August 2017 Hair Natural Hair Conference – Hair model from Mariano, Cuba
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.