Growing up, my father took my brother and me on an annual summer holiday to the Dominican Republic to visit family. One of our first destinations was always Sosúa beach, an hour and a half drive from my grandparents' house in Santiago. There, the three of us would run amuck. There was pescado frito vendors for my dad, and clear waters for my brother. But I was there to get my hair braided.
I’d always find the braiders sitting underneath the palm trees, seeking shade from the sun. I’d take a seat in front of them on the sand and cross my legs, and in my best broken Spanish, I’d try to ask for what I wanted. Although I hated the tugging and pulling, I knew that I’d love the outcome. Back home in Queens, my mother would take me to the Dominican salon to get my curly hair blown out once a week. It was there that my curls became pelo lacio — or straight hair — a sign of a put-together, proper Latina, at least according to all the other women there.
Those beach braids lasted for weeks, which gave me a break from those tedious salon trips. Plus, I loved how it looked. I often asked my parents if I could keep the style until the first day of school to show the plaits off to my other classmates. Certainly, getting my hair braided also benefited my dad. Since my mother wasn't able to join our trips because of her work schedule, my dad needed a low-maintenance way to keep my hair from getting extremely knotted. Those Sosúa braids were my introduction to protective styling.
"In the salon, my curls became pelo lacio — or straight hair — a sign of a put-together, proper Latina, at least according to all the other women there."
When I got old enough, I learned to straighten my hair myself, and I did so without question for a decade. But recently, I've begun to embrace my naturally curly hair. I cut off over eight inches of heat-damaged hair and vowed to stop using the straighteners in order to let my ringlets flourish. As I began this journey, I found more and more Latinas who wore their hair curly, and some of them were tapping into protective styles, like braids, as a means to grow their strands out or protect their hair from sweat and swimming pools. However, I never considered wearing the style myself until I embarked on a recent vacation to visit my family in Miami, and needed a solution that prevented my curly hair from getting damaged. I knew that washing my hair after the pool and beach every day would leave my curls fried by the end of the week. I thought back to those days on Sosúa beach, but I put off making a braiding appointment because of one concern: Can I, as a light-skinned Latina with looser curls, wear a hairstyle that's so meaningful to black women?
As a beauty editor, I see firsthand how appropriative hairstyling can be hurtful and cruel. One of the most pervasive offences is when white celebrities wear black hairstyles like Bantu knots and call them other names like “twisted mini buns,” erasing these styles’ origin and integral roles within black beauty culture. Latinas have also faced backlash, like Emeraude Toubia, who was criticised for wearing braids while on holiday in Thailand. I also see the Black community, which includes Afro-Latinx people, discriminated against and marginalised in schools, workplaces, and the military for wearing hairstyles that are celebrated on white celebrities.
Blogger Ada Rojas, who founded natural hair brand Botánika Beauty, has been braiding her hair for years as a way to grow out her hair with minimal daily styling. She admits that, at first, she was scared that as a lighter-skinned Latina, her braids would get her called out for appropriation. But, as someone who identifies as Afro-Latina — a Latin American with African ancestry — who is also aware of hair's context and culture, she felt that she had a right to wear them. To her, education is everything: "To really be able to appreciate these hairstyles, we must educate ourselves on the origin," she tells Refinery29. “It's not just a hairstyle. There's so much history behind it.”
As an Afro-Latina, Rojas sees the taboo surrounding braids as more than just a conversation about appropriation. There’s also the complicated perception of blackness within the Latinx community. There are many Latinx people who don’t acknowledge their Afro roots. "That 'Afro' side of us has been downplayed for centuries," says Rojas. "People’s fear comes from them not owning their identity."
"To really be able to appreciate these hairstyles, we must educate ourselves on the origin. It's not just a hairstyle. There's so much history behind it.”
Anti-Blackness has been ingrained in most Latin American cultures that have a history of European colonisation, which enslaved indigenous communities in the 14th century and brought African slaves to the Central and South America, and the Caribbean. Frances Negrón-Muntaner, an award-winning filmmaker and professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University points to the Spanish colonisation of the Americas as the impetus for centuries of white supremacy, colourism, and self-denial. “The Spaniards developed a very elaborate, complex caste system. Characteristics like height and hair, mouth, nose [shapes] would play a role in how you'd be racially classified, and that's when those characteristics got their weight,” says Negrón-Muntaner.
Eurocentric beauty ideals still live on today. Historically, the Afro-Latinx community has faced erasure in both U.S. and Latinx media, which tend to favour Latinas with lighter skin and long, straight hair (think Jennifer Lopez and Sofia Vergara). There are hardly any visible Afro-Latinx people in the public sphere. However, one in four Latinx people identify as Afro-Latinx, Afro-Caribbean, or otherwise. And some Latinx people consider themselves Afro-descendants. The term is popularly used to describe the recognition of distant African roots that are ever-present in countries like Brazil, Colombia, and the Dominican Republic. But self-identity and external perceptions are complicated and not the same. Although my Dominican heritage is inextricably linked to the African diaspora, as someone with a lighter complexion, I've never dealt with the oppression and racism as those with darker complexions.
"Characteristics like hair are racially charged," Negrón-Muntaner adds. "Certain types of hair are also associated with so-called 'low-status racial groups,' and therefore, that serves to identify a person as a particular race." Terms like "pelo malo," meaning "bad hair," or "Haitiana," a name my dad would call me when I would walk around the house with curly hair and a summer tan, are loaded with racist implications. (Haiti, which shares a border with the Dominican Republic, is majority black.)
Many Latinas are challenging this idea of pelo malo out of frustration around the erasure of blackness within Latinx communities. The Afro-Latinx community has been speaking out on their experiences of not fitting into beauty norms within their cultures, including ones pertaining to hair. For them, the natural hair movement isn't just about ease and aesthetics, but about combating anti-blackness.
But even with positive changes happening, anti-blackness still exists, and there are many Latinx women who are wary to accept their African roots. In these cases, wearing braids does feel a lot like hurtful cultural appropriation and that self-denial ultimately harms both Latinx and Black women. These Latinas' allyships with black communities are only limited to their hair. "It's a little unsettling to see someone who doesn't want to associate themselves as someone of colour, of African descent, who still finds some utilisation out of our cultural practice," says Amanda Moore-Karim, wardrobe stylist and author of Fulani Braids — Cultural Intersectionality or Appropriation?. "It goes back to that phrase, ‘Everybody wants to be black, but doesn't want to be black.'"
And it's also important to acknowledge that the perception of non-black women who choose to wear braids is different. Puerto Rican braider Guingui says, “What makes people upset is that someone who's non-black is not going to have the same repercussions as somebody who's black if they come to work with the same braids. In fact, everybody would praise her hair,” adds the stylist. “It's hypocrisy.”
"Someone who's non-black is not going to have the same repercussions as somebody who's black if they come to work with the same braids. It's hypocrisy."
There is no clear-cut rule to Latinas wearing protective styles. However, it’s important to know why you’re getting a hairstyle that has long been a cultural touchstone while also being the focus of discrimination. “For me, if you're wearing braids, it's like: Why are you doing that if it's not as a protective style?” says Moore-Kim. "Black women wear braids to protect our hair and, sometimes, to grow it out. Why are you doing this?”
Moore-Karim says she ultimately knows that she can’t stop people from wearing braids, but if they are going to do it, she urges one thing: Don’t change the names or purposely unacknowledge its black roots and history. “The main thing that frustrates me is the discrediting of the influence that a certain practice brings,” says Moore-Karim. “It seems that people always credit a celebrity as opposed to crediting the actual history,” she says.
Hairstylist Koni Bennett agrees: While she’s never been offended when a non-black client sits on her chair, it irks her if they rebrand the braids afterward. “Black hairstyles are reinvented [as non-Black inventions], like two cornrows being called boxer braids,” she says. While female boxers have been wearing the style for years, the Kardashians’ reference to “boxer braids” turned it into a “trend” outside of the black community, earning backlash.
Some hairstylists believe that the responsibility also lies with professional hairstylists. Whenever a client mispronounces a style or calls it by the wrong name, stylists have a role in correcting them so that they leave with more context and knowledge. “There are people who aren't doing it on purpose,” says Guingui. “As a braider, it's definitely my duty to clear out all of that right away.”
So, to answer my original question: Can I — as a light-skinned Latina, with a looser curl pattern, a deep understanding of and allyship with my black peers, and a complicated relationship with my culture’s Afro roots and my personal Afro identity — wear braids? The answer is that I’m figuring it out. My identity, my politics, my community, and my sense of self is a work in progress. I’m becoming more comfortable inhabiting a fluid, complicated space. Not making a blanket decision right now about how I express all those things with my hair feels like the right decision for me.
That’s not to say that just because you’re not wearing a certain hairstyle, that you can’t learn about it. Hairstyles could bring communities together, especially between those of colour. According to Professor Negrón-Muntane, finding connections and sharing both the difficult and beautiful aspects of each other’s cultures can create a stronger sense of unity across communities. As she says, "There's more to gain from recognising each other's stories, and the ways that might create awareness and complexity through all of our experiences and how we relate to other people.”
Being Latinx in America is no easy thing. Fighting pressures to abandon our culture, traditions, and heritage, we’re carving out a unique identity in America that’s all our own. In a series of essays, reported articles, and stories for Refinery29's #SomosLatinx, we’ll explore the unique issues that affect the community during Latinx Heritage Month from September 15-October 15.