Author Archives: Saudi Garcia

#YoSoyNicky: Anti-Discrimination Activism in the Dominican Republic

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applying and being accepted to her program of choice and being notified of receiving the scholarship, only to have it withdrawn, Nicky decided to lobby at MESCYT for a scholarship that would enable her to study and live in the Basque Country, Spain.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.

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photo courtesy of verne.elpais.com

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.

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Un dia en el Salon… (Photo Essay)

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.

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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.

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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.

 

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Homecoming Rizado

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.

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The Dominican racial difference paradox: Many different skin tones, one accepted and expected hair texture.

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.

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