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There’s something so intrinsically beautiful and versatile about textured hair: It can be braided into classic cornrows, twisted up into Bantu knots (or moños), or run free, naturally. Each style serves as a form of self-expression, capturing the wearer’s personality, essence, or mood in any given moment.
And yet, growing up, so many women of color were told that only glossy, straight strands were considered acceptable, and their curls and coils were not — whether it was through visual cues broadcasted by mainstream media, hurtful comments from their peers, or an insistence from their family to get their hair chemically relaxed. Throw multiracial and multicultural diversity into the mix, and this already strained relationship with hair becomes that much more complicated. It’s a shared experience that’s felt by most Afro-Latinx women. And now, at a time when it's more important than ever for BIPOC women to celebrate their heritage and make their voices heard, many are not only reconciling both sides of their identity but also shattering oppressive beauty standards in order to create their own. Such is the case with Evelynn Escobar-Thomas, Marlene Luciano, and Ryan Alexandra Petit, who each have a unique hair story to tell.
Here, these three Afro-Latinx women walk us through their transformative hair journeys, pinpointing the hurdles, the safe spaces in which they have felt they could experiment with their curls, the women who’ve guided them, and the moment they each learned to love and embrace their hair.
When Evelynn Escobar-Thomas arrived in Guatemala with her aunts, the then-college student was excited to visit her family’s home country for the first time. As they roamed the streets of Antigua, she heard a stranger aggressively yell at them: “Morenas, morenitas,” a term that referenced their brown complexions. Instantly, the words brought the Guatemalan-American creative back to her childhood.
“I remember, as a kid, I hated that term because it made me feel othered,” Escobar-Thomas says. And to this day, it still brings up vivid memories of social gatherings or school functions where she was one of the few, if not the only person of color. But her mother’s affirming words about her identity have always grounded the 28-year-old social media marketing consultant. “My mom always emphasized: you’re Black and you’re Guatemalan. Don’t let anyone tell you you’re anything else.”
Growing up in a predominantly white, northern Virginia suburb, those words remained in the back of her mind as she navigated questions surrounding her Afro-Latinx identity and naturally curly hair. She remembers wanting to fit in and not “stick out too much in school,” which prompted her to straighten her hair for middle school prom and other special occasions. However, by senior year of high school, Escobar-Thomas entered a new phase of confidence: “I really started to believe that my hair is something I should be proud of and wear out; I should embrace it instead of trying to morph it into something that it’s not.”
Her pride was tested by classmates and teachers alike. “I had one teacher in high school who said, ‘You have that kinky, Latina hair,’” she recalls. “Then I remember being in the hallways, having my hair out, and people thinking that my hair was fake.”
Despite her hair being a point of contention, her mother and grandmother, who both share the same complexion as Escobar-Thomas, and other female family members, made sure her curls were celebrated. Though she preferred her long tresses away from her face, they encouraged the exact opposite.
“That was probably the biggest struggle as a kid, always wanting my hair back and out of my face, off of my shoulders, and off my neck, while my family was like, ‘Wear it down, it’s so pretty,’” she says. “Now, I agree with them and can see why they were saying that, but back then, oh my God, I wanted it away from me.”
Escobar-Thomas recognizes that she needed every twist and turn in her hair journey to arrive at this place of acceptance. “I wish I had fully embraced my hair sooner,” she reflects, “and not have had to go through the heat damage of straightening my hair and just fully appreciated what I had.”
For 33-year-old Marlene Luciano, her natural, voluminous hair has always been a playground to explore and experiment with new hairstyles. Whether it was adding a pop of color to her 3C texture or chopping it all off into a celebrity-inspired pixie, the Harlem-born multi-hyphenate creative has never shied away from making a statement — even in middle school.
“I remember wanting to color my hair, and my mother, who is a professional hairstylist, gave me blonde bangs in fifth grade,” Luciano says. “I appreciate that my mom was open about it and was like, ‘Okay, cool. You want blonde bangs, here you go.’”
Though her mother has naturally straight hair, she encouraged Luciano to retain her curls, helping her to style them. Still, despite the support, it didn’t stop her from looking to celebrities for inspiration. Like so many young Afro-Latinx women, Luciano buried herself in magazines, turning the pages in search of representation. “I have always been obsessed with magazines, since I was a kid,” she says. “But even the Spanish[-language] ones, everybody on the cover was always white.”
Coming of age in the '90s and early '00s, there were very few celebrities she identified with — but then along came one particular Afro-Latinx singer/songwriter, whose look was a full, multi-hued afro that directly influenced Luciano’s hairstyle. “She’s Afro-Latina like me and her hair texture was like mine — and so that was when I started to shape my hair like a round 'fro,” she recalls.
Friends saw her confidence shine through in her hair, but others laughed or made snide remarks about her curls. “One time, I remember walking to the bodega and somebody rolled down their car window,” she remembers. “It was an adult, a grown man, and he was like, ‘Péinate! [Brush your hair!]’”
Those incidents didn’t rattle her, but, as she got older and began modeling and acting, the way she styled her hair and how she identified were called into question. In 2012, Luciano moved to Los Angeles to pursue her career and quickly learned there weren’t as many Dominicans in the area — a stark difference from heavily concentrated Dominican neighborhoods on the East Coast. She went on countless job interviews and was asked to straighten her hair on several occasions. “I don't mind straightening my hair because it's fun to switch it up,” she says, “but I shouldn’t have to do that every day to go to a job.”
Representation in media is sparse, but she’s hoping, as an Afro-Latinx woman, to change that. “I’m a girl from New York that sounds like how I sound and looks like how I look, which is important,” she says, “because I want other girls and women to turn on the TV and see that I’m someone they can relate to.”
Ryan Alexandra Petit’s earliest memory is of sitting on the floor — with an assortment of combs, brushes, clips, and products laid out — as her mother yanked a comb or a pick through her hair. “I have 4C hair, so it's very thick and extremely, extremely kinky,” the 26-year-old writer and photographer says. “Whatever I had on my head, I didn't want it.”
Though her mother has a similar texture, she grew tired of dealing with her daughter's coils and, at 11, put a relaxer in Petit’s hair; the then-sixth grader’s afro-textured strands became pin straight. At 14, she traded plaits and box braids for sew-in weaves, which became her new routine: Go to the salon, get a relaxer and sew-in installed, repeat. With her hair transformation came a shift in the way she and others viewed her beauty.
“The response that I was getting from the community was a lot more positive than it was when I was natural,” she says. “And that's something I realized at a young age: people blatantly telling me that I looked prettier with straighter hair.”
As a dark-skinned Afro-Latinx woman, who was born in Caracas, Venezuela and raised in Orlando, FL, Petit’s hair, race, nationality, and ethnicity were always called into question. “I knew I was Black and could speak Spanish, and I was from Venezuela, but I’m also Haitian,” she says. “Growing up, I couldn't explain to people what I was. I never denied that I was from Venezuela, but I did hold back in telling people where I was born only because it seemed unbelievable.”
Her classmates picked up on her accent and immediately jumped to the conclusion she wasn’t American. She felt like an outsider; she felt unaccepted. Even other students with similar backgrounds refused to welcome her or acknowledge their shared ancestry.
But with age, Petit has settled into her full existence unapologetically. And after seeing how two of her close college friends embraced their natural texture, wearing it with pride, it sparked an interest in her to return to her natural tresses. After removing her purple ombre box braids, she discovered her then-silk-pressed, shoulder-length hair wouldn’t curl when wet. She took it as a sign to chop it all off.
Petit wore her hair as a tapered cut for nearly a year before growing it out. Now, she’s embarking on a loc journey, which coincidentally enough, parallels another — one toward accepting her cultural and racial identity. In the last year, she’s worn 11 large, wick-style faux locs as she transitions to permanent ones. “I am who I am — love it or leave it. This is me,” Petit affirms. “I don't want to hide who I am anymore.”