Headwraps serve several purposes. They offer sun protection, they hold spiritual significance, they conceal bad hair days and they make even the most basic ‘fit look poppin’. But for women of the African diaspora — including Black Latinas — these long, often colorful, rectangles of fabric are also a way to reclaim a complicated tradition that has long been debased.
While the history of turbantes begins in sub-Saharan Africa, they entered U.S. culture during the centuries of slavery. What was initially used to protect Black women’s hair from lice and sun rays became a master’s symbol of enslavement, a mark that carried with it a history of violence and shame. At the same time, for free Black women, particularly the Creole population in 18th century Louisiana, wraps were a badge of rebellion. Adorned with jewels, ribbons and feathers, these head scarves were worn as a form of resistance.
Upon the abolition of slavery in the country in 1865, young women, hoping to assimilate into dominate U.S. culture, largely ditched their wraps. It wasn’t until the 1960s, at the height of the Black Power Movement, that the scarves re-emerged — this time as a sign of Black pride.
While the history of the turbante varies across the Americas, common threads, like its colonial demonization and its current valorization, exist throughout. From celebrities like Amara La Negra, Eva Marcelle and Lupita Nyong’o to the everyday women who grace our neighborhood sidewalks, Afro-Latinas are reviving and reclaiming headwraps as emblems of vogue, beauty and pride. Here, six Black Latinas tell us what the turbante means to them.
Catherine Ochún Soliz-Rey, 24, Honduran
💛When I'm not snatching edges for Fiercer Woman. I'm preserving my CULTURE. ✊🏾. • Choreographing, Sharing, educating, performing,through live drumming, song and dance with my dance company @garifunadancecompany 🙏🏽. This year my group and I plan to also take that to the next level as well. • I am proud Garifuna Woman. 💛🖤🇭🇳We out here. • • #doitfortheculture #AfroLatina #Garifuna #Honduras #Guatemala #Belize #Nicaragua #blackgirlmagic
Growing up in a proud Garifuna home, I always saw my mother dressed in headscarves and traditional garbs for cultural events. I started wearing turbantes at these same festivities. As I matured, however, I learned the meaning behind them. The scarf is a way to have extra divine protection, which is received from our ancestors and the creator. Today, when I wear one, it’s for a combination of spiritual, traditional and simply habitual reasons. Whenever I have my headscarf on, I feel more grounded, connected and protected. Beyond that, I also just love how Garifuna women take pride in the colors of our outfits matching our scarves. It means a lot to me to carry that on. I wear them because they’re beautiful and make me feel confident, but I also feel proud that I am representing my culture as I wear my headscarf. To me, it is a symbol that shows off the great pride I feel in who I am.
Renata Vilela, 36, Brazilian
I started wearing turbantes in 2013, when I starred in the musical The Lion King on Broadway. I met several South Africans on that show, and through them I began to learn about my origins. Wearing turbantes was a way for me to identify with my roots. It’s self-knowledge, self-love and belonging. When I wear it, I feel beautiful and confident. I’m taking ownership of something that has a much broader meaning in my life. Here, in Brazil, I feel like we are connecting more with our roots. We are becoming more proud of being Black women. We are spreading power and love, and a lot of that is reflected in our use of turbantes.
Mairaly Rodriguez, 21, Dominican
I started using head wraps at a very young age, but not for the same reasons I wear them now. Growing up, my mother would put me in rolos and then wrap my hair in a scarf or turban to maintain the straight style. Years later, I wear them to protect my natural hair, give it a rest from the Caribbean sun or just as a quick fix when I don’t know what to do with my hair. Regardless of why I use a turbante, though, I always feel proud wearing it, like I’m representing my culture. I feel like I’m channeling my ancestors. In the 18th century, Black and Creole women were forced to cover their head in wraps because their natural hair was considered too “distracting” to white men. As an alternative, Black women wore them in unique styles and bright colors. I always remember this when I wear one, especially when it has a beautiful, vibrant print. My headwrap means beauty and power. It’s also a way for me to feel more connected to my great grandmother. My mother told me stories about how her grandmother used to wear turbans all the time to cover her ‘fro because she was made fun of for it. So whenever I wear one, I always make sure to have a curl stick out or lay my baby hairs, because I want to show off both. I am not ashamed. Instead, I feel like an Afro-Latina princess.
Karla Caicedo, 30, Panamanian
There are a lot of negative stereotypes about Black women and natural hair, and these ideas can make you feel ashamed about certain parts of who you are. Growing up, this is how I felt. It wasn’t until I left my country, Panama, for two years that I began to long for my culture. At 28, I decided to go natural, and from then on I’ve been wearing headwraps. It’s wonderful to no longer live in beauty salons. But it’s also great to be who I am and not be bothered by judgement. I’m a Black Panamanian woman. This is my culture, and I’m very proud of it.
Santana Caress Benitez, 31, Puerto Rican
I first started wrapping my hair in high school. Sometimes I’ll do it when my curls are frizzy or my twist-out is looking sad after day 2. They’re a great quick fix for a shitty hair day. Other times, as a chef, I’ll wrap it up when I am about to get down in the kitchen. But there’s also a spiritual reason behind its use. I wear the headwrap to protect my crown in certain spaces and situations where I may be vulnerable to energies. Regardless of the reason why I wear them on a particular day, headwraps always make me feel fly AF and connected to other Black women who love rocking theirs.
Yanelsi Wilson, 32, Cuban
I started wearing headwraps very early. I’ve always been surrounded by women, like my mother, aunties and grandmother, wearing them, and when they did, it was like they were transforming into elegant queens. Headwraps are life. They save us from bad hair days and basic outfits. But they also represent far more than a piece of fabric wound around the head. Wearing a turbante evokes a sense of fashion, pride and beauty. Right now, wearing headwraps is also a way for us to reclaim, revive and reinterpret such a creative and cool tradition that has been defined or degraded by others before us. I love wearing headwraps.