What about Your Roots?
A Brief Survey of Black Hair Politics in Cuba
Anthropology, PhD Candidate
Graduate Center, CUNY
*In the five years since this piece was written, many of the themes remain relevant but there have also been many noteworthy changes. This Summer (June 23-25 2016) in Havana, at the 25th Anniversary Conference for the hip hop group Obsesion, there was a vibrant discussion about black hair and it’s connotations on the island showing that there is an ongoing and vibrant space to discuss these themes and the possibility for accepting afro hair in all of it’s many textures. In June of 2015, over 70 contestants participated in Havana’s first Natural Hair Competition, which featured categories for braids, locs and loose natural hair (blackgirllonghair.com). Finally, hair weaves or implantas are another popular hairstyle on the island that also deserves attention given their high costs, around $150 CUC, and the routes by which they arrive to Cuba because they are not sold there directly.
I began this project bearing in mind that many Cubans are not socialized to separate themselves along the imperfect lines of racial difference. Author Carlos Moore states that discussions of race in Cuba are limited to how Afrocubans are central to the national culture; however, this manner of thinking actually fails to address issues of race and racial prejudice that still exist today (Moore 1997:218). The importance of national unity and cultural diversity based upon Cuba’s ethnic heritage conveniently leaves little room to speak about race, a topic that could be viewed as counterrevolutionary and has the potential to create divisions among citizens. This is further complicated considering the multitude of racial terms that were created in response to extensive intermixing between different racial groups (Sawyer 2006:137), thus, one cannot write about Cuba without acknowledging the complex manifestations of the country’s Indigenous, Spanish and African ancestry. Moreover, this project was steeped in bold questions about blackness even though race and racism have only recently emerged as a topic of serious discussion. Cultural critic Roberto Zurbano contends that race is a conflict of the 19th century and that only in the past ten years have Cuban scholars really begun to give more attention to the subject (March 17, 2011). This is a pivotal moment for Cuba in which the nation is poised for productive dialogue about its history in relation to race and racism in today’s context.
The vocabulary already exists to articulate ideas about race signaling that racially charged words are frequently used even if not for the purpose of dissecting their meaning. A number of these words were revealed to me as terms used to describe a person’s hair texture and/or skin pigmentation. The concept of pelo bueno (good hair), versus pelo malo/feo (bad hair), to distinguish between hair that is straighter and more manageable from hair that is kinkier and harder to style was extremely prevalent. To anda con pasa, to go about with hair that is kinky and dried out like a raisin, was also a commonly used phrase. Someone who is moro/a is black with straight hair, and someone who is jabao is light skinned with kinky hair. These terms, the last two especially, elucidate how colloquial speech is used to systematize the range of phenotypic representations that are common in Cuba. Willie Morrow argues that, “skin color and “curly or kinky hair” are so intertwined that it is hard to separate the two when examining the forces that shape black people’s lives” (1984: 37). Race and hair are so closely related that a discussion of one often necessitates a discussion of the other. With all of these terms, it is clear that although race is not necessarily a publicly debated subject in Cuba, it is something that can be expressed using concepts that are already well understood.
I took these ideas and a myriad of questions to the barbershop located on 17th and E in the vibrant neighborhood of Vedado just east of the historic Habana Vieja district. The atmosphere of the barbershop was relaxed as the warm sun poured in through the open doorway. Hair clippings of all textures lay scattered around the two barbers’ chairs as proof that the barbershop was truly a meeting place for the entire community. The two men who work there, Samuel and Sergio, belong to the Fraternal Order of Masons and collectively share 24 years of hair cutting experience. They told me that it is common for men to wear the machimbre (fade), the dominicana and the mowa (mohawk)–Samuel thinks that the mowa is particularly horrid. One style that could be worn in addition to the aforementioned haircuts was the trenzital, a braid or lock positioned at the nape of the neck. One could opt to wear a trenzital for style or for religious purposes by asking a deity to fulfill a certain desire and then cutting off the trenzital once the request comes to fruition.
The pervasive language conflating hair texture with race was not so evident in the barbershop. Sergio contended that pelo malo had more to do with hygiene than with race. In his opinion, anyone could have hair that was not well cared for, dirty and unkempt. His professional and politically correct comment was unlike what I had previously encountered and evoked great debate among barbershop clients and myself. Samuel and Sergio were willing to talk about anything and proved to be great sources of information as I traveled back and forth to the barbershop for more research.
To learn about popular women’s styling, I went to Salon Primavera located on Línea which happened to be the “sister salon” of the barbershop. The pungent smell of chemical hair straightener hung heavy in the air when I arrived. Arresting and astringent, the smell leads me to the back room where three stylists in white smocks were working on clients. This scene reminds me of my teenage years when I would set aside three hours on a Saturday morning to get my hair straightened in the same way.
1. There is another hair straightening treatment, Keratin, which requires the person to leave the chemical on the hair for 3 days. It costs about 80 pesos.
2. At a local dance venue frequented by tourists, I was told that a lot of Cubans, men and women, wear their hair in natural styles to be more appealing to tourists and to “llamar atención”? This pelo malo has a different connotation for tourists who were looking to and the thick cold cream that gives a person chills when it touches their scalp was all too familiar.
The wide brushes and the thick cold cream that gives a person chills when it touches their
scalp was all too familiar. I would soon learn that a lisado (chemical hair straightening)
was the most popular of all of the services offered at the salon. Maribel, the salon
manager said that this service costs 10 pesos for short hair and up to fifteen pesos for
long hair. This is a fairly moderate price but could be a considered an unnecessary
expense for the average Cuban salary of 200 pesos a month. She went on to explain that
the majority of those who get this service are black women who do it por moda (for style).
Factors that Influence Hair(styles)
These encounters not only revealed what was popular but also led to a discussion of the many factors that might influence someone’s choice of hairstyle. Two twenty something year old women that I met on Paseo del Prado, a tree lined avenue leading up to Havana’s capital building, said that having straight hair was most definitely a matter of acceptability. In her youth, one young woman remembers how her parents warned her against looking like those blacks. She then modeled an imaginary Afro with her hands that reached its highest peak about a foot above her head. For others, relaxed hair was a consequence of having a parent who did not know how to manage the child’s curlier hair texture because the parent’s hair was naturally straight. This is the story for many of the women I met including Raica a 34-year-old pizzeria worker who is the daughter of a mulatta mother and a jabao father. For her, straightening makes the hair más facilitarse peinado (easier to comb). She gets her hair straightened every five months at a beauty salon and says that she does it because she likes it. One can only speculate as to how much the ease of straightening, acceptance, a parents’ sense of ease when not having to manage a hair texture unlike their own or all three influence a person’s hair styling choice.
Comparing the ideas of these women with that of the older professional stylists who I interviewed, it seems that there may be generational differences that also affect how each age group engages with issues of personal appearance and acceptability. People of these two generations grew up in two very different Cubas. For older people, they can still rely upon the unifying rhetoric of the Revolution in which all people were united by their identity as a Cuban.
For young people, there was the Special Period, a time of great economic turmoil from 1991 to the early 2000s triggered by the dissolution of the Soviet Bloc. Economic instability made it clear that black Cubans were the most disadvantaged because they were less likely to receive remittances from family members abroad, mainly in the United States (de la Fuente 2001:319). Furthermore, the discriminatory tourist industry that emerged from the Special Period showed preferential treatment to light skinned people whose appearance was thought to be more benevolent than those with dark skin . Therefore, having darker skin and kinky hair was not profitable unless it aligned with the aesthetic of cabarets, religious tourism or street workers—places where black bodies are commonly commoditized.
In addition to the perpetuation of these very limited images of the black body, the younger generation is more accustomed to a globalized society, which inundates them with images dictating what “look” is most desirable. Barbers and clients at the barbershop suggested R & B singer Usher, Latin pop star Ricky Martin and Dominican- born Red Sox baseball player David “Big Papi” Ortiz as potential style icons. Whether or not an authentically Cuban hairstyle exists or if styling is only guided by outside influences is contestable. Samuel maintains that styles are fundamentally North American or European. For the women that I met, many of them said that it was simply a matter of personal choice, but one respondent did mention R & B singer Beyoncé Knowles as someone with pelo bueno. Through these examples, it possible to see that familial upbringing, generational differences and the constraints of the Special Period impact the way that young people conceptualize their own identity and how they choose present themselves to the world.
In just three months, I became privy to a provocative world of Cuban hair politics—one that is easily seen but much more difficult to access when examined not only by the finished product but also by the socio political processes that created it. For those who find themselves outside of the parameters of acceptability, there are ways of mediation, which might include the use of chemical straighteners, the adoption of a way of thinking that is more accommodating to one’s natural hair or a creative outlet. In a discussion about black hair politics in Cuba, it would be imprudent not to acknowledge the issues of race, gender, politics and history that are related to this topic. These issues are tangled, closely bound and in need of straightening out to the point that it becomes obvious that hair can be revelatory of things unseen. Hair throughout the Black Diaspora is a topic of interest for many scholars who have already completed work in countries like the United States (Byrd & Tharps 2001), Brazil (Caldwell 2007) and the Dominican Republic (Candelario 2007). Collectively, stories about Afro descendants and their hair can help to elucidate similarities that would not have manifested otherwise. In this work, it becomes possible for people like me, a young woman who happened to encounter a hair braiding stand in the middle of Havana’s commercial district, to think more deeply about the body as a place of political discourse and not just something to be adorned while on vacation. Rather, this is an opportunity to do more than just observe but to seriously consider the implications of the question, what about your roots?
2015 Cuba Holds It’s First Natural Hair Competition to Promote Black Pride.
Black Girl Long Hair. Date published June 18 2015. Date Accessed 29 June 2016. http://blackgirllonghair.com/2015/06/cuba-has-its-first-natural-hair-competition-to-promote-black-pride/
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