Learning to Embrace My Natural Hair as an Afro-Latina Was a Bumpy Road
I was eight when my parents first asked me to relax my hair.
There are so many colorful aspects of Latinx culture—one of them being our vibrant, unapologetic approach to beauty. We come from generations of passed down secrets and insider tips, but as the world changes, so does the way we view makeup, skincare, hair, and more. Here’s how we’re mixing things up and bringing fuego to Latinx beauty today.
Until I was 21, I chemically straightened and ironed my hair to within an inch of its life using my flat iron’s highest heat setting. I believed that if I straightened it into submission in the air conditioned bathroom, it would still be straight outside in South Florida’s 99% humidity; I really wanted to believe my hair could defy the elements of nature.
My hair is the perfect amalgam of my parents. My father is Black American, and I inherited his tightly coiled texture with high porosity. My mother is Nicaraguan, likely of Indigenous and European descent, and her hair is so thick that to this day I’ve never seen her scalp. I’ve spent most of my life using time-consuming, destructive, and sometimes painful treatments to make my hair look less like my own—less Black. The shows and movies I grew up with didn’t help; Disney still hasn’t shown me a woman protagonist with Afro-textured hair.
Looking back on my Afro-Latinx hair journey, I can’t help but think about Malcolm X asking, “Who taught you how to hate yourself?” I think about the subtle ways my Latinx and Black families managed my hair with damaging products and underhanded comments, and how they gradually made me hate its natural texture. I remember burning it to a crisp with the flat iron and inhaling its fumes.
Generally, I think our mothers inherit the burden of disciplining our beauty, especially for Latinx women, as traditional gender roles are so defined in our culture. My mom is responsible for how I’ve practiced or rejected these predefined gender roles, ranging from how “put-together” I looked to how likely I am to get married. Every “y tu novio?” I received in my early twenties was asked in front of my mother. I’m not the easiest candidate for this kind of feminization; I have no real interest in any of the benchmarks of girl and womanhood and find most of them bizarre.
When I was younger, I eschewed traditionally feminine ways of dressing. I always preferred to wear black—usually a t-shirt and jeans—occasionally painting my nails, but usually just to deter myself from biting them. I never liked showing my body. Even now, I prefer kaftans or jeans and a loose t-shirt. Beyond what I now know were early indications that I was queer, there was another thing keeping me from fulfilling the “put-together” (read, hyper-femme) look—my hair, that which my mother deemed “unmanageable.”
In South Florida, the “issues” with my hair came out on pool and beach days, through comments like, “it’s humid today,” and time spent shopping in the “ethnic” hair care aisles. I was eight years old when my parents sat down together to ask me about relaxing my hair. My mom said she simply “didn’t know how to deal with it.” From what I can remember, I understood. I was also dealing with my hair. I’d crane my neck over the tub so my mom could help me wash it, and I’d sit for hours through a detangling session. Then, my father, with his strong hands, would grease my scalp and tug my hair into thick braids using little bolitas to hold them in place. I didn’t know this then, but he’s the one who styled my hair, drawing on his experience with Black hair from his mother—my mom tried, but it was a steep learning curve for her and the finished product was rough.
At eight, I became too old for my hair to be my dad’s responsibility, so my parents said that if I relaxed my hair, it would be easier for them to deal with. In the retelling of this experience, I know my hair was cast as a villain in my story. I also know that while I could have declined, it’s hard to imagine a child saying “no” to a decision their parents clearly wanted. So, I said yes. I remember thinking that relaxing my hair sounded liberating: flowing locks! Just one ponytail! Shorter hair styling days! Maybe, I would feel more beautiful. At the time, the request didn’t hurt my feelings or make me feel “less than” like it does today.
At the salon, I felt comfort in a way I hadn’t ever before. The women who relaxed my hair were Black Haitians, and had been doing hair for years. I liked the community of Black hair salons; Haitian, Afro-Dominican, Afro-Puerto Rican, and Black American women commiserating for hours under hot dryers. Young kids would sell food like griot, maduros, mofongo, and tamales, knowing we would be there all day. Though different in each place I have lived, the specific feeling of Black salons reminds me of the possibility of reconciling my diasporic identities, which had been largely held apart for me on both sides of my family.
I went to the same salon for years, from ages eight to 21, and each time, I felt it validated being wholly, truly, and indisputably Latinx. At the salon, my hair and its rituals connected me to others rather than alienating me. Paradoxically, outside of the salon’s community, my relationship to being Latina was tenuous at best. I understood but was and am too embarrassed to speak Spanish. Until last year, I had never been to Nicaragua; and unlike the rest of my Nicaraguan family who range in from pale white and green-eyed to decidedly Brown with eyes like café, I am Black. To this day, I’m not sure my Nica family understands what that means for me, my father, and sister—the criminalization of our skin, the big and little challenges from healthcare to dating. It’s a lonely feeling to not be seen by your family.
My hair has always alienated me from both the white Latinx hegemony in Miami and my own family. My father’s relatives live in Virginia and though I saw them often, every woman relaxed their hair and expected the same of me. And in Miami, I would look at long, thick, wavy, or straight hair donned by the women on my mother’s side with envy. I wanted nothing more than to be able to wash my hair and let it air dry in loose waves or put it up in a bun without being worried about the state of my “kitchen.” Unlike my cousins, my neighbors, and friends, I had to sit in a chair for seven or eight hours every few months to change the texture of my hair.
At 21, I was working, wrapping up college, and applying to grad school, and my then un-diagnosed sebaceous dermatitis flared up in response to the stress. I went to a hair appointment to get my hair relaxed, and like countless times before, the white cream was combed into my roots. Unlike other times, though, it immediately burned and the comb eventually lifted up parts of my scalp, turning the creamy mixture pink with blood. After that, my hair was pulled tightly into rollers where I sat under a hot dryer for about two hours, and then it was blown out. Afterward, a thick scab formed on my scalp, and chunks came out every time I brushed through the unnaturally straight, processed strands.
My mom tried to convince me no one could see it, but I could swear that no one made eye contact with me for a month. Instead, their eyes wandered to my hairline. I was embarrassed as I watched scabs fall to the floor. I was scared, too. Did the relaxer get into my bloodstream? Would I get an infection? Was relaxing my hair worth it?
At school, I started taking Black Studies classes, learning about Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, and Celia Cruz, whose vibrant wigs inspired me and reminded me of how we can own our hair and looks. For the first time, I thought critically about relaxers in the context of the histories these classes presented to me. And then I got angry.
My scalp was never the same after that relaxer, and a short time later, I decided to stop relaxing my hair entirely when I left South Florida for graduate school in Tennessee. I explained my decision to my mom and she cautioned against “making too many changes at once,” but I reminded her of when the relaxer mangled my scalp. She was silent, and her silence made me livid. Did she really think I would give in the same way I had when I was eight?
That summer, I chopped off eight inches of my hair. Partially, in spite of my mother’s persistent attempts to manage my hair, and partially because if I was going to grow out my natural texture, there was no healing hair that had been relaxed, blow dried, and flat ironed for more than 10 years.
It wasn’t a big chop—I didn’t know what that was—and I had no intention of not straightening it. Eight inches was enough, though. My mom was upset by the short length, but I loved it and learned to wrap my hair tightly, using slap caps in humidity to keep it straight as it grew out. As it did, I could see a rigid line between my curls and the limp, lifeless, sad reminders of years of relaxers and heat processing. But I still straightened it.
A few years later, my sister began her natural journey with my mom’s encouragement. According to her, “curly hair was in style now.” I felt a black hole open in my stomach, recalling the conversation I had had with my mom before I left for Tennessee. With time, my sister’s gorgeous afro bloomed, and she received constant compliments. I tried hiding my blow dryer and flat iron from myself, using different products and scrunching, twisting to bring life to hair that had been abused for years even after I stopped relaxing it. Yet even though I was jealous of my sister’s curls, I plugged the flat iron back in for another five years. It was the only way I knew how to style my hair and I was too ashamed to admit that I needed help learning to love my curls.
I can’t remember what made me finally throw away my hot tools, but after months of not seeing anyone during the pandemic, I did it. At that point, I was so tired of feeling at war with my hair. I was fortunate to have friends who had recently made the switch, too, and they helped me replace my hair products and sent me YouTube tutorials from women with hair textures similar to mine.
Earlier this year, I did a real big chop—this time, with my hair curly. There are still parts that don’t curl, my hair feels like it has 85 different curl patterns, and I don’t really know how to style it yet. It took a while—I was grappling with how to forgive my family and my sister got caught in the crossfire—but I talked to her about her routine and what I should do in the next months as my hair continues to transition. I’m still figuring it out, but I latch onto compliments whenever I get them.
As I have learned about anti-Blackness and white beauty standards, and as Afro-Latinas become slowly more represented on screen, I am growing to love my hair more each day. By extension, I’m trying to learn to love myself and my family with a love that looks like warmth, accountability, and forgiveness. I have to tell myself, even on days I don’t believe it, that my hair is a wild, curly, thick reminder of ancestral gifts from my family’s roots in Virginia and Nicaragua. My hair is my mother’s and father’s… more importantly, though, it’s entirely mine.
For my most recent cut, I went to a natural Black salon and was thrilled to see that many Black folks there weren’t getting relaxers, and the room wasn’t 120 degrees from the heat coming from hairdryers on the high setting. I told the stylist about my hair journey as she washed and conditioned my hair, and said I wanted to transition and knew a lot had to be cut. At that point, my hair was halfway down my back, but only curled at a length right below my ears. She made eye contact with me in the mirror, holding her hand where she would later hold the scissors, right at my jawline, and said “I would have to cut it here.” It was a question, even if it lacked the inflection. I hesitated, but eventually said, “just do it.”
My hair and its length have always been held to standards of beauty that align with Black, Latinx, and of course, white-dominant and patriarchal expectations. It’s why my parents asked to relax my hair, rather than cut it to make it “more manageable.” I’ve learned by trying to reclaim, learn, and love my hair that I no longer think about moments that felt earth-shattering as a kid. More so, it’s the subtle ways we tell women with hair that doesn’t dry straight that the world is not made with them in mind.
Each time I cut it, whether it’s to facilitate the transition or because I saw another natural style that I think is in my range, I remember my mom’s sad look when I first cut my hair in Tennessee. We don’t talk about my hair often anymore; my mom will cautiously compliment it, my father says nothing at all. I’m hesitant to say my parents hurt me by telling me my hair needed to change. I love my parents; I know they did what they thought they needed to do. However, I’m more aware of my hair around my family in Miami—I touch it more and check my reflection often—and perhaps this is the best reconciliation of my version of Afro-Latinidad that I can hope for. I’ll know I have fully healed when that feels like enough.