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Keratin, Flat Irons and Hair Politics: A Latina Traveling Curacao

This morning, after a long travel day yesterday that was followed by pool time, I definitely had to “do” my hair: Wash, blow dry, flat iron. At the end of this modern-day self-inflicted torture ritual, I was quite happy. The weather in Curacao while hot, is a very dry heat. While Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands are closing government offices to prepare for oncoming Hurricane Isaac, there are no such preparations here in Curacao. We are almost completely oblivious to the hurricane, other than for the occasional work emails I have glanced at from staff currently working into those two islands. They may not leave any point soon, which I’m sure does not distress them too much. Anyway, back to my hair or rather the state of hair affairs here in Curacao. I have extremely naturally curly hair; yet the weather here in Curacao has been very kind to it. No frizz at all. Wow, what an island! Seriously, Curacao reminds me a little of Nevada or perhaps New Mexico. It is so cool how there are cactus trees next to palm trees. I had not expected that at all.

Ok. Seriously back to the hair. I have the type of curly hair, that growing up Puerto Rican amongst a group of Latinos that blow dried their hair everyday, was a curse. I was told my hair was ugly because of its tight curls. All the girls with straight hair were the idolized ones. But then I went to private school and my curly hair was the rage-the good one! After college I got a better handle on my hair and the curls were super cool. Yet, for the Puerto Rican family that either barely spoke Spanish or the one that spoke mostly Spanish, my hair was still a disaster. I persevered for a long time. Then one day a few years back I was given a great deal and I straightened my hair-Ii went all out and did the Japanese straightening. To that group of straight hair enthusiasts I was now pretty, however to many others the curly hair was sorely missed. Some even wondered what message was I sending as a Latina advocate? Hair is such a political thing. How you wear your hair does make a statement; which is why blue hair dye exists, right?

So, whenever I go to the Caribbean I’m interested in seeing how the hair politics play out. In the Dominican Republic I saw a noticeable amount of hair salons, more so than in Cuba and Puerto Rico even. Stateside, places like Atlanta and White Plains have seen an influx of Dominican salons. Why is that? Well, its because they know how to “straighten hair without damaging it”- that’s literally what I have been told repeatedly. In a place where the concept of race is dicey and the racial category of black is often left out, the Dominican Republic has taken a political stand through its hair and specialization. In Puerto Rico there are many beauty salons that specialize in “darle el blower” [blowing the hair out]. However, flatirons or relaxers are not so common. The style there seems to consist of trying to look like a “Dallas” (the tv show) woman where the hair is stylized and big. Sort of like Ms. Universe or the numerous women you see on the telenovelas. To me, it thusly, seems that they don’t necessarily recognize that I and my curly hair exists.

In Curacao, the number of hair salons and products I have come across has been astounding. There are keratin products everywhere; even in a food aisle at a store. In the market, stall after stall, regardless of overall product being sold, seemed to always have keratin. Keratin, is a straightener of sorts, used lots in South America. It doesn’t work to straighten the hair out completely but rather smooths it and leaves some waves in. Considering the obvious history of diversity and intermixing, hair in Curacao seems to reflect the attitude “we are a little bit of everything”. Hair reflects the cultural nuances and spirit of the island. As we walked through the stalls and floating market, people spoke to us in a variety of languages never taking for granted what we may be and it followed that you should wear your hair however you like.

Considering the crosswinds and cactus trees, hair in Curacao just like the island itself, seems to be in a protected zone and I’m cool with that.

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