Pelo malo has historically been used to put down people with tightly curled hair. More specifically, the term denigrates Afro-Latino heritage.
In Black Behind the Ears: Dominican Racial Identity from Museums to Beauty Shops, Ginetta E. B. Candelario writes, “There are clearly racial connotations to each category: the notion of pelo malo implies an outright denigration of African-origin hair textures, while pelo bueno exalts European, Asian, and indigenous hair textures. Moreover, those with pelo bueno by definition are ‘not black,’ skin color notwithstanding.”
Sulma Arzu-Brown – a Garifuna woman who was raised in the Bronx – was spurred to action after her babysitter said that Arzu-Brown’s 3-year-old daughter had pelo malo. Instead of getting upset, she channeled her energy into writing Bad Hair Does Not Exist! for all the little girls who “are Black, Afro-descendent, Afro-Latinas and Garifuna.”
“The book is a tool of cultural solidarity and a tool of empowerment for all of our little girls,” Arzu-Brown told NBC News. “The term ‘Bad hair’ or ‘Pelo Malo’ is divisive to both community and family, and can contribute to low self-esteem.”
The babysitter incident is not the first time her family dealt with the term. Her older daughter, Suleni, would say that she wished her hair was straight. And having Arzu-Brown, who chemically straightened her hair, tell Suleni that her hair was beautiful was not enough. One day, Sulma cut off all her hair.
“I came home and this little girl took a sigh of relief and said, ‘Mommy we finally look alike.’ I didn’t realize what a power of influence I was in my daughter’s life until I found out that she struggled to look like me,” she said.
With this book, she is hoping other children can see themselves reflected in the pages illustrated by Isidria Sabio.
The next step is for the book to be translated into Portuguese, so that it can reach even more people. And through StartUp Box – an organization trying to encourage the South Bronx community into tech endeavors – Verizon has given $10,000 toward the creation of an app for Bad Hair Does Not Exist.
Buy or see an excerpt of the book here.