When asked what my favorite part of myself is, my thoughts immediately go to my hair.
Growing up in Puerto Rico, I didn't have the same mentality though. I remember when my mom and I would bounce from hair salon to hair salon trying to find someone who knew how to cut and style curly hair. I remember the number of times tears streamed down my face because the person straightening my hair was burning my scalp with the hair dryer or tugging too roughly with a round brush because my hair was just that curly.
As a child, I had very voluminous curly hair. For my third-grade class picture, my mom put my hair up in a side ponytail. This bold choice resulted in teasing from the other kids. I also went to my English teacher during recess and asked her to put my hair down because the ponytail was too tight. The hairband ended up getting tangled in my curls, and she had to cut it out with scissors. There was another time when some kids thought it'd be funny to put gum in my hair because they knew I wouldn't be able to get it out easily.
For years after that I wished I had straight hair. I never wore it down because it was always frizzy. I really abused my hair trying to tame it and make it something it was not. I learned that in order for me to look presentable and be taken seriously, I had to straighten my long curly hair. It would take hours, and the after-care was ridiculous. But the payoff was worth it because everyone complimented me on it.
"Your hair looks so good straight. You should wear it like that more!" That's all I heard for years on end, and I grew to believe it. Every special occasion and every party required me to straighten my hair. But I wasn't the only one who had these thoughts. In fact, I still have friends who straighten their hair every week because it's all they've known. Their natural hair and their curls are so damaged from the heat that they barely resemble a curl. They are afraid to embrace their natural hair because they believe they won't be taken seriously.
The last straw came when I was 15, after spending two weeks on a cruise. The sun had completely damaged my already-dehydrated curls and the hairdresser's only solution was to cut it. She cut several inches off, and my hair went from resting by my hips to sitting over my shoulders. The haircut was terrible because it was not for curly hair. I was horrified at the time, and I wore my hair up for months, but looking back it was the best thing I could have done.
Finally I returned to natural curls several years later, when I was 18. I refused to straighten it anymore. I embraced my curls and found hairdressers that knew how to cut and style it. I skipped blowouts at the end of each hair appointment and sought advice on how to make my curls healthier.
One big thing that helped was that my mom was not like my friends' moms. She cheered me on when I decided to embrace my curls. She helped me realize that my hair was part of my identity and I should be proud of it, and I'm so thankful.
Today, my hair isn't what it was back when I took my class photo with a side ponytail. But I've finally learned to take care of it by applying products that I know will nourish it rather than dry it out.
For me, wash day consists of a 15-minute hydrating hair mask followed by a curl-specific shampoo, a color-treating shampoo, and a one-minute conditioning hair mask as a conditioner. I only detangle while I still have the conditioner in my hair to avoid any breakage. After the shower, I wrap my hair in a microfiber towel before applying leave-in conditioner, anti-frizz cream, defining cream, and a soft-defining mousse. And of course, I sleep with a satin hair wrap on satin pillowcases to avoid frizz while I sleep. When buying hair products, I always make sure to buy from brands that cater specifically to curls and that don't use sulfates, alcohol, or parabens.
Taking care of my hair may seem like a long process for some people, but I want my hair to be as healthy as it can be because it's still part of who I am. My hair is the one thing that I know will physically connect me to my Latinidad.
Finally embracing my curls meant I was also embracing my identity as a Puerto Rican woman. I don't look like everyone else, and there's no reason I should when I'm representing my culture back home or on the streets of New York City, where I moved at 25. My curls taught me that no matter where I go, I'm always going to be me, and if I don't stick up for myself and my culture, who will? I'd rather spend my time trying to better myself — physically, mentally, and emotionally — than waste it trying to change.