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It’s time to end the notion of ‘pelo malo,’ or bad hair.
The dark-haired, curvaceous woman who speaks loudly in broken English. The “exotic” beauty who’s “spicy” and hot-tempered. Often light-skinned, with long, chemically relaxed hair, the Latina woman is either oversexualized or virginal. The Afro-Latinx woman? She’s barely represented in film and television at all. Not even in Spanish-language media.
“You haven’t even seen enough of us in front of the screen to even say, in my opinion, what the state of [Afro-Latinx representation] is,” Janel Martinez, Afro-Latina journalist and creator of the project Ain’t I Latina?, told the Daily Dot.
Online, however, it’s another story.
“The conversation in the digital space, there’s been an abundance of pride and community-building that has happened, because of again, [traditional] media’s choice to leave Afro-Latinos out of the conversation,” Martinez said.
While social media has boosted the voices of many marginalized communities, Instagram is especially popular with the Latinx population, according to a 2014 Pew Research Center survey. Approximately one-third of Latinx people online use the platform, allowing them to create their own narratives and speak directly to an audience, without having to go through traditional media channels. For Afro-Latinx women, in particular, this visual medium has been a godsend for visibility and empowerment. And one effective way to use that medium that has been through images of natural hair.
Carolina Contreras—aka “Miss Rizos,” aka Spanish for “Miss Curls”—is one of the most well-known activists in the Afro-Latinx natural hair movement online. With more than 55,000 Instagram followers, Contreras got started after cutting off all of her hair, growing her curls back, and noticing that there was little natural hair content in Spanish. That led her to document her own hair journey online in 2011.
“I feel both Facebook and Instagram… both played a very significant role in the [Afro-Latinx natural hair] movement, with trying to shift the norm or trying to re-educate and re-construct this idea of what beauty means and beauty looks like,” Contreras told the Daily Dot. “So what better way to do that than through powerful images?”
Natural hair blogger and YouTuber Rocío Mora, the Afro-Latina creator of Risas Rizos, said she got into the natural hair movement sort of by accident. After losing all of her curls to heat damage and growing them back healthier than before, a friend suggested she share her hair knowledge online. Several years later, Mora now creates content in both English and Spanish and has built a following of over 30,000, many of whom let her know how much she’s helped them embrace their natural selves.
“Just as much as representation matters on TV and in a magazine, I feel like seeing more and more faces that look you like you on a hand-held device, 24 hours a day, reminds you that you have people out there that have your skin tone, that have your facial features, your hair type,” Rocío told the Daily Dot.
While displaying curly, kinky hair images on Instagram can be quite powerful, Sulma Arzu-Brown, an Afro-Latina author of bilingual children’s books, says that with that power comes a responsibility. Through Instagram, Arzu-Brown promotes what she calls “the natural hair revolution,” and fights back against the notion that the only kind of “good hair” must be chemically altered.
In Latinx communities, naturally curly hair is sometimes called pelo malo, or “bad hair” (some regions use different terms, however). The idea that hair is bad if it isn’t straight, shiny, or twirled into beachy waves is rooted in white-centric concepts of beauty. It’s messaging that Americans of all races internalize after opening magazine after magazine and seeing smooth, flat-ironed locks.
“One of the strongest links between Latinxs and African Americans in the U.S. is our shared experience with colorism and the politics of hair,” Dr. Mako Ward told Refinery29 last year. “Having ‘pelo lacio’ [straight hair] reflected a closeness to whiteness and dominant, white American culture.”
Contreras notes that while Afro-Latinx men and women both face pressure over their hair, women are often subjected to different treatment than their male peers. Historically, women have been pigeonholed and limited, according to Contreras.
“A human being is being denied access to things because of their hair color, skin color, or their hair texture, so that’s an experience that we all live,” she said. “However, women have an added pressure to wear their hair straight because women are expected to look a very specific way. With men, I think there’s more of a blur.”
Often, what many of these Afro-Latinx Instagrammers are fighting back against is the discrimination they have faced, or are facing, for the intersection of their identities: being Latina, being Black, and being a woman. In turn, it’s leading the online community toward offline activism.
In 2017, Mora went on a cross-country U.S. “curly road trip” called “Rizos on the Road,” sponsored by KIA. Along with another natural hair digital influencers, she continued the online conversation offline, to have “face to face interactions with our community and with the people who are subscribed to us or following us on Instagram,” she said. “We’re not just faces on their phone, you know, we’re actual human beings that are going through the same thing that they’re going through.”
View this post on Instagram
Big shoutout to @chisselbeautystudio who basically brought my curls back to life. (Only she know my deepest darkest deep Condish secrets and has the power to wake my hair up!) Also, I’ve Been testing out some new products. Currently using @rizoscurls line… and this is day 2 hair!!! Anyone else used this line? What do you think? Review coming soon!!!
A post shared by Rocío Isabel (@risasrizos) on
In Contreras’ case, after creating her website, she opened a Miss Rizos hair salon in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic. She says the salon serves Afro-Latinx people and encourages self-love and acceptance, in addition to hair care.
“I think that being online is very amazing because it allows me to reach people outside of sort of my immediate community,” she said. “I’m able to be read in Peru, I’m able to be read in Ecuador and anywhere around the world. However, there are still so many people that are offline, there are still so many people in impoverished communities who need this information and who also want to be exposed to this information but they don’t have access to it.”
The accessibility of online conversations is one of the biggest challenges of Instagram’s natural hair movement. Moving forward, many of these top Instagrammers said it’s important to encourage inclusive participation—from white people, Black people, women, and men—when engaging about Afro-Latinidad beauty.
“I think it’s really important to understand that you don’t need to have curly hair to embrace who you are,” Contreras said. “We should be allowed to wear it curly, straight, or however we want without having any kind of repercussion from family members, from employers, or from society in general.”
Ultimately, what’s at the core of the natural hair movement isn’t just curls and kink. It’s cultural awareness, and perhaps first and foremost, self-acceptance.