by Saudi Garcia (Department of Anthropology Doctoral Student)
Activity buzzed around me in the nearly empty-space of the salon floor as I sat on a small stool and managed the phone line, cellphone and the locked glass door. At 10 AM, a call rang through the landline and on the other side, a young woman began speaking through what I sensed were tears. “Can I speak with Carolina?” She asked. In that moment, I was unable to immediately transfer her to Carolina Contreras, the owner of Miss Rizos salon and a public figure in what is the growing natural hair movement in the Dominican Republic. Instead, I asked if there is anything that I can do to help. I wrote her phone number and the details of her story in my cellphone and passed it on to Carolina via text message.
The woman on the other end of the line was Fátima Gónzalez Méndez (aka Nicky) a political science student from the Universidad Autónoma de Santo Domingo. After applying and being accepted to her program of choice and being notified of receiving the scholarship, only to have it withdrawn, Nicky decided to lobby at MESCYT for a scholarship that would enable her to study and live in the Basque Country, Spain. On the morning of July 26th Nicky had gone to the office of the minister of higher education in Science and Technology (MESCYT) in Santo Domingo to lobby. In her words, the minister in charge of the scholarship selection process, Ligia Amada Melo, dismissed her efforts to obtain a scholarship, telling her that she does not give scholarship to people with “pelo como tu” (“Hair like yours”).
Nicky has afro-textured hair, a copper-colored Afro that halos around her face. The implications of the statement by this public figure were immediately interpreted to be discriminatory against people who wear their hair in curly or afro styles. This form of discrimination is common in the Dominican Republic where women, girls and men experience exclusion in various sectors of public life due to their appearance.
Until 2013, the Junta Central Electoral forced women with afro and curly hair to straighten it for their national ID card pictures. Female bank tellers offering customer service at the country’s major banks are barred from wearing their hair natural and other women have been denied entry into commercial establishments for similar reasons. Young men in poor neighborhoods are arrested and their hair is shaved as a standard policing tactic. In May and July, several young women took to social media to denounce being denied entry to their schools because they refused to straighten their hair. These restrictions are often upheld in the name of “buena presencia” or good appearance. However, they are indicative of the translucent coating of respectability politics that permeate life in Dominican, and Caribbean, society.