Society can’t pin down my pajón

A student reflects on how she learned to care for and accept her natural Dominican hair.

Rhiannon Rivas, a freshman journalism major, wrote an essay about how she found confidence in her natural Dominican hair. | SHEFA AHSAN / THE TEMPLE NEWS

My curly hair has always been a battlefield. 

I was trained from an early age to make it look as straight as possible. I used relaxers, blow dryers, rolos — slang for hair rollers — irons and whatever else could tame the pajón, a popular word that means Afro-styled hair. 

If “beauty is pain,” I welded myself into the fairest of them all. 

I grew accustomed to the heat of relaxers singeing my skin. I was numb to the burn marks on my face and neck. I even ignored a scar on my forehead from when my skin melted off along with a hair clip at the salon. 

I created a set of rules to keep my hair straight. So did my community. I couldn’t exercise for fear of sweating. I couldn’t walk in the rain or snow. On the rare occasion I ventured to the pool or beach, I couldn’t enter the water. What I could and couldn’t do revolved around my hair. 

Growing up in a Dominican household exaggerated these challenges. My family would rather go outside naked than publicly display their natural hair. Some Dominicans, my family included, will swear they are 100 percent white, even though features like our hair say otherwise. In an effort to hide our African roots, Dominicans prioritize straight hair over enjoying life. 

After my mother granted me the freedom to style my natural hair, I searched on YouTube for ways to maintain it. I spent hours looking at how white women styled their wavy hair and mimicked them by lathering my hair in gel and hairspray.

Eventually, one of my middle school classmates gave me a bottle of “Pelo Chino,” and I started to treat my hair better, focusing less on getting rid of frizz and more on conditioning it. 

Over time, more people of color made Youtube videos, and I finally found “SunKissAlba,” who is Dominican with hair similar to mine. Seeing her gave me hope. I felt less alone in my journey to stop relaxing my hair, and it gave me the willpower to ignore every ignorant comment that came my way.  People told me that I looked unkempt and unprofessional, but I knew those were lies.

When I moved to Rittenhouse Square in 2016 with my family, I quickly realized we were one of the only families of color in our neighborhood. My natural hair was looked down upon. For the first time when I walked down the street, I felt people staring at me. I saw their looks of disgust and fear when I walked on the same block as they did. 

To stop this, my family practically begged me to go back to straightening my hair. They still do. They felt that if I looked more European, I would be treated better.

This time, I refused to listen. 

The movement is my safe haven. I am more focused on living my life than worrying about revealing my natural hair, which I once kept secret.

This August, at a “Curl Meetup”  in Rittenhouse Square, I joined in solidarity with people of varying hair textures, races and ages. The circle of women with curly hair kept expanding as the meeting went on, all sharing their reasons for embracing their natural hair. 

I was in awe. 

To see people with hair like mine, in a space I felt alien in, made me feel like I was finally valid. 

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