the often-drastic change from long, processed hair to short, natural locks. This card hangs from a metal piece depicting a woman with a bold Afro and was designed by the muralist and friend of the salon, Xaivier Ringer. It is visible from the chair where women receive their “big chop” hair cuts. In a place where respectability culture and aesthetics are paramount, the message of “I am enough,” is powerful and refreshing.
On my many product runs, I’ve noticed a natural hair care supply chain problem in Santo Domingo. This nearly-empty shelf of Cantu hair care products was found at Hair City, one of the main suppliers of products for women in the city. The shelf was still empty for nearly two weeks after this photo was taken on June 15th. The shipment of products had yet to arrive from the U.S., leaving many clients in need of the appropriate products. I am at the moment unsure if U.S. based companies have investigated the natural hair care market in the D.R. and are on their way to investing more heavily in it. In the meantime, local companies like Go Natural Caribe and Quisqueya Natural offer products like shampoo without sulfates, phthalates and parabens. Miss Rizos salon also serves as a distributor of products by brands well-known in the U.S. market, like Shea Moisture and Kinky Curly.
What does it mean for hair to be natural? As someone whose hair was never chemically processed with alizados or keratina, I feel like there’s much for me to learn about the world of ‘processed’ and ‘natural’ hair. Aside from not using chemical hair straighteners like the ones mentioned above, some women wearing their hair curly or afro also opt for using plant-based agents to dye and moisturize their hair. In this photo, I depict the Indigo Powder that the salon offers clients instead of the popular hair dying alternatives available on the market. Aside from indigo and henna powder, clients can also purchase shea butter and oil mixes, water-based leave-in and aloe vera-based styling gel.
A quiet moment with no clients. Usually, the salon teems with activity as clients come in and are paired with their stylist and as customers stop in to purchase hair care products and apparel. Usually, the click-click sound of scissors cutting hair, the voices of the stylists doing consultations, family members and friends talking and laughing, music and the ever-ringing phones fill the air.
Braiding is a skill that requires agility, patience and endurance. Box braids are a protective style that keeps hair from exposure as it continues to grow. Often, locals in the D.R. and some tourists have their hair braided by Haitian immigrants or Dominicans of Haitian descent. Braiding is close contact work, intensive labor that also responds to the physical needs, such as the discomfort threshold, of the person whose hair is being tended. Braiding also builds connection and community as people spend time together executing intricate styles. At the salon, clients often sit in the braiding chair from 9 AM to 5 or 6 PM, depending on the length, number and thickness of the braids. In this picture, 3 stylists and myself work to finish one client’s braids at the end of a long day.
At a certain point in black diaspora history, braids served more than just a practical or aesthetic purpose. In the Northern region of Colombia, women mapped escape routes using their braided hair. Benkos Biho, an African king and self-emancipated slave, used this network of spies and guides to lead many to freedom. Today, intricate braiding is considered a symbol of Afro-diasporic pride.