Hairstylist and Salon Owner Carolina Contreras is Changing the Narrative Around Afro-Latina Beauty
By Johanna Ferreira
The last two lines in Dominican-American author and poet Elizabeth Acevedo’s 2014 spoken word poem “Hair” send chills down my spine every time I hear them.
“My mother tells me to fix my hair, and so many words remain unspoken. Because all I can reply is, ‘You can’t fix what was never broken.’
The first time I heard this poem, I remember shouting the words “Amen” out loud while I struggled with my own-heat-damaged curls that were a result of weekly blowouts at my local Dominican salon. Like many curly haired Dominican women, my relationship with the Dominican salon has always been convoluted. In many ways, the Dominican salon was a safe space for me. It was a place where I could congregate with women who looked like me and share culture. It was a place where I could safely speak my broken Dominican Spanish and not feel judged, all while hearing the music of my family’s native island. It was a place where I could get my hair done, enjoy the vecina’s (the neighbor’s) pastelitos and batidas (Dominican milkshakes), and walk out feeling confident and ready to face the world — “primped and pretty.” But it was also a conflicting place. It was just as much a socializing agent, as it was a beauty parlor.
Image from MissRizos.com
I remember one of my first visits to the Dominican salon. It was a salon in Corona, Queens, back when the neighborhood was still predominantly Dominican. I was around 4 or 5 — though I’m sure I had been there before that — and I was there for a trim. I remember how friendly all the stylists were, many of them were good friend’s of my mom, who was a regular at the salon. I remember the classic Johnny Ventura merengue songs that played on repeat from the moment I walked into the shop until it closed. I remember the nauseating smell of derrizado (chemical relaxer) that was being used to straighten quite a few clients’ hair. I remember the large heated hooded dryer I had to sit under after my rollers were set, that burned the tops of my little ears. I remember crying when the stylist would blast the blow dryer close to my delicate scalp to vanish any evidence of curls at my roots. And I remember when I first heard the words “pelo malo” (bad hair) used to describe curly, kinky or coily hair. I didn’t love going to the Dominican salon. But once I hit my mid-20s — even after fully embracing my natural curls in college — I would go almost every single week to get that long, sleek straight look that was pushed on me since I was a little girl.
Going to the Dominican salon to get your hair straightened is almost seen as a rite of passage for many young Dominican girls. “It is at the salon that girls learn to transform their bodies — through hair care, waxing, manicuring, pedicuring, facials, and so on — into socially valued and culturally scripted displays of Dominican femininity,” Dr. Ginetta E.B. Candelario writes in her 2007 book Black Behind the Ears: Dominican Racial Identity From Museums to Beauty Shops. She explains how the salon has for decades served as a place of racial erasure. “The common Dominican practices of chemically relaxing and blow drying hair into straight-ness seems supportive of Eurocentric aesthetics. Below the surface — or perhaps one should say, ‘behind the ears,’ — however, lie other meanings. Dominican women’s hair cultural practices are intended to create ‘authentic-looking’ Dominican women who… embody an Indo-Hispanic appearance.”
To some, hair is just hair. But for Latinas — especially Latinas of African descent — hair plays a huge role in identity. Belleza (beauty) is significant in our culture and that’s because there is such a strong push to assimilate to Eurocentric beauty standards.
“For many of us, going natural and embracing our God-given curls is a crucial step towards radical self-love and acceptance. It’s not just about owning our beauty, it’s also about recognizing and embracing who we are.”
When I finally started to fully embrace my curls, after years of slacking on my heat-damage journey, I stopped going to the Dominican salon. At least not more than once a year for my annual blow out and length check. I didn’t miss the smell of burnt hair, the loud sound of blow dryers, the images of white straight-haired women that ordained the walls, or having to sit under a hot hooded dryer for at least 45 minutes. But I did miss the people, the owners, the women who ran these salons, the women who washed hair, and the girls who looked just like me who I would converse with like we’d known each other for years. I missed the sense of community I would feel every time I was there. The women there — the owners especially— felt like my fellow comadres. This is the very reason why I always feel so uncomfortable when I hear people speak ill of the Dominican salon like it is the worst place on earth.
Sure, curly salons felt safe in that I could finally feel free to embrace my hair and not have a stylist egging me to straighten it. But what a lot of these salons are missing is that sense of community I appreciated about the Dominican salon experience. I finally felt that again two fold, when I got the chance to visit Carolina Contreras’, Miss Rizos Salon in Washington Heights this fall.
Many know Contreras as Miss Rizos. She’s been a big name in the Latina natural hair space since she opened the doors of her first Miss Rizos Salon on Calle Isabel La Católica in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic in 2015. Contreras named the salon after a blog she had created after deciding to embrace her own natural hair. It is one of the first natural hair salons in the Dominican Republic and after much success, she was able to open her second location in NY’s “little DR” in October of 2019.
IMAGE FROM @missrizossalonus
While both salons have fortunately managed to stay open during the COVID19 pandemic, things are far from the same. This was my second time visiting the Washington Heights location — the first time was for a press event that happened weeks before the NYC emergency shutdown in March took place. This time I was coming in for a very much needed trim and even with the social distance and precautionary measures that were placed, I still felt at home. Every single girl in that salon was proudly rocking her pajon (afro) — stylists and clients. The front desk girl kindly offered me a hot cup of cafecito (coffee) and my curly hair was greeted with compliments and gentle care.
Contreras, who has been an activist since her teens, wanted to create a space where Afro-Latinas like herself could feel seen, valued, and beautiful. We’ve met on numerous occasions since her first salon opened and I’ve interviewed her at this point more times than I can count. But every conversation with her always feels different. It leaves me moved and inspired every time. She just gets it.
“I love the sisterhood in a Dominican salon experience. Everyone is a comadre (homegirl), hermana (sister), or vecina (neighbor), and that makes people feel comfortable and a part of something. That’s why we serve un cafecito when you visit us and we want people to feel the warmth and familiarity with our space and staff to ensure they know they belong there,” she tells thirteen lune. “Miss Rizos has created a space where women, men and children not only learn about how to take care of their hair, but also how to defend their right to wear it in every space including schools, workspaces, etc. So I wouldn’t really say that Miss Rizos has changed the beauty landscape but rather that it has been a force of changing racial stereotypes and standards surrounding afro-curly textured hair."
"There’s a very specific image that comes to mind when someone says ‘Dominican salons,’ however now with Miss Rizos, this definition has expanded and has become more inclusive.”
Five-year-old me would have never in my wildest dreams imagined a Dominican salon specifically catered to natural curls filled with beautiful-brown skinned Dominican women showing off their curly crowns and having deep and progressive conversations about race over cafecito. But to actually be experiencing it now fills me with so much pride and joy. It gives me hope that the next generation will never know what it means to be told they have “pelo malo.” Miss Rizos is the Dominican salon experience we’ve all needed and it doesn’t stop here.
“I want to see more inclusion of the Afro-Latina narrative, which includes our hair textures, our hair stories, and our hair needs. I will continue bridging that gap, and representing many who might not have a platform and whose voices matter and need to be heard. I want to continue to tell our stories and to push la cultura (the culture) forward.”