Why I Stopped Relaxing My Hair

The author, pictured center.

Any idea can be embedded into a person’s subconscious. In the case of the island of Hispaniola, which is shared by modern-day Dominican Republic and Haiti, that idea is the complejo colonial – the racial inferiority complex born of colonization and centuries of dominant white supremacist ideology.  As a Dominican-American woman who grew up in the West Harlem neighborhood of New York City and identifies as Afro-Latina, my own experience with race and identity has been an ongoing personal journey – one that’s been very present in my mind as DR’s ongoing immigration crisis has dominated the news cycle.

As a child, I spent a lot of time in the Dominican Republic, specifically in the campos of Tamboril and La Ciénaga and in the barrio of Ensanche Libertad, (all provinces of Santiago de los Caballeros). I identify as Afro-Latina and acknowledge my Taino, Spanish, and African roots, but for as far back as I can remember, the black/white racial dichotomy has been a topic of discussion in my culture. You know how it goes: white is the color associated with purity and goodness, whereas black is commonly seen as the color of impurity and evil. This duality has manifested itself in many ways throughout the world’s history, but in Dominican culture, one of the ways it takes shape is in religion and spirituality.

When my grandmother’s church friends came over, she’d hide any signs of Santería.

I grew up understanding magia negra y magia blanca as described by Dominicans in the northern part of the country, where my family is from. “White magic” was used for healing the sick, and involved a lot of natural cleansing baths and prayers to the spirits that we worshipped; “black magic,” on the other hand, involved sacrificing of animals and other rituals. It wasn’t until I did my own research that I understood the African Yoruba origins of these ancient practices and how they related to the Eurocentric Catholicism I was accustomed to. I felt conflicted by my family’s hypocritical ways of connecting with their spirituality. We went to Catholic church on Sundays but had an altar at home for Belie Belcan (a Yoruba spirit that is syncretized with San Miguel, the protector against evil). They prayed to both Jesus and to Papa Elegua (the chief deity of the Yoruba religion), but when my grandmother’s church friends came over, she’d hide any signs of Santería. I imagine she was afraid of being judged, since Santería and voodoo are taboo in Dominican culture because of their connections to blackness.

The author, playing tambora
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In the early 2000s, I had an experience that began to call the racial assumptions I’d been raised with into question. My grandmother fell ill, and we called a santero – a Haitian healer who had been raised in the Dominican Republic– to cure her. When I first met him, I balked at his ethnicity – how could he be Haitian if he shared my lighter complexion? I’d been brought up with the idea that Haitians all had darker skin than me; I’d never even considered the possibility that we could look the same. Watching this man perform magia blanca and cure my grandmother opened my mind and I began to interrogate my own ideas about race.

In elementary school, I often visited botánicas with my grandmother—the stores where people who practice Santería buy the items needed for their rituals. The music coming from inside these sacred spaces filled me with so much joy. I started paying attention to the percussion and the rhythm and wanted to explore that feeling in my spirit. After participating in the world of 21 divisiones (a Dominican sect of Santería) and studying with a Puerto Rican music teacher who helped me develop more love and yearning for the congas, I decided to join my school’s percussion band. The P.S. 84 Rhythm Band was a children’s percussion group that performed all around NYC, in museums and neighboring schools.

The author dancing bomba
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I went on to replace my congas for palo and bomba dancing in junior high school. I was so enamored by the culture that every other year I had my mom take me to a costurera to make me a new palo skirt because local stores didn’t have them. However, by the time I turned 11, my parents made me believe that I shouldn’t play because it was a “man’s genre” and I would get calloused hands. I couldn’t help but wonder if this was their anti-black subconscious talking, but like the momma’s girl that I was, I listened.

The energy I felt and still feel when I dance palo music and play the congas made my blackness apparent to me.

By the time I was a teen, I was exploring my passion for dance by attending traditional live típico parties every time I visited Santiago, going to places like Andy Ranch, Amaprozan, and Típico Las Colinas. Típico is another form of traditional Dominican music filled with percussion, with a lot of mambo and swing. I was so impressed with the fun I had dancing and I missed playing my drums so much that I decided to teach myself how to play the tambora. I remember being so excited because Geovanny Polanco’s tamborero (a famous típico performer), allowed me to play his tambora between sets. The energy I felt and still feel when I dance palo music and play the congas made my blackness apparent to me. Although I knew it wasn’t ordinary for a young Dominican-American woman to be so interested in knowing more about her black roots, I didn’t care. I was hooked and I wanted more.

By the time I turned 17, I was fully immersed in the exploration of my blackness. My mom had been relaxing my hair since I was 7, my pajón was too much for her to deal with. Hair has always been a big topic of discussion, not only within my family, but within the entire culture. Xenophobia even affects our feelings about hair texture. During the 10 years that I relaxed my hair, I always just wanted to leave it naturally curly. Those who have attempted to curl their relaxed long hair can sympathize with my struggle; wet relaxed hair just looks confused. It’s an inch wavy, then an inch flat, then an inch wavy again; not to mention the fact that the chemical residue from the relaxer smells terrible. I decided that I wanted grow out my natural hair and so I confronted my mom with my plans. Not only was letting the kinks out a lot of work, I couldn’t get my mom or any of my other family members to stop making negative comments. They would not let a girl live! It took a while not to feel bothered that I was the cousin who never straightened her hair. I was always confused about what I deemed pretty because it never felt okay to be my natural self around my family. I wanted to look the way I was meant to look naturally, but they insisted on a whiter, straighter way, and I just couldn’t accept that. When I graduated high school and started college at Syracuse University, almost ¾ of my hair had grown out and my fro was flourishing. Everyone on campus knew me by my glorious hair, as this was before the natural hair movement blew up. My hair was my statement, an act of rebellion towards my family and a pledge of self-love. Whenever I visited NYC, it was always “vete al salón,” “buscale un peine a esa muchacha,” “pero lavate esa cabeza.” When I got cornrows, they accused me of wanting to “look black,” but I was over their judgment. I continued to embrace the beauty that emanated from my awesome, black hair.

It took a while not to feel bothered that I was the cousin who never straightened her hair.

Continuing with my defiant spirit and listening to the voice in me that encouraged me to explore my roots, I became a part of many extracurricular activities at Syracuse aimed at raising the consciousness of our people. Dancing in various groups led by African-Americans and Latinos and being a part of organizations like the National Association of Hispanic Journalists, I became part of a bigger community that shared the same interests. During my time interacting with these groups of people, I began dating my first African-American boyfriend. This was a big deal. While I was in high school, I dated a dark-skinned Dominican from Washington Heights. My parents were cool with him and our relationship; he got to come to my sweet 16 and everything. He was un “morenito bonito”, as they called him. In my culture, dating a black Dominican is NOT the same as dating an African-American. I remember the first time my parents met my first college boyfriend. To surprise them, I didn’t tell them he was black. They never seemed particularly interested in him or his story, and it was clear how much they disapproved of our relationship. Even among my cousins, sisters, and Dominican friends, I would always hear typical jokes about dating black men. It was so uncomfortable. When you’re raised in a culture where white is right, you’re bound to feel shameful for wanting to date a black man. Expecting people to not want to date a dark Dominican or a dark-skinned person is just another form of self-hatred. As my grandmother’s sister Tía Marina would always say, “tenemos el negro detrás de la orejas” (a saying that roughly translates to “we can’t deny we are black”). I won’t ever deny that.

The author and her conga.
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When I was comfortable enough with myself, I took my power back and no longer allowed my family’s comments make me feel insecure about anything—not my hair, not my dating preference, and definitely not my percussion fever. I realized that as an Afro-Latina, the conga playing made sense and my love for bomba and palo made sense. I started to feel so comfortable. I saw no color lines between Dominicans and Haitians. I found myself explaining the “ok” part of our blackness in between merengues and bachatas at our family gatherings. Our entire community has been affected by our colonial condition, but instead of lamenting that fact, I choose to learn more about our roots and ways to stop this dangerous cycle of thought. One of the great things about this beautiful Afro-Latina journey is the continuous discoveries you make. While writing this piece, I learned that the Dominican custom of double negation and affirmation (like “el es blanco, blanco,” “el es negro, negro,” or “yo no voy pa’ ‘lla, no”) is a form of diction adapted from the Bantu languages of Africa. There’s that never-ending beauty shining through again, in black, white, and everything in between.