On Afro-Latina Hair Care: How My Dad Tossed Out My Understanding Of ‘Pelo Malo’ With The Stroke Of A Comb

credit: Alex Portée

Any Afro-Latina who has ever had the mass of curls on her head styled by someone else will likely recall the days in which their hair wasn’t totally their own. The days when styling their own hair was never an option because it was a territory their mothers, abuelas, or tías occupied and refused to share. From a young age we came to understand that washing and styling our hair was a serious business and as kids, it was way too complex for our little fingers to get involved in.

Besides the professional stylist who had worked to gain my mother’s trust, the only other person my mother allowed into the sacred ritual that involved doing my hair was my dad. It was during these occasions, sitting between my dad’s legs with a comb in his hand that my attitude towards my hair began to alter.

To my mother’s credit, she carried the responsibility and burdens of styling and caring for my hair on a regular basis.

She was the one who woke up early on Saturday mornings to haul my sister and me to salons. The one who, after hours of grueling work, would part our hair and knead oils and creams through it to ensure its health while we slept. Every morning before sending us off to school she was the one who would spend the 20 or more minutes (I swear it could have been two hours) needed to tussle with our hair and plait it. Still, despite all of my mother’s care and efforts, it was hard not to feel the burdensomeness of my hair with every painstaking tug and pull of her rat tail comb.

Despite the many (many, many) times, my mother praised the beauty of my mane, every styling session led by her or a professional’s hand was a reminder that my curls were wild and out of control. Every corrective yank that my head received acted as a reminder of how much of a pain in the neck it quite literally could be. While the end results always gave me relief, the process of doing my hair always made me resent it. It wasn’t attached to the alluring adjectives like “silky” “smooth,” and “straight” used to describe my friends’ hair. All I heard from stylists was that it was “poofy,” “nappy,” “frizzy,” and “tangled” all of which they said added up to “pelo malo” and my “tender headedness.”

When my father was the one with the comb in his hands, however, I thought of my hair in a completely different way.

At least until the next time, someone else dared to brawl with it. The smoothness of his hands carefully working through my coarse curls was a relief. There were no hot combs, no snatching, or lecturing. I could see why the girls at my predominantly white school enjoyed having braiding sessions on the playground (something my mother never allowed because it really would have turned into a disaster). Having my hair in my father’s hands would completely reset the complexity scale I measured my hair by. For him, it was a lot to work with, but it was fun and enjoyable too. There were no groans or huffs. Just him, a comb, patience, and me.

Of course, it’s not lost on me that the composure he held while doing my hair was in part because it was not a part of his daily routine. Or, in truth, that my appreciation for my father’s involvement in my hair care partially stemmed from a bit of sexism. At an early age, I was easily influenced by the gender roles that men and women are limited by. Back then I viewed things like hair cair as a mom job. Having a father who actively chose to do my hair made me feel that maybe my hair wasn’t quite as awful to style as I had been led to believe. After all, my father was someone whose experience with Black women’s hair had been limited to watching his sisters endure similar comb and detangling ceremonies. He was hardly an expert. Yet, with time, he learned to skillfully comb out and weave braids through my tangled hair all the same.

All expectations involving gender roles aside, having a father who chose to be involved with my hair taught me that it wasn’t something that needed to be gripped over in order to be maintained.

It’s been years since either of my parents have combed their fingers through my roots, but it’s easy for me to identify those moments of hair tugging and care as acts of love.

These days, my attitude towards my hair is a lot like my mother’s. I’m careful and picky about selecting my stylists and I have had my fair share of agitation when someone has the audacity to try to touch it as if it were some sideshow attraction. To this day, I do my best to protect my Black hair because it is one of my most favorite physical traits. There’s no doubting that the experiences of having a father who would do it for me as an expression of his love for me is a huge part of that.


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