“There were 11.2 million Africans that we can count who survived the Middle Passage and landed in the New World, and of that 11.2 million, only 450,000 came to the United States. That’s amazing. All the rest went south of Miami as it were.” — Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr., “Black in Latin America”
A lot of times, when we think of “natural hair”, we think of it from the perspective of African Americans in the United States. However, there are also individuals of African descent south of the border. What do natural Afro-Latinas experience there or in their communities here in the United States? Today, we ask Melshary, who was one of the ladies featured in our post 6 Natural Afro-Latinas to Follow on Youtube. We got in touch with her for an in-depth interview on her experiences and thoughts on the perceptions of natural hair in the Afro-Latina community. Do you identify as Afro-Latina? Why or why not? M: I most certainly identify as an Afro-Latina American. Before telling you why I identify the way I do let’s break down what Afro-Latina actually means, at least to me. My parents were both immigrants from the Dominican Republic, arriving in NYC in the early 70’s. So this is where the Latina comes from, Dominican Republic being a country in Latina America/Caribbean. I think the word Afro is pretty clear. I am well aware of my African Ancestry, it is in our culture, in our history and very evident in the people. Where were you born and raised? What is your heritage/ancestry? M: I was born and raised in BROOKLYN NYC later moving to Manhattan and no not Washington Heights. Peeps from NYC will get this. 😉 As stated above my parents are both Dominican, my siblings and I are 1st generation born in the USA. I have ancestry in the Dominican Republic, Africa and Spain. What has been your experience(s) being natural in the Afro-Latina community? M: Honestly speaking I’ve been faced with both good and bad. The good: people accept and actually love my hair and I inspire many to go natural. It’s kind of hard to answer these questions without feeling like I need to give a bit of a history and now lesson. Many Hispanics do not like to acknowledge that they are black. It is seen as somewhat an insult even though it is clear as day where their roots began growing. I don’t have this problem, I’ve embraced it, I love all the things that make me but others look down at what I’ve chosen to embrace. There’s been more than a few times where women who assume I’m not Hispanic and don’t speak Spanish (btw I am fluent, Spanish was my first language) talk about me right in my face. They’ll say things like my hair looks dirty, that I probably never pass a comb through it and mostly that I need a relaxer. Let me tell you I LIVE FOR THESE MOMENTS! Permiso señora, usted debe de tener mucho cuidado de quien hablas porque tu nunca sabes quien hablas español. The look on their faces, priceless. What are the general perceptions surrounding natural hair in the community? M: So if we are talking about the entire Natural Hair Community: I don’t think that those that are not in the Afro-Latina community grasp that we’ve had very similar struggles when it comes to hair and skin color. I’ve heard way too many times that Hispanics (I’m talking about Afro Latinas here) don’t know the struggle, that it isn’t the same, when it really is. I come from a community where beauty is defined by European standards, long straight hair and fair skin. These things make you “better” or more acceptable. I rage against these standards. What is your biggest challenge as a natural Afro-Latina? M: I can’t say that I have many challenges now but when I was younger I sure did. The biggest of all was trying to figure out exactly where I fit in. As we all know as a kid fitting in is important. I wasn’t fully accepted by the African American/Black kids because I truly don’t think they weren’t too sure where to put me or what I was exactly, honestly neither did I. The white kids, well they just didn’t want anything to do with me, they kinda just stuck together. Now the Hispanic kids, this where things got a little strange for me because hey this is where I should fit, right? No! I grew up around a lot of “white hispanics” and there was only a sprinkle of “Afro Latinas” that were hell bent on convincing you that they where not black but were quick to put me in that category. I remember a little Puerto Rican girl a few shades darker than me with hair tightly coiled; we were at the pool. In the locker room she turns to me and says, “Does your hair get wet in the water?” Yeah I was just as confused. She goes on to tell me how black people’s hair is so nappy that it doesn’t get wet, the water just sorta sits on their hair and because I’m black my hair won’t get wet. My reply: “What do you think you are”? Her answer: “White, because my hair gets wet”. So I was very much of a loner ’til high school and college where I could find my tribe and that I did. What made you go natural? Did you have support? M: I don’t have a huge going back to natural story. I loved curls and would admire other naturals. There weren’t many when I decided to go natural but the few I saw had a big impact. And thus began my journey to natural. In addition I was a lazy relaxer, once, twice a year if my mom made me, I didn’t care to spend the money on it. My family loves my hair. My wife LOVES my hair, I have been forbidden from cutting it.. LOL.. What are your thoughts on Afro-Latinas who deny their natural hair? M: Honestly, I live by the motto do you. Your hair on your head, do whatever you want. I only have a problem with Afro Latinas who deny their African roots but that’s another story for another day. What are your thoughts on Afro-Latinas who deny their African roots? M: Plainly, I feel like they are denying a vast part of their history and who they are. It’s self hate. I’ve met many women who clearly have African roots but will shout from the roof tops that they’re not black. It has been drilled in their heads that being black is associated with something bad and ugly. This is especially the case in the Dominican Republic. The country many years ago had a Dictator (Trujillo) whose goal was to “lighten the race”. How awful is that? He didn’t accept some of his own people because they were too dark. All it takes is a little research and you’d learn that the slave trade stopped right on all those little islands in the Caribbean. Our African roots are evident in our culture. You hear it in our music and taste it in our foods. I side eye those women who are clearly Afro-Latinas that say they’re not but enjoy the music and food. You can’t pick and chose what parts of your history you want to accept. You’re black, you have African ancestry. That’s powerful and great. You come from a tribe of strong people, people who overcame enormous hardship. It’s disrespectful to deny them. Embrace that, love that. Be proud to call yourself black/Afro Latina! What advice would you give to natural or transitioning Afro-latinas who are facing discouragement from loved ones, etc? M: It’s kind of of hard for me to give advice. A friend pointed out that I’m a lot tougher than most when it comes to just not caring what people have to say. You have 1
life that only you can live. You can chose to live it for yourself or for everyone else. What matters at the end of the day is that you’re happy. Living for what everyone has to say about you will drive you crazy and make you extremely unhappy. People’s opinions of you have nothing to do with you. So live your life and do whatever it is that’s going to make you happy. You can apply that to most aspects of your life. I have and I’ve never been happier. 🙂 Peace, Melshary SOCIAL MEDIA: Youtube: www.youtube.com/melsharya Instagram & Twitter: @Melshary Facebook: www.facebook.com/NaturallyMelshary
Have you had similar experiences? Share below!