Kinky Hair and the Pursuit of Latin-ness

Recording Artist Esperanza Spalding and Actress/Model Yaya DaCosta

All "real" Latinas have straight hair. That's what I believed when I was growing up.  My beautiful mother and sisters were all fair-skinned Costa Ricans; their long hair had no twists or turns in it but was just bone straight, like the models I saw in Latina or Vanidades. But when I looked in the mirror, I saw a honey brown half-Costa Rican, half-Dominican child with a blossom of coarse kinks on my head. I ate platanos, cried to Juan Luis Guerra’s songs, spoke Spanish to my parents and danced my bachata and merengue, but with this hair and this skin, I wondered: how could I be Latina too?

There was nothing I could do about my complexion—we don't bleach our skin. But if I could straightened my hair, I was in. Of course, no one told me this directly. They didn't have to. I saw the proof at the bodega when the guy behind the counter would see my coiling roots and speak to me in English and then speak about me to his friends in Spanish. I saw the proof at the Dominican hair salon when only darker-skinned Dominican women and girls were getting their hair processed. And I saw it at school when the boys would rate the light-skinned, straight-haired Latinas as better because the boys could run their fingers through those girls' hair. It was a no-brainer: If kinky equaled Black, straight equaled Latina and Latina equaled beautiful, I could straighten my hair and become a beautiful Latina.

So every week, I would find myself at the salon. I’d enter with nappy roots and the Dominican stylists would immediately purse their lips and cluck their tongues in disapproval. After a few hours, my curls would be wrestled into submission and my stylist would slip her hands effortlessly through my chemically straightened hair and ask, “Isn’t this better?" Then, they'd all nod and smile, until the next week, when my hair would rebel again, back to its natural state. Week after week, I cycled through the disgust to get to the validation—all so that the man at the bodega, the sharp-tongued salon ladies, the boys at school and I could stop questioning my right to my ethnicity.

I was in college when I learned that my Blackness couldn't possibly be an insult and my Latin-ness couldn't validly be dismissed. There, I heard the descriptor "Afro Latina" for the first time and it was like someone had turned the light on in a lonely room I'd been sitting in for years. Soon after, I stopped straightening my hair and told myself it was to save money, but it was more than that. Upon hearing Afro Latina, the need to prove myself began to subside. Latina-ness alone was no longer my goal; it could no longer carry all of the complexities I saw in my reflection. But Afro Latina cobbled together my disjointed identity and carved out a space I could fit into without asking permission. Inside of Afro Latina, I learned to be and to love my whole, undiluted self.

I quickly became enamored with the new growth on my scalp, too, and all throughout classes I wouldn’t just touch it, but I would plunge my hands into my roots and let my fingers get lost among the mass of curls. I couldn't remember a time before straightening my hair, so every kink and coil was an epiphany to me, and each month, I watched it grow out with fresh passion. Then I wondered something new: What else had I been missing?  

I decided to re-educate myself. I studied up on Afro Latinos and I delved into the Afro Latina community at my school. My friends introduced me to new kinds of fashion and music, like AfroPunk, but most of all, they gave me a safe space to talk hair.  I learned how fun trying new styles and hair products could be and when I needed to vent my hair struggles—from failed twist-outs to mean-spirited comments from family members—they didn't give me their pity, they gave me their emphatic understanding.

Within this community, I learned that being an Afro Latina is so much more than having brown skin and curly hair. It means I fully and proudly acknowledge the African ancestry that is inherent in my Hispanic culture and history. I no longer feel forced to choose one to champion or one to hide; they are inextricably linked in me. As a result, I am happier and more comfortable being me. 

This journey hasn't always been