Pelo Malo: An Afro-Latina Experience
By Ashlie Rodriguez
February 17th, 2021 at 5:30 P.M. EST.
“Mami, ¿por qué yo no soy rubia con pelo lacio?”
I was no older than six when I asked my mother this question. I wanted to know why I was not blonde with straight hair.
At the time, I sat naked in the bathtub of our old apartment. It was Sunday, the day which my mom would set aside hours on end in order to complete the weekly ordeal of washing and combing my hair. My head was yanked from side to side, and I often felt hot tears streaming down my face as I tried my best to hold still. I squeezed my eyes shut, silently cursing the knots and tangles that often come with having curly hair, and prayed that when I opened my eyes, they would be gone.
My mother, the woman I admire most in the world, worked hard at altering my natural appearance.
For a long time, I blamed her for having made me feel so ashamed of the color of my skin and the texture of my hair. But, as I’ve grown, I’ve come to realize it has always been inevitable.
As it is, the Dominican Republic has a long-standing history of anti-blackness. I never saw my mom’s curls until this past year, when the salons closed due to the pandemic, and her naturally kinky hair began to slowly grow in at the roots.
When I was eight, my light-skinned best friend came over to go “tanning” in the backyard. From inside the house, I could hear my family laughing. They told me I had no need for such a thing. It wasn’t until I was older that I realized their comments had nothing to do with practicing sun safety. Rather, it was to deter the detrimental effects the sun's rays would have on my already too-black skin.
I was fourteen when I started high school, and soon realized I was one of two black girls in the entire school. My mother told me to fix my hair.
I found myself waking up every day an hour earlier than the rest of my peers in order to straighten the big, bouncy curls that sprang from my scalp. They say Dominicans do the best hair, but what they really mean is that they’re the best at blow drying, setting, and flattening out any trace of pelo malo a person might have once had. The chemicals broke down every last kink in my hair, and when I washed it a week later, I found myself with limp strands that fell flat against my head.
Until one day, I got sick of it.
I got sick of having to wake up early, sick of having to smell those putrid relaxers, and sick of hiding who I really was.
That’s when I found myself late one night staring at my own reflection in the bathroom mirror. I grabbed the nearest pair of safety scissors, and began to chop off every last limp end, with all the boxed-in fury of a madwoman.
For a while, I rocked a mini ‘fro. I began to listen to Beyonce, all the while learning to love my “baby hair and afro, my negro nose and Jackson 5 nostrils.” I started to educate myself on the history of my own people, and have since then even held the honor of co-hosting a discussion panel on the topic of racism to over 500 students.
I’m nineteen years old as I lay in the sun, soaking up every last bit of its rays with unabashedness. I walk with my head held high, my huge hair often making its presence known before I have. My mother tells me to fix my hair, and all I can reply is that I cannot fix what is not broken.
Artwork by Maria Patricia Mejicano
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