My Own Curly Haired Rebellion
Puerto Ricans are said to come from white Spaniards, Taíno natives, and black slaves. This makes us look mixed and varied, and the way we define race is different to how it’s usually defined in countries like the United States (which is our biggest outside influence). It also makes us racially confused. Most people would classify me as white, (in fact, most of my friends do), even though I always saw myself as “trigueña”, a loose term for someone with tan skin, not too light or too dark. It’s a term born out of confusion and, sometimes, denial of our black features. And even though I look white (especially now that I don’t get too much sun), as a child I wanted to be whiter. To me, beauty meant white skin, blonde hair, and a skinny figure - things that a mixed Latina child didn’t have. Most of all I hated my hair, and I felt like changing it would also change me into someone whiter, and in my mind, more beautiful.
I can’t deny that my hair was unmanageable, but that’s in part because no one knew how to manage it. My white mom tried her best to style it into ponytails or braids, but it ended up becoming a huge flyaway monster, dry and tangled to boot. The solution to this mess came in the form of keratin treatments and hair straighteners. Getting my hair blow dried and straightened was like having a dream come true. Finally, it didn’t matter if I was white because I could look beautiful while echoing whiteness. I sat at the beauty salon with my head burning thanks to chemicals, never saying it hurt so I wouldn’t bother my hairdresser. When I felt like giving up on the time and maintenance it required, I got told I should do “todo por la belleza" -all for beauty. In the end, when I left the salon, it was all worth it to me.
I kept doing this until 11th grade when bouts of resistance started to happen. Suddenly I was too tired to have my mom do my hair the nights before school. I was tired of cutting my hair when it was burnt and dry, of sleeping with metal clips in my head to preserve the style. It took too long, and frankly, I was too lazy to be beautiful. The final straw came when I started to learn about the issues of race and feminism -and I finally questioned why I even went through all the trouble. My hair could be beautiful, I could be beautiful without having to change the nature of my hair. Learning I was denying my race opened my eyes.
So then, little by little, the straightener was no more. It was hard. I went back to ponytails and frizzy curls, and many times, I wanted to give up and go back to the safety and “ease” of straight hair. Even to this day, I can’t say I don’t miss it in a way. I cut my hair into a pixie cut in my second year of college and since then I’ve grown it out. It’s not burnt, but I’m still unhappy with it in some ways. It’s still messy, frizzy and, sometimes, it doesn’t hold its curl (the irony!) But now I don’t fight it. I curl it with flexy rods instead of burning it, I try other hairstyles, I wear hats. I’m learning to feel beautiful by being myself, not fighting against who I am.
Acceptance can be hard, and I’ve been known to break down crying because of my hair, but I am never going back to hating myself, to feeling inferior and wanting to adhere to American and European beauty standards. It’s a freeing feeling, and the most important thing I’ve learned from this experience is this: there’s more than one kind of beauty, you just have to let it show. Even if it means rebelling.
by: Cindy Martinez