From Straight Hair to Box Braids: The Afro-Latina Interloper

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By: Maria V. Luna, Contributor

“You look like a lion,” my cousin laughed, pointing at my hair. I felt like one too. All throughout the ‘90s, my long, curly hair was both my crown and mantle. Perfectly situated against the backdrop of an urban neighborhood with a booming hip-hop soundtrack, this hair was in the right place at the right time. Conditioner, gel, mousse, hairspray—flanked by big gold earrings—my jet-black halo was praiseworthy. But if we consider the semiotics of hair, what did my glazed curls say about me? As I dance to distinct rhythms of two Latin cultures and manipulate my curls to fit soul-crushing social standards, sometimes this hair articulates convincing authenticity—most times it leaves me feeling like a fake.

Manely Fitting In

To the untrained eye, Latinos are all brown, right? Actually, as the saying goes—there’s levels to this shit. My mother is Puerto Rican and my father is Dominican (a Latino of African descent). Despite Puerto Ricans historically identifying as white, I claim my Afro-Latindad.

As an Afro-Latina raised in a Puerto Rican neighborhood where girls framed their faces with baby hairs brushed down using gel and a toothbrush, my curly hair said I’m one of you but my brown skin said mmmm… maybe not. What this long, curly hair gave me was an aesthetic proximity to my mother’s loosely spiral-haired family and all the girls around the way—a proximity to Puerto Ricaness.

Straight Hair to Success (sort of)

While throughout my teens, curly hair underscored my sense of ethnicity and culture, I learned in my early twenties that corporates spaces require a veneer of total assimilation. So I struck my curls with heat and metal until they yielded a more corporate aesthetic – straight hair with a soft side part.

I spent nearly a decade chained to cubicles, eyes glued to Excel spreadsheets, squeezing my feet into pointed high heels five days a week plus excessive unpaid overtime. Whether working as an account manager in New Jersey or an assistant buyer in New York, there was no company where anything but the European beauty standard prevailed.

Sacrificing my Sundays under the unrelenting heat, chatter, and deafening music of Dominican hair salons where my hair was straightened, I was brought closer to my Dominican culture and further away from my natural form. Something akin to the black barbershop, the Dominican hair salon is considered a cultural hub and has been the subject of ethnographic study. When closely examined and considered in historical context though, this cultural space has also drawn anti-black critique.

The Dominican Republic boasts one of the world’s largest African diaspora populations, making it hard not to perceive the country’s compulsion toward straight hair as anything but an attempt at erasure of the natural black aesthetic. With acclaim that reaches far beyond their ethnic and cultural domain, Dominican stylists are the masters of the universe when it comes to hair straightening with or without chemicals. I gave them my time and money every weekend so I could get through every weekday as an undetected curly-haired Latina.

But artifice is hard work. So one Monday I said “Fuck It!”

I went to work with curly hair. My mane was met with eyes popped, but otherwise pleasant remarks. Then the act of violence was committed. Sitting around a conference table at the start of a meeting, my manager dug her hand into my curls uninvited. “Well Maria, I didn’t know your hair was like that. It’s so wild it just makes me want to have a margarita!” Cheeks blazed and mouth half open, my eyes connected instinctively with the only other black woman in the room. She offered a perceptive head shake and heavy sigh.

The Big Box Braids Debate

Earlier this summer, I sat in a kitchen for half a day getting box braids. When I saw my new ‘do in the mirror, I felt the power of that lion rise in my chest again. Yet, as soon as I stepped out of the Harlem apartment where I had my hair done, the lion had been deflated. I felt like a fake.

“I think I’m having a Rachel Dolezal moment,” I said to a friend.

Box braids are not elemental of Dominican or Puerto Rican culture, and I wondered if I was committing an act of POC (people of color) on POC cultural appropriation.

“Dude, you’re black so you can do that,” my friend argued. She, however, disparaged my choice in purchasing honey blond synthetic hair. When I hung out with my Latina friends a few days later, the look on their faces read something more like, “Dude, you’re Latina. You can’t do that.” These are the moments where straddling the line between being culturally Latina and racially black become a balancing act.

Blackness is not monolithic—there is no one way or right way to be black. Click To Tweet

Blackness is not monolithic—there is no one way or right way to be black. Afro-Latinos, whether they identify as such or not, often find that blackness in the Latin American context is flexible while perceptions of blackness in the U.S. historically tend toward rigid binary. For Afro-Latinos in the U.S. oscillating between cultural, institutional, corporate, and academic spaces, assimilation and cultural appropriation become experiments in identity formation, survival, social mobility, and post-colonial contemplation. As we ask ourselves where do I belong, we also ask, how should I be?

According to a piece in Hip Latina, being an Afro-Latina allowed me a free pass to varied interpretations of Afro hair. Johanna Ferreira argues, “An Afro-Latina rocking box braids to protect her curls and honor her African ancestry is not the same as a “white” Latina rocking box braids. In fact, a “white” Latina or white-identifying Latina who chooses to wear a black hairstyle can be considered an example of cultural appropriation.”

In the cultural appropriation debate, it has been settled that hair straightening amounts only to assimilation to the dominant white culture. It has also been argued by the likes of Hari Ziyad that, “Black people adopting other cultures or customs is not appropriation.” But what happens when blackness is not affirmed? As the term Afro-Latino slowly flows from academic conferences and papers into thought pieces and personal essays, the masses and mainstream media haven’t caught on just yet—and some, like my Nigerian homegirl, outright contest, “You’re not black!”

Moving past questions of authenticity, I would disagree with Ziyad and argue that all people of color can be guilty of cultural appropriation. Celebrities like Pharrell Williams, Bruno Mars, Rihanna, Selena Gomez, and Beyonce have all been called out for cultural appropriation. And though it went without public scrutiny, Jennifer Lopez appropriates at least six cultures and dreadlocks in her latest music video, “El anillo.”

But who am I to criticize? Perhaps my box braids were an act of cultural appropriation too. While it has been asserted that those who appropriate culture should acknowledge the origins and meaning of heritage markers, I bypassed the rhetoric entirely. I styled my hair in box braids because I was looking for a way to sidestep daily hair maintenance as I coped with being pregnant and tired, not because I was honoring my ancestors.

New Place, Same Headspace

I cried the day I found out I was pregnant with a baby girl. Perhaps a preemptive sob, I cried because I knew her hair and her gendered existence would be politicized throughout her life. Chatter about her hair texture swirled around my belly before she t her first breath. Her thick, black hair met the outside world before any other part of her body. Living in the UK, this world was new to me too. I gazed at my London-born baby, straight hair mobilizing into curls at her temples, knowing she too will wonder where do I belong and how should I be?

Hair speaks before a person says a word. Click To Tweet

Hair speaks before a person says a word. Right now, my job is to prepare this little girl for the ways the language of her hair will be interpreted and to ensure her understanding that a positive sense of self, garnished with love and kindness toward all is a treasure greater than the sum of every hair on her head.

Images courtesy of Maria V. Luna
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