Tatiana Fernandez Geara for Al Jazeera America

Curly-centric hair salon teaches Dominican women to love their pajón

Miss Rizos uses African and African-American hairstyles to affirm blackness in straight-hair-obsessed country

SANTO DOMINGO, Dominican Republic — Carolina Contreras still feels the heat smolder beneath her cheeks whenever she recounts the time a bouncer denied her and some friends entry to a trendy Santo Domingo bar because of their hair.

“He said our hair was not appropriate for the bar,” said Contreras, her sideswept bangs tucked beneath a bouncy bouquet of black curls. “My hair is considered informal, unprofessional, ugly. It’s considered dirty.”

In a country where more than three-quarters of the population is of mixed African and European ancestry, it may surprise foreigners that curly hair — pelo rizado — could command such attention, let alone disdain. After all, the Dominican Republic ranks fifth among countries with the largest black population outside Africa, according to the Institute for Cultural Diplomacy, a Berlin-based nongovernmental organization, behind Haiti, with which the D.R. shares the island of Hispaniola.

But in the Dominican Republic, straightened hair is not only big business; it defines the standard of beauty. There, Afro-textured hair is unabashedly called pelo malo, or bad hair. Dominican hair salons are renowned from Harlem to Houston for their smooth blowouts and chemical straightening treatments that coerce the most stubborn curl into submission.

Carolina Contreras opened the Miss Rizos salon in Santo Domingo in December 2014 after years of blogging about natural hair.
Tatiana Fernandez Geara for Al Jazeera America

And so Contreras, who was born in the Dominican Republic and raised in the U.S. since the age of 4, is on a mission to teach Afro-Latin women to embrace their natural curls. At her Miss Rizos salon, which opened in December 2014, curls are defined, protected, appreciated — and never straightened. She is part of a broader wave of young Dominicans raised or educated abroad who are bringing a new sense of black identity and pride to their culture. Academics say these transnational Dominicans, or members of the Dominican diaspora, are more inclined to draw parallels between negrophobia they have witnessed elsewhere (for example, how black Americans are treated in the U.S. or Dominicans are treated in Puerto Rico) and the pigmentocracy and anti-Haitianism they witness in the D.R.

“Certainly there are a lot of Dominicans that are aware of their blackness and embrace it. But those are the minority. I think the biggest influence is those of us who lived abroad and come back,” said Yesilernis Peña, a researcher at the Instituto Tecnologico de Santo Domingo who studies race in the Latin Caribbean.

“If we’re going to make claims as Dominicans abroad around not being subjected to white supremacy … then we have to bring that same ethics to our heritage country,” said Ginetta Candelario, an associate professor of sociology and Latin American studies at Smith College and the author of “Black Behind the Ears: Dominican Identity From Museums to Beauty Shops.”

According to her, there’s symbolic power to the location of the Miss Rizos salon in the picturesque Zona Colonial — just a short walk from the Plaza España and a prominent statue of Christopher Columbus.

“She’s centering black identity in the heart of the colonial project and affirming it,” she said.

‘I said, ‘Grandma, I have African in me.’
She said, ‘No you don’t.’’

Carolina Contreras

owner, Miss Rizos salon

Contreras, 29, says she has been racially conscious since a young age. She grew up in Somerville, Massachusetts, and she read Cornel West’s “Race Matters” as a young teen and co-chaired the first Latino youth higher education conference in Boston.

“I was a proud black lady as a 15-year-old, and still I could not let go of the relaxer,” she said. “I still felt like I could only be beautiful when I straightened my hair.”

By the time she graduated from Ursinus College with majors in peace and justice studies and French, she had traveled extensively — including stays in Paris, Dubai and Dakar, Senegal — but craved a deeper connection to her Dominican heritage. She decided to backpack around the D.R.

A painting by muralist Xaivier Ringer in the wash room at Miss Rizos.
Tatiana Fernandez Geara for Al Jazeera America

“And I did just that. I found my roots,” she said, tugging at a springy lock of hair. About six months after arriving, she cut off all her hair and went natural.

Women on the street would ask her questions about her hair, so she started a Spanish-language blog on how to treat and care for natural, textured hair.

But along with the followers came plenty of side-eye looks and disparaging comments.

“It shocked me that I was experiencing these things in my country with my people, people who looked like me,” said Contreras.

Sometimes the insults came from her family members. Her mother threatened to relax her hair in her sleep. Her grandmother was even more appalled. She wanted to know what Contreras had done to her hair. Why did she look African? “I said, ‘Grandma, I have African in me.’ She said, ‘No you don’t.’” (Both women have since changed their views, with Contreras' mother following in her daughter's footsteps and going natural too.)

Academics says the obsession with straight hair in the Dominican Republic is deeply rooted in income inequality in a predominantly black country where a small white elite holds disproportionate political and economic power and the government has long perpetuated a stigma against Haitians.

In her research, Peña has identified six predominant racial categories in the country that are closely intertwined with class: blanco (white), mulatto (mixed race), trigueño (olive), indio (Indian), moreno (dark) and negro (black). Dominicans can move up or down the ladder, depending on how they manage their appearance, for example, using skin bleach or sitting in the sun.

Or how they style their hair.

“You can be as dark as that chair, but if you have [straight] hair, you’re saved. That’s the indio hair,” said Marianela Belliard, a doctor of literature who has studied racial and postcolonial identities in the Dominican Republic.

On a recent morning, all three styling chairs at Miss Rizos were occupied, with two customers getting curl-defining treatments and one having her hair coiled with extensions into long Havana twists.

“These are hairstyles popular in African and African-American population in the U.S.,” Contreras said of the styling services, which typically cost 500 to 1,000 pesos ($11 to $22). “To bring them to the D.R. and have all these women with box braids on the street — it’s not something you initially think about, but it’s a really powerful statement.”

Women getting their hair done at Miss Rizos, the hub of a small but growing natural hair movement in the Dominican Republic.
Tatiana Fernandez Geara for Al Jazeera America

Stylist Arantxa Joseph separates sections of her client’s hair with a fine-toothed comb, massaging shea butter into the roots. Although she attended the National Institute of Technical and Vocational Training, it was only after getting hired at Miss Rizos that she learned to treat and style natural hair.

“It’s something that still isn’t taught at the academy,” said Joseph, 24, who sometimes practiced on her sisters’ natural hair.

Born to a Haitian father and Dominican mother, she admits she used to refer to Afro-textured hair as pelo malo before working at Miss Rizos. Now she sports a short Afro, or pajón. Behind her station are shelves of T-shirts and tote bags that read “Yo amo mi pajón,” the official mantra of the salon.

“It’s harder in Dominican society because you need to be this perfect girl with long straight hair,” she said. “You have to be very confident to be able to carry your natural hair.”

That’s why clients go to Miss Rizos — not just for haircuts and hair care wisdom but also emotional support.

“You come in, and you start crying to us because your husband doesn’t like your hair, and we have to tell you what to tell your husband. And we have to tell you what to tell your boss. And you know what? You want to bring me along to your job and have me face your boss? I’ll do that,” said Contreras.

But there’s something she wants to make clear: Miss Rizos has no problem with straight — or even straightened — hair.

“I think anyone should do whatever they want or whatever they please with their hair, and if straightening their hair makes them feel good, go for it, straighten your hair,” she said. “It’s the fact that the only way you feel beautiful, the only way you feel validated, the only way you feel worth is by being something you’re not.” 

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