Miss Rizos hair salon is ground zero for the Caribbean's natural hair movement. Here, Dominicans embrace their curls and redefine beauty standards in a society that has until now insisted that kinky hair is bad hair.
Carolina Contreras' natural hair salon, Miss Rizos, sits on the second floor of an old colonial building in the heart of Santo Domingo's "zona colonial," the historic colonial district of the Dominican Republic's capital. The salon itself is bright and airy, the space amplified by floor-to-ceiling windows and lined with chairs facing large panel mirrors. Unfinished wooden pallet shelves and beauty stands hold a jungle of potted plants, an army of hair products and a closet full of Miss Rizos merchandise stamped with the slogan "Yo amo mi pajon," or "I love my afro."
In the Dominican Republic, loving your hair doesn't come easy. "I have to go through a process with my clients, of convincing them that their natural hair is beautiful and giving them permission to cut it," Contreras said.
Contreras, a Dominican-American activist, entrepreneur and influencer, launched Miss Rizos in 2014. The space is the first of its kind on the Caribbean island of Hispaniola: a hair salon for Afro-Latinas and Afro-Latinos who want to wear their curly hair naturally, rather than have it chemically relaxed — a choice that's still stigmatized in many parts of the world.
More than that, the communities Contreras has fostered — both online and in real life — have spurred on the natural hair movement in the DR and across Latin America, challenging social attitudes and empowering women to shirk and subvert the beauty standards they've been raised with.
Good hair vs. bad hair
There's a strictly enforced hair culture in the Dominican Republic. Big, curly hair (a "pajon"), has historically been seen as ugly, unruly, and associated with Afro-Dominican roots. People will hurl insults at women and men who wear their hair natural, sometimes calling them dirty or disgusting. Women who want to work in "professional" jobs — in a bank, as a teacher, as a lawyer — are compelled to wear their hair straight. A 2016 study by the Perception Institute in the United States confirmed that black women with natural hair experience bias in the workplace.
The salon's team is made up of stylists from across the country who specialize in cutting and styling curly hair
In the Dominican Republic, such attitudes have to do with the complicated history of the country's Afro-descendants and the influence of European colonization. Issues of race, class and Eurocentric beauty ideals are tangled up in the way people wear their hair. Historically, "pelo malo" — bad hair — has been hair that is tightly curled, coarse and kinky, like an afro, while "pelo bueno" — good hair — has been hair that is silky and straight.
But to Contreras, it's more complicated than that. "I don't think it's just that I'm Dominican, and so I want to erase my negritude and claim my Europeanness," she said. "It's more that society, including the world at large, and not just the DR, is sending me these messages about what success looks like."
And "success" comes at a cost: The chemical relaxing process is painful, expensive, and can take hours. Contreras recalls relaxing her sisters' hair when she was younger. "Not only was it my mom and these stylists who were inflicting pain on me, but I was also inflicting pain on my three sisters," she said. "I remember telling my sisters, not that long ago, 'Your hair looks bad and it looks ugly, so let's fix it, because you have school tomorrow.' And now I'm leading a natural hair movement."
Contreras talks a client through the intricacies of how the right cut will change the way the curls fall around her face
At Miss Rizos, clients like Larissa Lembert Archivald love to see Contreras and the stylists flip the "pelo bueno/pelo malo" dichotomy on its head. "The women are so warm and enthusiastic, and they offer so much empathy to their clients," she said. "They listen in detail when you describe what you want, and it just makes me feel at home."
The natural hair movement began in the US in the early 2000s and spread to the Caribbean, Latin America and parts of Africa. Now the rejection of Eurocentric beauty standards and movement towards embracing one's natural hair have been taken up by advocates around the world.
Lembert Archivald works as a doctor in Seville, Spain, but was born in the Dominican Republic. She says when she comes home for a visit, she's blown away by how much things have changed: "It's completely magical to arrive and see people — from the customs booths at the airport to more 'formal' offices — showing off their beautiful hair," she said. "When I was growing up there were no salons or resources for natural hair, or to educate ourselves about how to move forward and love our blackness, which is so stigmatized."
Filling a gap
In Contreras' case, her domain — a salon and community outreach, talks and workshops, online communities with a following of more than 130,000, and a collective stepping-away from the good hair/bad hair dichotomy — began as a personal blog.
After Contreras made the 'big chop' — when women cut off all their hair that has chemical relaxer in it, leaving just the new growth — she says she was subject to name-calling and insults. But soon people began approaching her in the streets, at work, at the grocery store, asking her about her hair and how she maintained it.
"People would ask me questions like, 'How did you do it?' 'What was the process like?' 'What products did you use?' These were random people stopping me in the street — but hair was this huge taboo. So I thought, I should start a blog," she said.
Alongside the overwhelming curiosity for curly hair, Contreras realized, there was a need for Spanish-language resources on how to care for it, what products to use and how to style it.
At Santo Domingo's annual 'Afro Feria,' or Afro Fair, which celebrates the identity and culture of curly and afro hair, a crowd watches a dance performance
Opening the salon seemed like a natural extension of Contreras' advocacy work. Miss Rizos is much more than a place to go for a haircut — it's a space for women and men to share information and hair-care tips, seek out the company of like-minded people and learn how to address the discrimination they face about their own "pajones."
Empowerment via natural hair
Contreras tells the story of a 16-year-old girl from Santiago de los Caballeros who wrote to her looking for advice. "She said, my school principal is telling me that only prostitutes wear their hair curly like that," she said. "So I told her, 'you're going to tell your principal this, this, this and this,' and I listed a few responses. And the next morning she told her principal everything I told her to tell her, and this girl was set! She was good to go. Sometimes people just need the tools."
The hair salon has become a battleground in the war people of African ancestry are waging against the cultural status quo.
"I try to empower women by making them learn how to love and care for something that they were taught to hate," says Contreras. "In that, they feel better about who they are. It's powerful."
Lembert Archivald can attest to that: "We have to love ourselves for what we are: a beautiful mix. It reflects the struggles and eras of our island."