I had been using alisando on my hair since I was 8 years old. I hated the routine. I hated being in a packed salon, with chapiadoras getting their nails and hair paid by their drug-slinging men, and the wanna-be chapiadoras staring in awe hoping one of them would pay attention. The never-ending chisme that filled the salon, the kids piling up everywhere, and the cramped hot space in the summer- and yet I so wanted to fit in.
When my turn came, I always cringed at having my nappy hair exposed, broken into four big chunks to apply the cream. I hated the smell of the alisado– the creamy crack as we all came to know the hair relaxer. The burning sensation, and then the desperate feeling of wanting to leave it on a little longer so maybe my hair can be laced like the chinitas I always saw in the South of town. One time, I bit my lip trying to hold back from the itching sensation and I had patches of burnt hair for the next two months. That should teach me a lesson, my hairdresser said. I would leave the salon with a new flair- hair length: check. eyebrows done: check. It was my introduction to femininity- painful, yet necessary.
At that time, I didn’t leave the house without first applying my flat iron to crease over the new growth of nappy hair trying to expose the real me. New hair growth beneath my relaxer was a gift and a curse- it was unclear what I wanted more: longer or straighter hair?
I was annoyed at how quickly my natural hair was growing in. After all, I had gone in to get a relaxer treatment just 3 weeks ago! Normally it would last at least a month. This time I had a date and there was no way I was going to go meet this boy with my hair looking nappy. So I took an extra shift at work, got my money (yea I forgot to mention this was an expensive task: At least $80 a pop each time!) and headed to spend my Friday night at the salon.
This time was different. After years and years of relaxing my hair, I had gone too far.
I had heard horror stories of girls who had lost all their hair for relying too much on the creamy crack. Girls who covered up the patches of missing hair with weaves and extensions. Not me, I always said. Until it finally happened. A few days later, I woke up and I had shed a ton of hair. Chunks of it. I caressed my scalp to find pieces of burnt hair breaking loose. This is normal, I thought- trying to keep myself calm. I spent the next two weeks shedding and losing hair and finally I could not ignore it anymore. The creamy crack had gotten me, and I was its newest hair victim.
Over the next two years, I transitioned to a natural. No more creamy crack, no more 8-hour intervals at the hair salon waiting for my alisado. I was numb to it. I had lost most of my hair, cut it down to a teeny-weeny Afro and felt…. weird. There was no real feeling at the time. I avoided looking in the mirror in those early days, and hardly referenced my frustration to my friends. I am sure they knew and were kind enough to not bring it up.
The loss of my hair culminated with the ending of a relationship and the transition to a new college. It seemed like too much change at once so I felt angry, confused, down, and not like myself at all. I felt like life was treating me unfairly. I needed a new outlook, a change of pace.
I applied to study abroad that Fall through an opportunity at my new college. I needed a happy ending and a new beginning. The time away from family and friends allowed me to perceive myself differently. The time abroad allowed me to reflect and shed light on what had happened. I was introduced to coconut oil, I found an online natural hair community, and suddenly my Afro represented more than just burnt and nappy hair.
The path towards finding my Afro-Latinidad was the path of me finding myself. It was not glitzy and glamorous. I did not roll over one day and exclaim: I am a proud Afro-Latina! On the contrary, I tried so hard to hide the features that represented that identity for a long time. A part of me died with the hair left behind from years of over processing it, but a new part of me emerged- this time a more proud and defiant self.
I never thought I’d be making a political statement by going natural with my hair. Learning how to embrace my texture and coils allowed me to understand parts of me that I tried to alter due to societal pressures and standards. Through this journey of self-love, care, healing, and identity, my relationship with my hair has stood as a parallel letting me view the world but also alerting me that I am more than just a beauty standard.
” I am proud of my Afro-Latinidad, my culture, and curls and I embrace the smooth and rough parts of it. I am happy to have been led through this journey so that I can grow into my full self, and I can now stand firm in my cultura.”