Merary Soto, rockin' true 80s style
Coming to America : My Hairstory
by Merary Soto, Mane Concern
I came to New York City for the first time when I was two years old. I don’t remember much from that time period and throughout the first decade of my life there was a lot of moving back and forth to the Dominican Republic. I do distinctly remember learning English and meeting my classmates at PS 399 Stanley Eugene Clark, a school in Brooklyn completely dedicated to African American History and Culture. Every morning we sang “Lift Every Voice And Sing” during morning assembly and yelled at the top of our lungs “I am somebody! I can and I will achieve to my highest potential.” We celebrated Kwanzaa, wore Kente cloth and learned of so many unsung heroes and leaders that shaped the freedom people of color had in America. Most Dominican immigrants do not have that experience, and for that I am immensely grateful to my late parents.
I often compare my childhood hair plight to my mixed friends because my beautiful mother was an amazing beautician but could not cornrow. Every week my classmates would have beautiful cornrow crowns and creations and I would beg my mother to try. Instead she would comb my hair in embarrassing traditional Dominican hairdos called “moños”, “verengenas” and the dreadful “cebollas”. “Moños” are braided pigtails and she would get as many as she could fit. I noticed that my West Indian, especially Haitian friends had the same hair moños, so this was the least painful of the hairstyles. “Verengenas” are eggplants, the same braided pig tail but rather than clipping the bottom you take the ends and tie to the base the pigtail to make it look like an eggplant. Then there are “Cebollas,” the one traditional hair style that ALL little Dominican girls had at one point and the one I dreaded the most. “Cebollas” are onions, and this hairstyle was a head full of buns that look like onions. Not cool in America, but on the island women believed that protecting little girls ends with buns would ensure growth and shine. I would take all these hairstyles apart as soon as I got to school. One birthday, in my plight to fit in, I asked my mom for 2 pigtail puffs and she teased my hair into a limp “fake fro” puff, which I came to regret the moment I had to detangle.
Since we didn’t have Dominican hair products readily available in Brooklyn, my mom used local brands like the infamous Pink Lotion, TCB and Queen Helene Cholesterol Cream. The weather adjustment would dry my scalp, so while mom watched her “novelas”, I would sit in between her lap and she would grease my scalp with Dax. I am pretty certain that if she could read English she would have refrained from clogging my scalp.
In the 80s in NYC, Dominican salons where scarce, but it was no secret that the women of the island were no strangers to hair straightening and relaxing. The Dominican blow out back then happened at “home salons,” one of which my mother ran. I watched my mom do it all: relax, permanent curling (that stuff smells horrible), cut, color, style and roller set. She would make vinegar tonics for scalp neutralization, hair growth treatments with imported herbs, some of which I share on my blog
. I remember some of her Jamaican clients braiding the front of my hair after much begging, and though it was painful and made sleeping impossible I couldn’t wait to show off at school.
My favorite hair memory revolves around a relaxer. By the time I was in 3rd grade many of friends had relaxers, looking back now, we all know it wasn’t healthy but at the time the “Just For Me” commercial promised much ease to a working mom. At that time my 2 goals were clear, either be my Kenyan ballerina doll or in a “Just For Me” commercial. I begged my mother for weeks for a relaxer. Then one day she said, “fine I will relax your hair.” I can only imagine the grill on my face. She sat me down in her styling chair, put a black cape on me, split my hair into four parts. She had the mixing bowl and comb and started the process just the way I have seen it done many times. After she was done, I sat patiently and feeling grown. After a few minutes I say “mami me pica” which means “mom it’s itching”. My mom exploded with laughter and revealed that my “relaxer” was just conditioner and that she got tired of my begging to she faked a perm. Oh yes she did!! Needless to say, I was upset and certainly didn’t have to transition out of that process.
I am sure I fussed and cried about my “fake perm,” but, in the end, I am glad my hair remained natural, and though later on in life I did abuse it with chemicals and colors, I had a lot of hair to work with thanks to my mom. As I look back to the 80s, I can say we have come a long way in the education and product selection of hair care and I am happy to be a hair educator today.
Merary Soto is the creator and writer of Mane Concern : www.maneconcern.com, a blog space dedicated to hair and scalp nutrition for women of all hair textures.
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