To Be Or Not To Be Grifa: Boricua Women's Observations on Hair

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The question is still relevant. Many Boricua women still wake up in the morning, stand in front of the mirror and ask the Shakespearian question: To be or not to be grifa? Do we really look better with straight hair? That’s what I thought all adolescence long. This is what my three year old daughter asks everyday, “Mamá yo quiero una trenza larga y blanca como Elsa” (she wants a long, white, braided hair like the princess in the Disney movie Frozen.) Many of us have gone through this, struggling to define the best way to wear our hair that may or may not fit with what we imagine perfect beauty to be. The issues of whether to wear hair naturally or manipulate it to conform to some ideal, to make it look like somebody else’s, be it the prettiest doll, the telenovela’s lead actress, or the hottest Hollywood star, still remains. In fact, it’s still such a pervasive issue that Dove recently launched a campaign encouraging women of all ages to embrace their hair, and more specifically their curls. Because let’s be frank here, I’m talking mainly about curly hair, and all levels of it from wavy to Afro. If you have straight hair, you are already a level closer to that “perfect look” society celebrates. For me, and I’m sure other Puerto Rican sisters, the issue of whether and just how to embrace hair has long been a question to grapple with.

Because hair is so entwined with our perception of beauty, it is the most easily manipulatable element of our physical self—one that best helps manifest also our internal self. This is perhaps why such a simple thing like hair matters to discussions of one's personal identity. It’s been a serious issue for some Puerto Rican women whose confidence has been affected by society’s ideas of beauty. It’s been a powerful tool for others whose love for their hair grew hand in hand with the love for themselves. And for some others, the relationship with their hair has taken them though a transformation journey. Some women like it and some women hate their hair. And some learned to love their hair and found in that transformation a freedom worth sharing. I know this because in service of my daughter, I set out to interview a series of Boricua women who have powerfully articulated who they are through their relationship to their manes. At this point, I’ve left the years of hating my own hair behind. I’ve been the girl with long hair in ponytails, then the adolescent with a perm and later the young adult slaved to the blow-dryer. When life got complicated, my own beauty routine simplified and I learned to love myself just as I am. My hope is to learn and share some inspiration and guidance to help raise a new generation of confident Boricua women who love their natural hair.

I interviewed twelve women: friends, colleagues, mothers, daughters, young, old, stylists, artists, and scholars. All Puerto Rican. All with a story to tell about their curls. We talked about hair, about their personal stories growing up, about loving their hair and about loving themselves. Here are their stories…

For Gemarla Babilonia, a mom of three and blogger at The Mommy Elf, as well as for many of the other women interviewed, their relationship to their hair started early on, through a mother, a grandmother or an aunt. Babilionia remembers as much, “my mom definitely influenced me and my confidence. There are body issues that I will always have because I inherited them from her. I have tried to change but it's really, really hard.” Babilonia’s family opinions still affect her as a mother too. Her young daughter has curly hair, which her family considers “bad hair.” Her grandmother used to say that she should “marry a white and blonde gringo so that my daughter could be more beautiful.” She is aware of the way she was raised and makes sure to change the focus on the way she raises her daughter “even though she is a baby, I try to encourage her now to understand that it doesn't matter what she looks like, she is beautiful and a princess no matter what.” Her daughter has beautiful curly hair and Babilonia enjoys keeping it natural.

Another mom and teacher, Imani Romney-Rosa, takes a different approach in raising her daughter. “I believe very much in the new trend of not talking about a person's body outside of how it works: not pretty/fat/skinny, more strong/flexible/bold.” But Romney-Rosa also admits that, even when she wants her daughter to know she is more than just beautiful: smart, strong, intelligent; she wants her to know she actually is beautiful. “I smile at her and give her lots of affection and tell her te ves preciosa along with telling her she is smart, generous, strong, etc.” said Romey-Rosa. She surrounds her daughter with images of people who look like her, curly hair included.

Clockwise from top left: Marixsa and Taina, Juliet and daughter, Jeniffer, Gemarla and daughter, Jillian, Evelyn and Imani's daughter

But mothers alone do not hold all the responsibility. Women around us, as well as the images of beauty we receive from the media, influence greatly our perception of beauty. Jillian Báez was born in New York from Puerto Rican parents. She struggled as a teenager with the perception of identity and beauty that Puerto Rican women around her had. “We all saw each other as a close community and were proud of our diverse heritage but would criticize other woman con pelo malo.” She could not understand that duality among our own people as well as the conflicting views of feminine beauty in society, including media. She noticed that growing up exposed to Spanish language media, where the standard of beauty in a woman was fair skin and straight blonde hair helped in the confusion and frustration during her youth. Growing up in this duality inspired her to pursue an academic career. She is now assistant professor in the Department of Media Culture at College of Staten Island, CUNY. “Our children are growing up with more choices today. Traditional media and electronic media are doing a better job in presenting diversity, but not necessarily in addressing the issues of diversity in the programs,” she said. She noted also how our little girls are now exposed to a wider range of standards of feminine beauty, which is good, but these images are more digitally manipulated than ever. Perfection is becoming standard. Hence, while the digital era has opened more spaces for women to claim diverse standards of beauty, in many ways it has also contributed to exacerbating the conflict between reality and impossible standards of beauty.

Some Boricua creatives have long used their art to navigate and redefine those standards. Who can forget Luis Pales Matos’s Tuntun de Pasa y Griferia, Luis Rafael Sanchez’s essay, “El Pelo Malo,” Julia De Burgos's poem Ay, Ay, Ay de la Grifa Negra and, most recently, Puerto Rican artist Jennifer Kaplan’s London exhibit exploring the perceptions of beauty in Latin America? Together, these and other artists have contributed to redefine the notions of Puerto Rican beauty.

Another powerful Boricua artist who grew up in a society with conflicting views of feminine beauty and explored them through her art is spoken word poet Maria Teresa Fernandez, also known as Mariposa. In her “Poem for My Grifa-Rican Sistah Or Broken Ends Broken Promises,” she rebels against the way her hair was manipulated, processed, and oppressed during her childhood, and with irony apologizes for her hair “please forgive me for the sin of not inheriting papi’s ‘good hair.’” She then describes the levels of treatments received in her hair as “chemical relaxers to melt away the shame.” At the end, Mariposa proclaims her pride “Black hair, African textured hair, care free crazy curly
 hair is 
beautiful. ¡Que viva el pelo libre! ¡Que viva!” You can watch her performance of Broken Ends Broken Promises here and read the full poem here. I could not interview Mariposa, but she sure is part of my army of mujeres poderosas.

The more I asked around, the more I saw a deep connection between the kind of history (personal or collective), generational exchanges, and the identity articulated through cosmetic choices that Mariposa alludes to in her poem. Jeniffer Rosa, a public relations director for a cosmetics brand and lover of her big mane said, “I feel beautiful and honest with curly hair. If I ever straighten it, I feel like a different person, like it does not fit. It just does not match my personality.” Rosa, who loves to wear headbands and turbans, cherishes sweet memories of her mother as a strong and feminine figure, the smell of her perfume, the simplicity of her style and her lovely smile.

Marilisa Jiménez García, a research associate at Centro said, “It is not that I don't think people should be adventurous, but my hair is part of me and that is something that reminds me of my roots. Wouldn't want to do something that denies that. Both my mom and my grandma made a huge impact. I never doubted their words because these are people who really love me for me, not for who they think I am, or who they want me to be, or what they want from me. I am a unique person to them. And that is beauty. Being who you are.” She admits that growing up around other standards of beauty can be confusing, so when she moved from Miami to New York and started seeing other ladies who looked more like her it was empowering.

While Jiménez found the inspiration in the community, Maria Laboy, executive assistant at Centro and co-owner of the public relations and branding company Lalaboy PR, found it within. For 15 years since her adolescence, until two years ago, she wore her hair chemically straightened. She has been wearing her long, curly, natural hair for over two years now. “I think I just empowered myself, [I started] looking for spirituality, doing meditation, seeking healthier food, una búsqueda interior.” A personal search took her into a natural phase. As soon as all her chemically treated hair was gone she realized her true self. “Now with that haircut, I realized who I really was: my face looks better with curly hair. No wonder I was born with this hair. It complements my bones and the rest of me!” 

Singer and performer Raquel Sofía, who I first saw opening a Juanes concert in New York, is a fine example of a brave and proud Boricua with big curls. She shaved half of her head during that tour and has worn her big beautiful mane (on the other half) for over two years. “As soon as I went on my first tour as a back up singer, I felt like I finally had the opportunity to be more adventurous and free to express myself with my look,” said Sofía, who has been writing songs since the tender age of seven and just released her first solo EP in February. “We are lucky as women to live in a time and a place where we can wear whatever we want, whatever we feel matches our mood and our personalities,” she added.

One more woman, Ruth Laviera, a celebrity stylist with over 40 years of experience, also talked to me about women's personalities, pride and style. Laviera styled for many years personalities such as Celia Cruz, Tito Puente, Roberto Roena, among many other artists from La Fania. An Afro-Boricua beauty with a glorious mane herself, she loves hair and wanted to become a peluquera from a very young age. She styled the hair on thirty-five Essence magazine covers. Stars such as Diana Ross, Donna Summer and Vanessa Williams... “All the famous black women, I love transforming women,” said Laviera. “I believe each transformation comes from the inside out. I notice women walking, talking, how they dress... that’s how you notice how women project themselves and that’s what I use to complete the transformation,” said Laviera, who believes strongly in health over beauty.

“People call me for my reputation, I’m honest and I believe in haircare. Once you apply a chemical treatment and seal it with a flat iron, your hair will never be the same. It could look beautiful, but it is not healthy. Being beautiful is taking care of you. Caring for your hair from the root, not only the surface,” added Laviera.

These interviews gave me a trove of tips, inspiration, and guidance for a decade of raising a beautiful, confident young lady. In spite of the diversity of opinions, backgrounds, and hair types the women I interviewed had, we can all agree on the need to respect and honor our heritage. We have an opportunity now to redefine the concept of Puerto Rican beauty and aesthetics to include all of our colors and textures, especially our grifas. All the women I interviewed agreed that a beautiful woman is a confident woman. Confidence makes a woman beautiful from the inside out. And we all count on different things to help us feel confident. Hair is one of those things. Almost all of the women remembered hair care time during their childhood as bonding time with their mothers or grandmothers, some hold sweet memories and some painful ones. Natural hair, whether curly or not, is beautiful and part of who we are. Teaching our young girls to love their hair as they love themselves is fundamental to raise a new generation of proud Boricuas. While my daughter is only three years old now, I already envision the years ahead. I want my daughter to feel “beautiful and honest” like Jeniffer who believes that true hair is being true to oneself. I am inspired by Ruth’s hair care approach that emphasizes health over beauty. And I wonder if her adolescence will culminate with that personal search that change the direction of Maria Laboy’s sense of self or with Raquel Sofia’s rebellious act, as a right of passage to womanhood. I will be there guiding, modeling for, and loving that girl. This army of strong, beautiful Boricua women will have helped pave the way to proclaim then, just as Mariposa: “¡Que viva el pelo libre! ¡Que viva!”

For more resources and sources of inspiration check out:

  • This website that celebrates and promotes a natural hair movement in Puerto Rico;
  • This initiative by Yadira Ambert, Puerto Rican blogger based in Florida, to promote curly hair love among Latinas with hashtag #AmaTusRizos;
  • This campaign promoting girls love for their curly hair with hashtag #LoveYourCurls.

And then these amazing ladies I interviewed still gave me more than what I asked for. Marilisa Jimenez-García recommended a children’s book about hair and Prof. Báez shared some practical tips for parents:

  1. Foster media literacy: We need to question media, the images that are portrayed and how they are portrayed. Establish a conversation with our children about what they are being exposed to in media, especially when they are very young. Talking about what they watch, moderating how much they watch and finding alternative sources are key.
  2. Maintain harmony between what we say and what we do: Lead by example taking the natural route when taking care of ourselves. Keep it simple when taking care of a little girl.
  3. Cultivate a nurturing environment at home: Talk about race, color, features, beauty, appearance, what they see and what they believe. Our goal should be to widen the perspective of what is beautiful.
  4. Know our history and learn about our roots: Read the books, go to the show and visit the cultural institution or museum that helps communicate our heritage. It fortifies our identity and helps affirm who we are.

Let’s continue the discussion! Are you a proud Puerto Rican Woman who loves your curls or hates your hair? Are we raising strong and proud girls? Share your voice with us on social media with the hashtag #CentroVoices. Feel free to connect with these amazing women: Gemarla @themommyelf, Imani Romney-Rosa @imaniromneyrosa, Jillian @jillianbaez, María Teresa @lapoetamariposa, Jeniffer @jenrosalopez, Marilisa @marilisajimenez, María L. @lalabom and Raquel Sofía @_raquelsofia.

© Center for Puerto Rican Studies. Published in Centro Voices on 25 February 2015.

Centro Voices (ISSN: 2379-3864).
The views expressed here are those of the author and not necessarily those of Centro Voices, the Center for Puerto Rican Studies or Hunter College, CUNY.