Updated: Mar 26, 2020
When Mom used to brush and braid my hair, the tugging at the roots would put me to sleep, like a lullaby. I’d wake up and my hair would be combed and neat. By the time I was eight, Mom had tired of pulling at my tight coils and took me to a hair salon for the first time. I sat in the chair and a Dominican woman placed this white gook on my hair that made my scalp burn. I screamed in pain and they washed away the cream. After having my hair dressed in rollers under the hair dryer and the stylist blow drying my hair, my once tight curls transformed into the straight hair of every person I’d seen on TV. My hair cascaded over my shoulders and Mom said, “Que linda! Mira esa melena!”
As a young girl, I didn’t understand the connotations of chemically straightening my hair every three months. I had no idea it would affect the way I saw myself. If I didn’t have straight hair then I wasn’t desirable.
I also didn’t understand how even though Dominicans have African roots, they denied their blackness by changing their hair texture. There was no in between. My journey with my hair followed more of the African American community. I had box braids in high school and even locs! More than a decade after I stopped relaxing my hair, my mom suggested I jump on the bandwagon after willingly rolling off of it years ago.
“Your hair is long,” Mom said to me when I visited her in the Dominican Republic two years ago. I had cut all of my hair and she referred to my new growth. My parents moved back to their country when I was in college so I saw them every other year.
“You want to try this new tratamiento?” she said. “It’s keratin. It’ll make you look pretty.”
“I don’t look pretty now?” I asked, miffed and annoyed knowing that any comment about my appearance would set me off and take me through a downward spiral of insecurity.
“You’ll look prettier,” she said. I rolled my eyes and politely declined.
“My curly afro is fine and I like my hair the way it is,” I told her.
Mom mumbled a comment about her pelo malo and that she couldn’t get away with wearing her hair like me, una greña, in the streets.
Either way, I made it known that I wasn’t ashamed of my hair texture, even if she and everyone in the DR hadn’t yet embraced their roots.
Later in the week, my cousin, Elizabeth, mentioned she had applied the keratin treatment on my mom’s hair.
“I can do the same for you, if you want,” Elizabeth said.
“Ay si,” Mami said with glee. “Let her do it!”
“Ma, pelo malo no existe. There is only hair,” I said.
Mom pursed her lips, as if what I said didn’t matter. Dismissive, even.
I knew that deep down, my mom doing my hair or anything related to femininity was her own way of bonding with me because she didn’t know how else to relate to her nerdy, chubby, bookworm, writer tomboy of a daughter. But this wasn’t the way to do it, especially with hair.
It hurts that she doesn’t see her true beauty and mine. She keeps referring to her hair as pelo malo and my hair as un pajon, like my hair is so unmanageable it needs taming. As if my hair needs to be controlled, to conform to the masses, and to emulate that bullshit European straight hair beauty standard. I’ve always been the rebellious type: fuck gender, that shit is a social construction, fuck doing my hair, my curls are beautiful, etc. I’ve long since embraced my hair, its curls, and how beautiful I look when I completely comb it out. During that same visit, my mom braided my hair and when I unfurled my curly strands from the twists, admiring the softness and length of my chocolate brown hair, I said, “Wow, I am beautiful.” It was one of the first times I said this to myself in the mirror and truly meant it. I am beautiful.
But Mom lives in a country that sells that straight hair beauty shit and she’s not the kind to go against the grain when it comes to femininity and what that means. She says she’s too old to be walking around with unruly hair. She doesn’t know any better. How can I undo all the beauty junk she’s been fed for the almost 70 years she’s been living on this planet? If I show her funky hairstyles that women are rocking online, I’m positive she’d change her tune but I don’t live there. I can’t fault her and get defensive because that bullshit Kool-Aid is running through her veins like water. All I can do is tell her my truth and to stop trying to erase my curls.
Rose Heredia piece was inspired by the Peinate anthology which she enjoyed immensely. Her essay discusses the last time she and her mother discussed her hair and the emotions that erupted from the conversation.
Rose is currently the Culture Writer for Epifania Magazine and reads prose for the CRAFT
magazine. Additionally, she was on the editorial board for the UC Berkeley Extension during the creation of their first literary magazine, Ursa Minor, to be published. Rose obtained her MFA in Creative Writing in 2017.