Posted by Moriah Ray, MA Candidate at NYU’s Center for Carribean and Latin American Studies. This post was written in the summer of 2017, based on research funded by the Tinker Grant.
In the Summer of 2015, I had the opportunity to study abroad in Havana, Cuba for three months. To prepare myself for my journey, I did what many black women do in preparation for travel; put my hair in braids. This is one of the multiple popular protective styles that black women commonly use for travel because they are low maintenance and last a long time. I assumed that this style would last me through the three months, but with the hot Havana heat, they did not last as long as expected. Before I could even get my braids out multiple women asked me for the extensions that were used to braid my hair. The first two times I was asked I assumed I misunderstood the women. How would my braiding hair be of any use to them? In the U.S when women take out their braiding extensions they normally throw the hair away. I told them that I could not give them my hair but when my Mom came to Cuba in September I would ask her to bring some. I continued to get stopped and asked about my hair. Who did it? Could they use the hair when I take out the braids? Could I do their hair? My hair connected me to diverse black women throughout Havana. I got their numbers and promised them I would return with packs of hair. After two long months, I ended up taking out my braids. I gave my hair to a close friend of mine who was thrilled to have it. She is still using it now, two years later!
I went to the Centro Comerical in Nuevo Vedado, one of the few “shopping centers” in Havana, to look for some hair products to do my hair. I wrongfully assumed that in a country that is majority black there would be hair products catered towards black women’s hair. There was absolutely nothing. The majority of the products had keratin chemicals to “treat” natural curls. After the centro comerical failed me, I looked in the “black market” stores I knew about, but found nothing. Discouraged, I asked my friend what she used in her natural hair to moisturize it? She told me that she used “cocinero,” a brand of cooking oil! How on earth did black women manage to maintain their natural hair in Cuba?