Changing Places: After enduring strong chemicals and many salon hours, the author learns what it means to be a golden girl. (Keith Barraclough)
Changing Places: After enduring strong chemicals and many salon hours, the author learns what it means to be a golden girl. (Keith Barraclough)

Fade to Blonde

By Belén Aranda Alvarado
Sunday, March 11, 2007

WHEN I THINK OF THE SPACE WHERE LATINAS AND BLONDNESS MEET, I always remember Iris, a Puerto Rican classmate from my days at Columbia University. Iris was one of those women whom men generally like and women generally don't. She was more comfortable with playful banter than serious exchanges, and it was rumored she liked flirting with other women's boyfriends. But to many of the other Latinas in our class -- at least those newly politicized and hyper ethnically aware, like me -- she was guilty of larger crimes. Iris once infamously represented the Puerto Rican student group by offering free salsa lessons while wearing a white ruffled peasant blouse, hoop earrings and bright red lipstick. She never disguised her love of traditional, totally un-PC frat parties, the kind where they played AC/DC's "You Shook Me All Night Long" to pack the dance floor. And she dyed her hair blond. An orange-y, brassy blond.

At the time, my biggest desire was to make my light-skinned Chilean self look as identifiably Latina as possible. Saddled with a hair texture that was, at best, ethnically ambiguous and, at worst, simply wavy, I coveted Iris's naturally tight, corkscrew curls. It was the kind of mane I would've described as "Jewish hair" when I was still going to high school in Rockville, but now it seemed to be Caribbean-beauty perfection. Iris's decision to color it was unfathomable, a sure sign of succumbing to mainstream "white is right; blond is better" beauty standards. It couldn't have puzzled me more if she'd slapped on some blue contact lenses and asked us to call her Madison. Didn't she love her brown self?

I solved my own hair dilemma by visiting the JC Penney salon while on a trip home and getting the chunky white girl behind the counter to give me a spiral perm. She botched it enough that I got my money returned, but, to my elation, people back at school let me know that they thought this -- my botched perm -- was my true hair. They assumed I'd been blowing it straight until then. Joy! My ethnic identity unmistakably announced.

After our 1995 graduation, more than 10 years would pass until I would see Iris again. It would be at a reception hosted by Columbia's Latino alumni group, and, in the weeks before, I would think of Iris frequently. She would show up brunette. But there would be another blonde in attendance -- me.

A FEW WEEKS BEFORE THE RECEPTION, I was asked to go blond for this article. The editor was looking for someone politically aware and proud of her Latina looks. I literally wrote the book on Latina beauty. (Really. It's on Amazon.com.) What's more, I just happened to have already marked on my calendar a perfect testing ground for this change-of-tresses: the reunion, where friends would be receiving awards for going on hunger strikes and taking over buildings to persuade the university to add a Latino studies major. Imagine the escandalo when I walked in blond.

My former classmates, I imagined, would think I'd done it for the usual reason: to snag a little of the love our society ladles on blondes. Consider a study cited in the Chronicle of Philanthropy last year: When the researchers sent a bunch of undergrads out collecting donations door-to-door, pretty girls unsurprisingly brought in the most money -- but blondes far out-raised equally fly-looking brunettes. Yet another study related that, given a choice of hair color, most men making more than $75,000 a year would pick blond partners. A scientific article by a McGill University anthropologist posited that the reason there are so many flaxen-haired Europeans may be that during the Ice Age, when successful male hunters were in short supply, women with eye-catching blond hair had a mating-game advantage over their darker peers.

Latinos come in all colors, but our standard mix of European, African and indigenous heritage means that naturally golden hair, while it does occur, is rare. So any bonus blondness brings is beyond pretty much the whole ethnic group -- which, on some level, feels unfair and infuriating. No wonder so many of us turn to chemicals: Across the board, Latinas buy more hair care products -- including dyes and the attendant deep-conditioning treatments -- than women in any other ethnic group. And no wonder the Latinas who equate going blond with changing your name from María to Mary disdain their frosting cap-, highlighting brush-wielding sisters.

I'm aware of all this. And I love being Latina: I'm convinced that, at some point or another, everyone who isn't part of our cool cultural hybrid secretly wishes they could be. But 10 years past college, I craved another sort of privilege: that of unburdened whimsy. If white women can change their hair color the way they change their lipstick -- with complete impunity and no worries over "correctly" representing their community -- why couldn't I? Even women's studies majors now march on Washington in tight pink baby-tees that scream, "This is what a feminist looks like!" So had enough time gone by that I could be a righteous, fierce, representin' Latina, and yet go blond?

I told the editor I'd do it.

As soon as I got off the phone, I went out and bought the beauty bible for Latinas on the lightening path: Us Weekly, the supermarket rag that regularly features photo after photo of dyed and highlighted Latina celebs. Jessica Alba, Jennifer Lopez, Shakira, Eva Mendes -- they're all there, having gotten lighter-haired as their stars rose. (Cameron Diaz is claiming she's going to stick to her new brown locks, but I suspect it's a post-breakup dye job -- meant to shock, not to stay.) In the issue I bought, practically the only Latina celeb missing was beautiful, intelligent, raven-tressed Salma Hayek. I love Salma. I bet she'd kill in a big-budget superhero flick (like Jessica) or as the girlfriend to corrupt cop Denzel Washington (like Eva). But instead she seems -- to me at least -- to be one of the most under-appreciated Latina actresses out there. Why don't we see her more? I wasn't even sure what new movie Jessica Alba was in, but there she was full-page in another tabloid, getting her nails done at a charity event. Maybe if Salma got highlights . . .

I called various salons in town and started getting an education in the economics of blondness. While the women's magazines I read as a teen promised easy blond streaks via lemon juice, the truth is that taking hair from jet black (that's me) to something approximating blond requires many chemicals, many salon hours and many dollars. The cheapie drugstore, do-it-yourself route isn't available, as the chemicals needed to strip dark hair of its pigment aren't legally sold to anyone without a beautician's license. (And with good reason. The smell alone is enough to cause tears.) Salons around town gave me preliminary estimates starting from $250 to $500 -- emphasizing that the bill was liable to grow once the stylists actually got a look at my hair. And that was without the expensive conditioning shampoos and weekly deep-conditioning treatments I'd need afterward, to prevent my ends from splitting, frizzing and breaking off completely.

I decided that I'd go to a Dominican-owned salon I'd seen close to my home in Wheaton. A Latina hairdresser, I reasoned, would have experience taking a client with chemically relaxed hair like mine from one end of the color spectrum to the other. And the salon would do it for the bargain-basement $250 -- all The Post was willing to spend.


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