I stepped out of my room having just wet and prepped my hair to be straightened.
“I’m ready!” I said, excited to be getting my hair done after weeks of searching for a hairdresser.
I ran into the kitchen of my host family’s apartment which would serve as today’s salon, where my host mother, Ania, and my hairdresser Elena, a family friend, waited. Elena took one look at my hair and her jaw dropped, her eyes widened so exaggeratedly I thought they would shoot out of her eye sockets. She looked at Ania who gave her a sharp “I told you so” look.
“What’s wrong?” I asked, standing there confused with water and leave-in conditioner running down my neck and through my shirt.
“Que Pelo tienes!” Elena said. “You didn’t tell me you had that much hair!”
“Was I supposed to?” I said.
I was perplexed. My afro is fairly large and ferocious on a good day, but it had never intimidated a professional hair dresser before. I didn’t know whether to take pride in this new-found afro power or to be concerned for what was to come.
“I have to go back home and get some more tools,” she said frantically. “And I’m so ashamed to ask you this but I have to charge you more.”
She was flustered and her caramel skin was turning red. I didn’t mind paying extra. She was originally charging me the equivalent of $4 for a service that the salon across the street from my university in the US charges $45 dollars for- with a student discount.
But things are a lot different in Havana, Cuba. Afros are not a common sight. The norm for women with coarse hair is to rid their manes of its natural kinks with flat irons and chemical perms. The few afros that I did see belonged mostly to my friends who were foreign students from the US or Africa or the occasional “free spirited” Cuban woman. Even when Ania saw my hair the night before, she excitedly exclaimed how she thought it made me look like an artist or a hippie.
The natural hair movement of the US that had shaped my identity and that of thousands of African American women the past few years had not yet reached the island nation. So, I understood why she was overwhelmed.
“What kind of tools are you talking about?” I said, my hair even quivered at the thought of a fiery hot comb hacking through my curls like a machete in a jungle.
“There’s no way your hair is going to get straight with the flat iron I have,” she said. With Pelo Crudo I would need the works, she said.
But I told her that was not necessary. She didn’t understand how protective and fearful Naturalistas are of heat damage.
I was beginning to have doubts about letting her proceed. Her fear was tuning into my fear- but I felt like she was my only option. The very reason I even had Elena do my hair was because I didn’t trust the hair salons after hearing many stories from other foreign naturalistas who went to salons where the women snuck chemical relaxers into the conditioner treatments to make their hair easier for them to syle. And didn’t even understand why they were upset afterward. In that part of Cuba natural hair just isn’t coveted the way it is here in the states.
I even tried to get braids before all of this. It’s more common to see a young woman with twists or braids, but finding braiding hair in Havana is harder than finding quick internet access (In a communist country!). A friend of mine only had her extensions because her father went abroad and brought them back as a gift.
So, I explained to Elena that I didn’t want to fry my hair off of my head. I wanted a different look, but I was more concerned with the health of my hair than the conventional look. She didn’t quite understand aesthetically, but she obliged.
I sat down at the kitchen table and she began to blow dry my hair. She was annoyed as I micromanaged her styling from the chair- “Por favor, can you detangle from the end of the strands up?” “Do you mind waiting a second so I can go apply my heat protectant.” Ania laughed and told Elena to take care of my hair. It took 2 hours that night and 3 more hours the next morning to finish. We passed the time talking about race in Cuba, the politics of Black hair and, of course, watching Novellas. Elena is a professional and she did a great job. My hair was far from bone straight – more like an elongated poof -but I loved it. She didn’t, but was content that I was pleased.