Crackle. Pop. Sizzle.
Those are the sounds the hot comb made as my mother dragged its searing metal teeth through my roots – not once, but three times before sliding it down to the ends.
The crackle came from the hair grease on my scalp. The pop, shortly after the teeth made contact with my hair. And that sizzle was the cry I heard from my curls as their texture changed. My hair was scorching when it touched my back.
The heat from that comb was real. My mom was old school and used the hot comb that you had to heat on the stove. Never the electric version. She kept a wet rag nearby to clean it after every few strokes because the grease would pile up between the teeth. If you didn’t clean the teeth, hair could get stuck and be singed off. I was lucky that never have happened to me.
I suffered through the same process at least every two weeks as a little girl, and learned early on that if I didn’t want to get burned, I’d have to sit still and hold on tight to the towel I kept around my neck to protect my skin.
Coarse hair was not exactly on trend in the ’90s, especially in Latino households.
I had two choices: braids or straightening my hair with the hot comb. I hated the process of both.
CREDIT: The author, Saraciea Fennell. Photo credit: Brandon King
Getting my hair braided by my mother was just as bad, if not worse than the comb. My mom is heavy-handed when it comes to doing hair. I’m talking about a woman whose hands pulled my hair so tight I felt my insides burn. It was a slow burn, too. One that turned into the sensation to pee. While I never peed my pants, I did cry.
So yeah, I grew up hating my hair.
I hated everything about it – how thick it was, how long it took (2-3 hours) to get done. I wished my hair were like my mother’s, my sister’s, my cousins; like anyone else’s really.
We were all Latina, but we definitely weren’t the same. They damn sure didn’t have hair like mine.
My mom’s hair was thick with a soft curl. My sister’s was thin with a tight-ish curl. And my cousin! Oh, she had the best hair of all! Her hair went all the way down to her butt and it was all wavy goodness. Or at least that’s how I saw it.
None of them ever had to sit and get their hair torched or tugged. They got to get wash and sets, walking around with doobies straight out of the hair salon, preserving their fresh blowout. When they unpinned their hair I admired how it smoothly flowed down their backs.
Meanwhile, I wondered why my hair wasn’t like theirs. Why couldn’t I go with them to the hair salon and have someone scrub my scalp clean, put rollers in my hair and then read magazines while I sat under the hair dryer? To say I was jealous was an understatement. I tried not to let it show or get the best of me, but it was hard.
My prima would get her hair swooped up easily into a ponytail. Getting my hair in a ponytail, however, meant getting it yanked while someone combed and smoothed the knots. I’d wet the front part of my head, then slap Vaseline on it followed by gel. S curl spray was used on the ends and then they’d add anything else lying around to make my hair lie flat.
There was no time to be tender-headed. With every yank I told myself that famous quote: “beauty is pain.”
It wasn’t until I was about eight that my tia decided to put a relaxer in my hair. I had no idea what relaxer was or what it would do, but when she said I would look just like my cousin and the girl on the ‘Just for Me’ no-lye relaxer box, I jumped for joy.
I’m not sure if we got permission from my mom. I just remember sitting between someone’s legs on the floor while they parted my hair in four, greased my scalp, edges and kitchen (that’s what the lowest part of hairline near the neck is called), then applied the creamy stuff that would make my hair look amazing.
And if I’m being honest, it did. It was like experiencing a whole new head of straight, silky hair. I couldn’t stop running my fingers through it. I was living the dream, until high school.
I began to see girls rock their hair in different ways. There were Afro-Latinas with curly or straight natural hair and girls who wore protective styles like weaves, box braids and wigs. And some relaxed, permed, texturized and even wore extensions like gringas to elongate and add thickness.
It was then that I realized I wanted my natural hair back and what I truly longed for was versatility.
CREDIT: Saraciea with her cropped hair. Photo credit: Maegan Grayson
I never had a chance to really decide how I wanted my hair to look. I spent most of my adolescent years chemically straightening it because I’d been convinced that “straight hair” looked better than “curly hair.” That “good hair” wasn’t messy or frizzy – it was shiny, straight and lush.
Society had told me and my family that thick, curly hair wasn’t the thing to have. These girls I became friends with were turning the tables.
I desperately wanted to go back and forth like them. But most importantly, I wanted my hair freedom.
There wasn’t an easy way to get it back though. Everyone told me I’d have to start from scratch, but I wasn’t having it. The process was long, and often painful. I did everything from grow out the relaxer, to regular wash and sets, to braids, to cutting my hair shoulder length, to chopping it all off to start from scratch.
Since then I have loved and nurtured my hair in more ways than I can count. I can’t help but wonder what my hair was actually like before I got my first relaxer. A part of me will always wonder and secretly keep trying to chase down that first curl pattern.