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Pelo Malo, Confessions of a Kinky Haired Sister

by Xenia Ruíz

My birth certificate contains a mistake. Where it asks for my parents’ race, “White” is neatly typed. Although my father was the color of vanilla, my mother was dark caramel. Back in the early 1960’s, there was no category for “Hispanic” so Puerto Ricans were recruited into the White category—until someone noticed that dark-skinned folks were getting off the flights from Puerto Rico. Ironically, in Puerto Rico (where my mother claims there is no racism), on the birth certificates of children born in the ’60s, parents were categorized under the negra (black) race and the blanca (white) race.

Like a lot of African-American families, my Afro-Latin-American family’s skin tones range from black coffee to cafe con leche to milk sans coffee. Our hair textures range from pelo lasio (good hair) to pelo malo (bad hair), which in itself ranges from various degrees of kinky to assorted grades of nappy. For the longest time, I thought my family was the only Puerto Rican family with dark-skinned, kinky-haired members. Until I entered high school, I never met any other dark Hispanics outside of my family.

According to history, Puerto Ricans are a product of three races: Caucasian (Spaniard), Negroid (African) and Indian (Taino). In history books, posters, anything celebrating Puerto Rico, you will see these three races profiled as the ancestors of the average Puerto Rican. But the truth is, the Tainos were killed within decades after the Spanish landed in Puerto Rico during the 15th and 16th centuries. African slaves were imported to work the sugar cane fields of Puerto Rico even before they were brought to America. Consequently, few Puerto Ricans have Indian blood but to hear some of them tell it, Taino “blood” constitutes half of their biological make-up. There are some Puerto Ricans who lay claim to this ancient Indian blood before they admit to having one drop of African blood. I do not deny that some modern-day Puerto Ricans may have some native blood, but the odds are their red skin and pelo Indio are more a product of the interracial mix of black and white than anything else.

As a child, perhaps fueled by the glamorization of Hollywood Indians in TV movies, I pretended to be Indian. With my hair in two braids, I would tie a bandanna around my head and root for the Indians in Westerns. But of course, I didn’t understand then that Hollywood would never let the Indians win. Other times, I would pretend to be White and secure a towel, or a brand-new mop-head, over my hair, swinging it from side to side so my “hair” could swish like the Breck girl. Or at least, like the Puerto Rican girls at school with real Spanish hair.

During my childhood, I always believed my hair was an inconvenience for my mother. It was thick and kinky, prone to easy tangling, but she refused to straighten it with the hot comb as she did her own hair because according to her, my hair grade was not as bad.

The frustration in untangling my mass was evident on my mother’s face during our weekly hair-washing/untangling ritual, and whenever I’d reach up to protect an unruly knot, she’d pop my fingers with the comb. It was during these times that I believed she hated me for not inheriting my “vanilla” father’s “good” hair. When she combed my hair in a hurry, she would forego the untangling and use a handful of pomada, brushing it back until the surface shone like polished leather shoes. Unfortunately, as the day wore on and my hair dried, the roots would intertwine into a tangled web. Before sending me off to bed, she would attack my tangles, my head throbbing from the tugging and the tears.

Among my kinkier-haired cousins, my hair was envied because it was slightly “better” and longer than theirs. When my aunts threatened to apply the hot comb, my mother would jump to my virgin hair’s defense, warning them against straightening one kink on my head.

In school, I was an oddball of sorts. Puerto Rican girls stayed away from me because they thought I was Black; Black girls stayed away because I talked “funny.” If my sister and I spoke Spanish around Hispanic girls, they’d stare like we were aliens from outer space. “Where are you from?” they’d ask in voices filled with distaste, never making any attempt to include me in their cliques. Whenever my family spoke Spanish in public, I’d shrink away, embarrassed, pretending I wasn’t with them because people would give us “the look”the eyes and raised brows sweeping over the kinkiness of our collective hair and our various shades of brown skin. I began to believe that if we had been just a little lighter, our hair more lasio, our features less African, we wouldn’t have attracted so much attention.

For a while I hung around other misfits: a White girl nobody else liked; a Mexican girl ostracized for her size. Eventually, Black girls accepted me into their circle. I learned to jump double-Dutch with the best of them, loved soul music more than salsa, and soon echoed their West Side tones, appending “finna” and “ay-ayn’t” to my already slang-laden “Spanglish” vocabulary. Even though they still occasionally mimicked my accent, my hair and skin tone made me one of them; I became more Black than Puerto Rican. Any passerby watching me jump double-Dutch or play hopscotch would have never guessed—or cared—I was Puerto Rican. To them, I was just another little Black girl. But then, I would be asked to translate for a non-English speaking person in school, or in stores, and the embarrassment and shame would return. Embarrassed that my “Black” cover had been blown, ashamed that my Spanish wasn’t good enough.

Sometimes my younger sister and I would pretend to be undercover spies, listening to other Spanish kids talk about the little negras in the playground until we’d unleash a tongue-lashing of Spanish curse words and threats and sometimes, ass-whuppin’s if needed. Other times, when the Black kids made fun of us, we’d start speaking Spanish and their envious looks were all we needed to feel vindicated.

It was during my teenage years that I finally accepted that my hair and skin color would always define what I was. African-American boys and later menwere more attracted to me than Latinos. I devoured Afrocentric literature and watched with anticipation for the token Black character on TV shows. “But you’re not Black,” my mother would say when I told her about being called the ‘n’ word. But I am, Mami! I’d argue, as she tried to convince me that just because I looked Black, I really wasn’t.

Later, when I got too old for braids and tired of my mother pulling my hair, I started brushing my hair back into a ponytail. With enough pomada and water, my hair would stay laid until the sun napped it up. In addition to the tail part of my ponytail kinking up, there were two rebellious clusters of hair at my temples which refused to stay down when my hair dried. One day, a Spanish boy I had a crush on, said, “Don’t you ever comb your hair?” After that, I kept a brush with me to tame the rebellious tufts.

I got my first relaxer the week before my high school graduation. Not only did the beautician straighten my kinks, but she also chopped off half of my hair. I couldn’t believe how light my head felt; my hair actually moved when my head did. I was the Breck girl. The comments ranged from: “Why didn’t you do this earlier?” to “Why are you oppressing your hair?” To some Puerto Rican boys, I began to look more Latin, evidenced by interested looks; to others, I was just another Black girl with processed hair.

After living in the secure multi-colored world of my family and blending into the all-Black world of my neighborhood, I entered the white-collar working world with some trepidation. Old and new curiosities resurfaced: “Where are you from?” “Chicago”, I’d answer, though I knew they meant my ethnicity. And when I finally came clean, their shocked expressions were usually followed with comments like, I didn’t know they had Blacks in Puerto Rico.

After eighteen years of relaxers and over-processing, I made the conscious effort to stop oppressing my hair. Friends and co-workers used adjectives like interesting and different when referring to my au natural style. It has been one year since my last relaxer and my hair is thanking me by growing.

To this day, I still get “the look” from people whenever I speak Spanish. There are times when I still get embarrassed if I am asked to translate. Sometimes I still believe that had I resembled Rita Moreno or Jennifer Lopez, I would be less self-conscious. Nevertheless, I have become an expert at drifting in and out of three worlds: the Latino (family), the Black (friends), and the White (co-workers). Because my “looks” don’t go with my ethnicity, I can listen in on Spanish conversations in elevators where unsuspecting lovers think they are safe because all they see is a Black woman. I can get rid of my accent on cue and slip into my Black persona with an African-American sister in a line at the bank without letting on “what” I am. I am once again that undercover spy I was as a child.

Still, my appearance is not enough to warrant instant acknowledgment by my Latin sisters; I have to speak Spanish before I get the nod, the obligatory “¿De donde eres?” With my African-American sisters, I am accepted right away based on our analogous hair and skin. They ask “How you doin’?” and only later, after we have shared stories, established a kinship, do they ask, “Where are you from?” Sometimes, they don’t ask because it doesn’t matter. They understand what my hair and I have been through.

Xenia Ruíz contributed this article to Boricua.com. She is based in Chicago, IL. She may be reached for comments and feedback at laequis222@yahoo.com

Posted by on Aug 15 2010. Filed under Features. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can leave a response or trackback to this entry

1 Comment for “Pelo Malo, Confessions of a Kinky Haired Sister”

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