Latin America has a rich mixture of different ethnicities between African, European and Native American ancestry. It is estimated that 40% of the total population of Latin America has Afro-descendants which is why some of us have one other physical characteristic from our enslaved fathers such as a dark skin color, some facial features and hair texture. In most of Latin American countries, not only does your physical appearance influence your ethnic roots but social status and socioeconomic values are also involved; which it’s no coincidence why 60% of those Afro-descendants live in extreme poverty.
Having 2 Dominican parents and living for 15 years in the Caribbean has gained me lots of experience in the “whitening” process. “Whitening” in Latin America is defined as: the removal of any trace of African ancestry you have that can reflect itself physically; this includes the enlightening of the skin tone and straightening of the hair. It’s not a secret in high school when you have the opportunity of getting your first “Relaxer” as a quinceañera’s gift. I remember all the girls at school arriving the next day to class with a flat out shiny hair. Some girls with noticeable tight curls would admit they had the process done, other girls would just say it was thanks to the “magic of the blow dryer” in a way to take the dirt of negro heritage off their shoulders.
I am a living proof of the “whitening” movement. My hair is naturally curly; if I were to classify it, it would be like a type 3 which is a soft curly hair; since it’s fine it tends to puff up under humid conditions. Throughout my years at school I was never really bothered about my hair. I really liked; it was easy to have them curled as it was easy to straighten. I always went to school in a ponytail shaped in a big curl. When I started to grow up, I used to see that some of my classmates wouldn’t get puffy hair while doing gym time, which I would always end up with spiked hairs and curls out of nowhere from the humidity. When girls started talking about the “Relaxer” I was in shock! …I mean, my hair wasn’t as curly as theirs and I definitely didn’t have a “Brillo pad” hair, so I always thought I didn’t need any “relaxers” in my hair and decided to keep my original hair for time being.
As crazy as it seems, being part of the few girls at high school that maintained her natural curly hair, most girls seemed delighted to touch and complement my curly ponytail saying things like: “Oh, I wish I had your hair” or “You have such nice curls”. Ironically I would think to myself: “Well, if you stop using that relaxer, you can actually go back to the curls you used to have”. Those days I decided to wet my hair and mousse them up into my curls, those were the days I would become a hair phenomenon! I would hear things like: “Oh, you should wear your hair like this to school everyday” or “See? Your hair isn’t bad, it’s pretty nice”.
As time passed, the obsession of getting straighter hair grew bigger in a way that 9 of 10 girls in my class went to school with their hair straightened (counting that I was the 1 out of 10 that didn’t). Each year that passed I started getting more and more mad at my hair for not being in place when the wind blowed or puffing up at the slightest view of a rain cloud. When I was finishing my senior year I finally got the courage to go to my mother and tell her: “Mami, I want to straighten my hair for my high school graduation”. My mother said: “Ok, but only because I’m tired of you complaining about your hair”.
The day of my high school graduation I paraded the school’s entrance with my super sleek straightened hair; I also dyed it darker with a semi-permanent hair color since relaxing your hair “opens the pores of your hair so that the dye takes up faster” (said by my mother’s hairdresser who also relaxed her hair as well). While me and my classmates where sitting down on our outdoor scenario, I saw the sky getting grayer: “Uh-oh” I thought, but then reminded myself that I got my hair relaxed and my hair was not going to puff up. Till this day I’m still embarrassed of my graduation photos since my hair looks like Hermione Granger’s hair on her first year at Hogwarts. I thought: “This shit doesn’t even work on my hair. Damn this hair relaxer!”. After that, I relaxed it a second time a couple of months later thinking that maybe it had been applied wrong the first time.
Since my “relaxing” days (which were only 2 times), I have applied on my hair different straightening processes like the “Brazilian Keratin Treatment”, which I stopped using after I almost passed out with the formaldehyde smell (yes, the main ingredient of embalming at the morgue). Then I stopped using Keratin after 2 years of usage and just started blow drying my hair every weekend at the beauty salon. I now have 3 years stuck to blow drying my hair every weekend which has, eventually, straightened out my hair till a point where my hair is now a type 2. Sometimes I go back to my old curly hair days and curl my hair with a diffuser, but it will never go back to the curls I used to have during my childhood and teenage years.
Part of me is disgusted by how I felt peer pressure into the “whitening” of hair. Lately I’ve been alternating the hair salon with fixing my own hair with a diffuser in one hand and mousse or coconut oil in another. Thankfully my mother never pressured me to “whiten” my hair, she just helped me get the best goods and treatments during the time I used relaxers, or the other time I started the Brazilian Keratin. She always told me that “The hair is the frame of a woman’s face” maybe one day I’ll stop blow drying my hair overall and wear my natural hair as it is on an every day basis. Meanwhile, I enjoy the few weeks of the year in which I get to keep my hair natural and free from the whitening culture every Latina has to put up with at some point of our lives.