dragonfly painting

Photo by Dominic AZ Bonuccelli

THE SALON

Helena, the 25-year-old daughter of a woman I teach with, invites me to go to the hair salon with her one Saturday afternoon. Most Dominican women who can afford to, go there each week. I figure I could learn a few beauty secrets from these naturally lovely women who place great importance on the look and care of their hair.

The visit starts out with a bang when the electrical cord on the blow-dryer fries off and falls into the lap of an innocent client. Her skirt is singed and it is smoking up the cramped salon space. No time is wasted finding a replacement blower, which appears as lethal as the first. When Helen tells me it will be a few hours wait, I eagerly agree to stay. Hopefully there will be another sizzle to keep the salon experience thrilling.

Sipping on a taza of dark, super sweet coffee, I feel myself spinning in synch with the twirling beauty parlor chairs. The owner’s daughters are busy hustling groups of ladies to and from the sinks and dryers while a handful of other women are waiting on deck. The services these women come for are chemical straightening and hot air drying. I am alarmed to see their hair actually smoking as it receives intense heat necessary for straightening course hair. A couple clients under the dryers even wince in pain from the scalding temperatures. The movement never stops and the temperature in the little salon continues to rise, as does my curiosity over why women choose to endure this weekly agony.

Young girls don’t go to the salon. Instead of straight styles, they have the most exciting twists, parts, and braids in their hair. Using colorful clips and ribbons to tame the curls, ponytails create natural tension that can gradually straighten hair without using chemicals. Mothers, older sisters, and cousins spend time weaving hair into a multitude of spirals and tails, attaching beads that click and jingle when the little girls move.

After the age of 15, the salon rituals begin and hair is straightened to whatever degree possible. It is costly to receive the salon treatments. However, many families with a woman beyond the age of 15 make necessary sacrifices to pay for visits to the beauty parlor. A friend of mine runs and hides herself from me when I surprise her for a visit. She has her wet head in a towel and is embarrassed that she hasn’t made it to the salon yet.

“I look Haitian!” she jokes, knowing that most Haitians in the Dominican Republic wear their hair curly, or wrapped in a scarf.

Spending the money for straight hair maintains a family’s dignity. It establishes a clearer division between poverty and having a little bit more. My naturally straight hair is envied by my Dominican counterparts. It means my descendants are white Europeans, like Columbus, who came to their island in 1499 and found gold. Why would they want to emulate any of his characteristics? He enslaved the local native peoples, the Tainos, who were decimated by disease within 100 years after his arrival. Columbus and his European ancestors imported slaves from West Africa to toil as laborers in the sugarcane fields once the Tainos were wiped out. It was a brutal and unfair life for the slaves.

Today, most Dominicans resemble people who came to the island of Hispanola as slaves from Africa. Their skin is dark brown and their hair is kinky. At first I wasn’t aware of the variation among these characteristics. I learned quickly the status that comes with being lighter and the vocabulary to describe different skin tones and hair textures. Pelo crespo, pelo rizado, pelo lacio, piel moreno, indio, negro, etc.

A minority of Dominicans who make up the wealthy, ruling class don’t appear to have African ancestors. They are Spanish or from a mix of other European and Taino. These indios claros and blancos often hold positions of power and prestige. Their skin is fair and their hair is straight. Ironically, the darker majority of Dominicans offer greater loyalty to those who killed and enslaved their own people. I have darker friends who use lightening creams in attempt to lift pigment out of their skin.

“It just looks better, that’s all, there’s nothing political about it,” says Helena, steering me away from my probing questions.

It seems I’m much too serious as I investigate the fuss over straight hair. The ladies in the salon listen in, as I struggle to understand this distinction of good and bad, dark and light, straight and curly. To them it was painlessly straightforward, or so it appears.

The women chime in with their opinions, between gossip about the neighbors and recipes. They explain that God has blessed me with “good hair” and their hair is “bad.” The frank criticism of their hair is shocking and wrong to me. But I have become familiar with these terms pelo bueno (good hair) and pelo malo (bad hair), which are commonly used for describing hair types in this country.

“Is that your son in the front row with pelo malo?” I’ll overhear an acquaintance ask a mother at a local parade.

Or, my friend Maira will inform me she had “pelo muy, muy, muy, malo” growing up. Now she has to use only the gentlest products so it doesn’t break off when she straightens it.

My trip to the salon with Helena provides me with a memorable education. I am enlightened, thinking about hair from a new perspective. According to beauty standards here, I have pelo bueno. However, it seems we always want what we don’t have. I ask the hair stylist to twist up and braid my hair with colorful clips and the beads that jingle.