The L-Suite examines the diverse ways in which Latinx professionals have built their careers, how they’ve navigated notoriously disruptive roadblocks, and how they’re attempting to dismantle these obstacles for the rest of their communities. In support of Target's first Latino Heritage Month collection — which highlights different creators to reflect joy, self-expression, and cultural nuances — we've partnered with the retailer to bring you this special installment featuring activist and entrepreneur Carolina Contreras. Ahead, Contreras talks about why it’s so important for Afro-Latinas to not be ashamed of their curly hair, why it’s crucial to leave the world a better place than you found it, and how aspiring Latina entrepreneurs can dream without limits.
For many Afro-Latinas, it wasn’t at all uncommon to grow up hearing that your curly hair was “pelo malo” — meaning “bad hair” — which would prompt your mother or another family member to iron and straighten your strands from a young age. Even if these practices came from a place of caring, the cultural attitude of “pelo malo” has resulted in generations of women who are ashamed of their natural hair texture.
According to the Pew Research Center, 24% of U.S. Latinxs identify as Afro-Latinx. Of this population, many have experienced job discrimination if they choose to wear their textured hair naturally — in fact, a 2020 study published in Social Psychological and Personality Science found that women with natural hairstyles were “perceived to be less professional, less competent, and less likely to be recommended for a job interview.” But as the CROWN Act — which protects people against hair discrimination in schools and the workplace — reaches more states across America, the conversation around “pelo malo” seems to be changing.
For Carolina Contreras, that shift is a personal one. Born in the Dominican Republic but raised in the U.S., Contreras — who is also known as “Miss Rizos," which translates to "Miss Curls" — experienced “pelo malo” culture firsthand. She remembers her mother straightening her hair at seven years old, which she continued doing herself for the next 15 years as she felt the pressure to conform to conventional beauty standards.
In 2010, she'd had enough: Contreras was tired of her straightened hair puffing up after one Dominican summer — so she cut it all off. She remembers being stopped on the street by other women who wanted to know how she found the courage to do so. “I would talk to complete strangers for hours in the streets of Santo Domingo, where I was living at the time,” Contreras says. “That motivated me to create an online platform to educate these women, to motivate them, and inspire them to love their hair more.”
In 2011, her Miss Rizos blog was born. Three years later, she turned the Spanish-written blog into a salon, drawing from her experience working in her aunt’s hair salon, as well as learnings from courses and from those in the curly-hair community. Today, Contreras is the CEO of two salons and the Miss Rizos Foundation — which aims to change the world one curl at a time — while maintaining her incredible social media presence on Instagram.
As a natural-hair advocate who has inspired so many to love their hair (and therefore, themselves) and an entrepreneur who has created a name for herself, Contreras breaks down her three guiding principles that will all but guarantee success and curly-hair confidence.
Wear your curls with pride
For those of us who grew up with the “pelo malo” narrative, it can be difficult to suddenly embrace your natural curls — but that’s precisely why Contreras is fighting to change the way Afro-Latinas view their hair. “For so many years, we’ve been taught that curly hair is not formal, that it’s not beautiful, that it’s not professional,” she says.
To reverse this mindset — one that might be reinforced by friends, family, or an employer and coworkers (for the latter, Contreras advises doing research on what legislation protects you against workplace discrimination) — Contreras begins at the salon where, by teaching women what tools and products to use for their curls, “you’re also teaching them that there’s nothing wrong with them.”
For others in your life who may still not agree with your decision to wear your curls, Contreras has a simple but effective script she encourages women to use: “My hair is a part of my body, and I get to choose what I do with my body. I think that it would be abnormal for me to have to change it to make you comfortable when this is how I feel the most comfortable. And so I would really appreciate that you respect my decision to wear my hair the way that I've chosen to wear my hair.”
Leave the world a better place
When Contreras first embraced her curls, the self-discovery and growth that came after felt "contagious." As she puts it, “I always had the intention of having my life’s work surround women empowerment and community development. So it just kind of all came together with my own experience.”
Today, she uses her platform to support and educate other women, keeping in mind that she's not just opening doors for herself but also for those who come after — “to lift as I’m climbing.” Her eventual goal is to secure money and resources to “support women who have great ideas that will change the world but don’t have the capital to do it.” From coordinating workshops with young girls in at-risk communities to empowering her team members to make decisions about their own spaces, everything Contreras does ultimately comes down to leaving the world a better place — and building a lasting legacy that will long outlive her.
“We created a comic book that we’ve shared with over 12,000 children and parents around the country, highlighting their constitutional rights and wearing their hair curly at school,” she says. “Things have changed and I’ve been very fortunate that, in my lifetime, I’ve been able to really see the impact of the work.”
Dream big but act small
“Too often, we want to start things in a big way,” Contreras says. “One of the reasons [my business] has been able to stay afloat is because we’ve made bold moves while measuring our risks." When it came to her success, she's proud that she took it slowly — first with a blog, then with a salon she built up from two chairs, then four, then 11. It’s all about encouraging women to be cautiously ambitious, Contreras says, even if it might be scary to get started.
Many Latinas who want to open their own business or make a leap in their careers often don’t because they don’t feel like they are ready, Contreras says. But taking that first step in spite of reservations is a fundamental part of her philosophy to “dream without limits,” even if she still struggles with it, as well. “I still get nervous, and I have fears and insecurities,” she reveals. “We’ve been sold this lie that you’re going to wake up one day and be this super-duper confident person with zero self-doubt. But it’s about embracing the fact that the fear will always exist.”
So instead of letting it paralyze you, Contreras recommends that Latinas focus on just doing “what you need to do to make waves.” “You just have to go after it,” she says. “If your voice shakes, let it shake, but still speak. If your hands shake, let them shake, but still act. You just have to go for it, no matter what.”