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Of Curls and Cultures
Sometimes, of course, a hairstyle is just a hairstyle. But some see this obsession with straightening hair as a desire to erase all traces of any connection to the Mother Land. In his upcoming novel, "The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao," Dominican American novelist Junot Diaz writes about the color complexes of Dominicans at home and abroad, how straight hair is a status symbol, something to indicate that you are more Taino or European than African, and therefore somehow better.
Observes Bernadette Sanchez, a Dominican American psychologist in Chicago: "Based on my own experience with my family and with other Dominicans, there is a complex about having black ancestry. There are many Dominicans to me who are clearly black but will not identify as black. A lot of shame in the Dominican culture about having black heritage." And historically, Sanchez says, that attitude translates into prejudice against black Americans.
Much like African Americans, the stylists here, all Dominicanas, are an assortment of colors and hair textures, from fair-skinned and kinky-haired to deep brown with silky, straight tresses. But they seem to like it best serving up hairstyles with a healthy helping of lye.
"A lot of stylists don't want to deal with, let's say, African hair," Marmolejos says. "They're afraid of it. But we are black. We're all mixed, but how can I consider myself white?"
"You have this perception that women from the islands think they're better," says Carol Walls, a 46-year-old author and poet who lives in Southeast. "But they're women just like us. That was a different perspective, seeing other women from different cultures going through the same stuff."
By 5 p.m., the last of the clients trickle in. In one chair, a Cameroonian woman, dressed in traditional dress, chats on her cellphone, gossiping and laughing in her native language. Fewer clients emerge from the shampoo room. One by one the stylists with wet hair begin to take their places in chairs, towels draped around their necks. Now it's their turn.
Marmolejos finishes her last batch of customers, with her own hair half-wet and blow-dried straight. "I never have time to do my hair," she says. Stealing a minute, she plops down into her own chair, as one of the stylists finishes her up.
By 7, the last of the clients have gone and the workers get down to the final business of the day: Taking care of each other, wielding blow-dryers and scissors, curling irons and bobby pins, winding hair round rollers, then baking it until it does their bidding.