As corporate brands have rushed to push out products in the growing curly hair consumer market, the women behind the curtains of the industry who work in urban playing fields and push the ‘au naturale’ rhetoric have their ambitions set on the real problem below the surface: How can we combat racism and promote self-love in our communities?
Earlier this year, an innovative and environmentally friendly natural hair salon opened its doors in the Dominican Republic to serve curly haircuts on a platter.
Carolina Contreras, better known as Miss Rizos, has become a modern day freedom fighter who advocates for women with Afro-textured hair to embrace their true selves. As the founder of one of Santo Domingo’s first natural hair salons, 29 year-old Miss Rizos provides an alternative to the old Eurocentric standard of beauty that has plagued the Dominican Republic for decades. It all started with a blog, which Miss Rizos started to provide hair tutorials and empowerment to women who wanted to wear their hair naturally. As the blog and her YouTube channel grew in popularity, she decided opening a salon was the next natural step. Her goal is to move acceptance of black features in the Dominican Republic forward; her message is that beauty and hair-care should be an act of self-love.
On a radiant and unusually warm December morning, I grabbed my cup of yerba mate, pulled back my curly hair into a pineapple crown, and prepared for my much-anticipated Skype call with Miss Rizos. I was thrilled to have the opportunity to sit down with the awe-inspiring Afro-Latina social activist. Here’s what I learned about her salon and her place in the natural hair movement.
In the Dominican Republic, it’s a sad fact that your hair texture can lead to acceptance or rejection from certain groups and social classes. Do you recall a moment where someone was treated like a second rate citizen because of their hair?
It actually happened to me while I was out with a group of women. We all had natural hair and we were headed to a bar in La Zona Colonial of Sto. Domingo. The bouncer chose not to let us in because of our hair. Interestingly enough, the bouncer was a black Dominican. How dare he? I was livid and very angry.
After the bouncer discriminated against us and denied our entry, I asked to speak to a manager. My request was ignored and once I got home I called my lawyer. The day after, people called the bar from various local areas in disappointment. The bar’s ratings went from 4 stars to 2.8 stars. Eventually the bar owner apologized for how his staff treated my friends and I.
There’s this thing or idea where black Latinos have been taught to accept that they are less than, so they treat each other accordingly. We’ve been conditioned to believe that we are not deserving of occupying certain spaces. If I feel this way about myself, I’m going to treat people who look like me the same way.
How did your family first react when you told them you were letting your pajón grow out?
They freaked out. My mom thought I was crazy. I had really long hair and I came home with a bob one day. “When you fall asleep I’m going to relax your hair,” my mom would say.
“When you fall asleep I’m going to relax your hair,” my mom would say.
My brother used to call me really mean things and it affected me dramatically. He called my hair nappy and would mention that it didn’t make me look pretty. I knew I needed my brother to understand my point of view and stop the insults, because like myself, his daughter has curly hair. After changing his perspective, my brother went from hating my hair to handing out my business cards to people.
For my mom, I told her that I wanted to get closer to the image that God created me to be. Since she’s religious, that also inspired my mom to go natural.
Why do you think Dominican culture places so much emphasis on hair texture?
I think it’s a historical thing and it started with media. It’s normal for black people and black Latinos to desire to be more Eurocentric, as these are the people who hold the power in our communities. When people relax their hair or bleach it, they do it because they want to be closer to the people who hold the power. The beauty standard that we constantly see in Dominican television and magazines says that the straighter your hair, the better it is. If you look at all the families that hold political power, they don’t look like me, so you do things to resemble them more.
Your hair is the root of your wisdom and knowledge. What does your hair represent to you?
My hair for me represents the power of me being able to decide, of me being able to make decisions that have to do with my body. However, I don’t advocate for everyone to wear curly hair. I want people to have the right to choose without having any repercussions from society; whether it’s for them or for their children.
It represents freedom from something that I was once a slave to; the relaxers and the long salon hair visits. It represents beauty. I feel that it’s the most beautiful accessory that I have on my body.
What legacy do you want to be remembered for?
I want to be remembered as someone who is a continuous work in progress, who continuously works to be a better person. I hope to leave people inspired to continue the work that I do. I really hope that I inspire activists to rethink the way that they are trying to go about change.
I am angry, but that’s not the emotion that powers my movement. It’s love, its beauty.
I used to be a very militant activist. I was really angry and I noticed that the people that were constantly around were the people who felt like me. I felt that I was preaching to the choir. The way that I was creating change wasn’t working; I had to learn from what people really wanted. Our women are taught to relax and straighten their hair, so teaching other women how to take care of their family’s hair created that social change.
I am angry, but that’s not the emotion that powers my movement. It’s love, its beauty. It takes more energy to be angry than to be purely in love with what you do.
I’m 27 and my family still tells me “y tu no te piensas peinar?”
Give me a day with your family and I will convince them about why they should like your hair. It’s therapy almost. It’s like, first you have to figure out why they hate your hair and then use that information along with persuasion skills to make them fall in love.
A client of mine had a lawyer who hated her hair. I explained to her that the constitution says that it’s your given right to make this decision. My client knew what angle to push from when it came to her lawyer. It’s healing. Most of the time our families and friends want us to have straight hair not because they hate us, but because they love us and believe that it will help us to succeed. They say it from a place of suffering.
Why do you think Dominican women with natural hair didn’t challenge our society sooner?
I think that they did. I just think that I might be savvier for putting it on the Internet. I will not take the credit for being the first. I don’t think I’ve been the first, I just learned to use the Internet and use it in a positive way. My activism adjusted to how we spread information.
When you’re a conscious person you get excited about the things that you are proud of. I’d love to tell people to be proud to be black, even though that’s what I believe, but I have to speak in a language where I’m not pushing people away and actually inviting them to join a conversation. They will find out that they are black.
Being a Dominican in the United States and being a Dominican in DR are two different worlds. What has been the hardest part about being a Dominican-American living in DR?
Living in the U.S. you’re not American enough, and living in the D.R. you’re not Dominican enough. The fact that I’m Dominican-American, I use my bilingual skills to my advantage. I connect with African-American women, because when they see me, they don’t see a Dominican woman, they see a black woman. I was just in Colombia and Panama and it’s the same thing out there.
How do you feel about the lack of natural hair representation on Dominican television?
I think its fucked up. I think its terrible and it needs to change. It’s going to take Dominicans to boycott these shows. They are perpetuating the standard of beauty. If they were to put more women of color with curly hair they would validate women’s beauty and encourage them to want to be themselves. The shows on Dominican television don’t show a realistic representation of Dominican people.
How did the portrayal of Latinos on American television shape your self-perception?
My God! It made me want to look like Sofia Vergara. It made me feel like “wait am I the only Dominican that looks like this?”
You would never think that Latinas look like me if you only watched what was on TV.
You would never think that Latinas look like me if you only watched what was on Latino television. You would never think that there are black people in Colombia, because women like Shakira and Sofia Vergara represent them.
Leaving your hair curly was previously seen as an act of rebellion. Why do you think it was seen as such an act and not natural?
It’s still viewed as a rebellious act. A lot of people look at you and think she must be a rebel, a hippie artist. It’s seen that way because you go against what’s normal, and what’s normal is the process of changing your natural hair.
What is your long-term vision for Miss Rizos?
To continue to spread your pajón love. Specifically, to influence and make sure that the laws in Latin America that are already set in place to protect women who want to wear their hair naturally are enforced. My vision is to help eradicate discrimination against curly hair all over Latin America.