In the Seventies, my family lived through Vietnam, Watergate, hippies, Black power, Gay power, Women’s Lib, and the infamous NYC blackout, but sometimes it seemed my family would not survive my favorite aunt, my mom’s youngest sister, Mari. I called her “Titi Dulce,” but for some in my family, she was “una troublemaker.”
Like many Latinx women of her generation, Dulce finished high school, married young and had babies. But there was another side to her; her true calling in life—to raise the political consciousness of our family. For those of you who weren’t there, Everything was political in the Seventies: The number of the P.O.W. bracelets you wore (to support the captured U. S. soldiers in Vietnam), the height of your platform shoes (the higher, the better), and the texture of your hair…especially the texture of your hair.
In my large, proud (and sometimes quite loud) Puerto Rican family, there are light beige, darker beige, brown, and darker brown members whose hair ranged from pin-straight to Afro-texture. And back when I was born, it was sadly not uncommon that instead of asking if a new baby had two eyes, ten fingers, and ten toes, the burning question was, “Bad hair or good?”
But all hair was good hair to Titi Dulce—straight, curly, coily, and everything in between—even though her hair manifesto didn’t always sit well with my family. I remember one night after she came over for dinner, she went to say goodnight to my mother, found her in the bathroom wrapping her hair, and said, “Lucy, I can’t believe you still wrap your hair in those orange juice cans every night! This isn’t Nineteen-Fifty you know; women have choices now. Keeping your curls is an act of protest—you don’t need to look ‘more American.’ We are American!” And as if further punctuating that statement, she tossed her mane of thick, wavy, natural chestnut brown hair as the apartment door shut behind her.
“Easy for you to say!” my mom said to the closed door. That was the summer either hormones—or my beloved New York Mets getting into a second World Series—turned my acceptably wavy, light auburn childhood hair into a tangled bush of wiry, orange frizz. No comb could go through it without a half-bottle of Herbal Essence conditioner. I could have picked it out with an Afro pick, were I allowed one. But that implement was forbidden by my mother, whose only sign her father was half Afro-Latino, was the silky, jet black, tightly coiled hair she wrapped or ironed into submission daily. As for me, my orange bush was gathered every morning into a tight ponytail circled with a perimeter of barrettes and bobby pins in a futile attempt to tame the frizz. No one in my family had hair like mine. And when I started school again, I found out no one else did, either
In the Seventies, public school kids went from grammar school (K through sixth grade), to Junior High (seventh through ninth), and then high school. And while the academic, social, and biological challenges of eighth grade can be difficult for many kids, all was magnified for me because of my hair. I remember Tina and Neecy, Black Pride besties from the Bronx River projects who treated me as their “beauty project.” They’d take turns trying to pick out my hair in the locker room before gym class, saying, “Look, it’s almost like ours.”
And then there were Marie and Antoinette, Sicilian-American twins whose father had a pork store on Morris Park Avenue, who at lunchtime would comb out the picking Tina and Neecy had done and braid my hair, saying, “Look, now it’s almost like ours.” I accepted all their attentions without protest, because Tina and Neecy kept razor blades in their Afros, and Marie and Antoinette had penny rolls hidden in their scarves (this was, after all, the Bronx). So once again, I was almost like everybody and exactly like nobody—just like it was at home.
One day after school, Titi Dulce came to pick us up for a shopping trip and found my mother once again struggling to get my crown of shame subdued enough for public viewing.
“Lucy—let it go! Let Michele’s hair go free. We have choices now!”
“Easy for you to say when your daughter has perfect hair like you. Por favor, nena, please sit still!”
That night, I prayed to El Señor, “God Our Father,” to whom I had been taught to turn in times of trouble: “Dear God, please, please, please let me wake up with normal hair so my mom and the kids at school will leave me alone.” But the next morning when I woke up, my hair was still bright orange, frizzy and bushy, and I cried. Because that coming Monday was the day our class pictures were going to be taken and I didn’t want to look like me. Then, while sitting in front of the TV with my bowl of Alpha-Bits, watching Bill Cosby’s Fat Albert, the answer to my prayers appeared during the commercial break like a vision of Christ on a cracker. It was called “Curl Free: The Natural Curl Relaxer for Complete Styling Freedom,” and showed beautiful young women with straight, shiny, submissive—and perfect—black, brown, and blonde hair.
“I bet it works on red hair, too,” I thought. And I went on a one-child crusade to get my mother to buy it for me. And to my surprise, she did—that same day—and right after dinner, she moved a kitchen chair into our tiny bathroom and put on her oldest housecoat and a pair of Platex Living Dishwashing Gloves to perform “God’s Miracle” on me.
But while she was mixing it up, I had second, third, and fourth thoughts. For one thing, it stank. Worse than the runover dead dog I’d seen in the street, worse than the bathroom after my brother used it, worse than the worst thing you can imagine. And it wasn’t just stench, but the sting—even though my mother had opened the bathroom window and all the other windows in the apartment wide, our eyes teared and we both started sneezing. My father came in from the kitchen, took one look and sniff, grabbed my brother, and ran out the door. I thought I heard him say, “Good luck!”
Did I say the worst thing was the stink? No, it was the sting. As my mother combed the horrid potion through my hair, my scalp started to itch, ripple, then burn. “Mommy, how long do I have to have this on?” I don’t remember what she answered, but about ten minutes in, I started screaming, which prompted my mother to bend me over the tub and spray me from the shower, saying, “Don’t open your eyes or you’ll go blind!”
When I finally dared open my eyes, I almost wished I had gone blind, because a stranger stared back at me in the mirror. Yes, my hair was straight all right, and now half the volume, but it smelled like rotting garbage. And I didn’t know who I was anymore. That night I prayed to El Señor again, saying, “Please, please, please give me my real hair back.” Only El Señor apparently had gone on vacation because when I woke up, I was still a smelly, straight-haired stranger, and I cried again. No matter how many times we washed my hair that Sunday or how much Shalimar perfume my mom sprayed over me, the malodor still lingered. And when Monday morning came, I had to go back to school and take my picture.
But before the picture-taking was gym class, where Tina and Neecy stared at me in shock. “What did you do? You look white now!” “My mom made me,” I said. I mean what could I say? That I brought this travesty upon myself? When it was time for the photos, the photographer held a tissue over his nose as I stared straight ahead and tried not to cry again. But worse came at lunchtime, when Marie and Antoinette squealed, “Oh, how pretty!” and whipped out their combs without even noticing the smell. But after a minute, Marie screamed, dropped her comb, and ran away. I looked down and saw it on the ground with a clump of hair in it and looked back up to see Antoinette holding the other comb with an even bigger clump. “Go home, quick, before you die!” she croaked, before she, too, ran off.
I ran home as fast as I could because I did not want to die in the street like that poor dead dog. And after my mother had rewashed, reconditioned, and combed through my hair again, I looked in the mirror and thought I would die. My once shoulder-length hair was now patchy and asymmetrical, a decade before I would wear a similar style as a defiant art school student.
“I’m sorry, nena, we have to cut it off, it’s the only way.” So out came the good scissors and by the time my mother was done, I had what people called a pixie, or close enough. And I went back to school. The stink finally faded and within two weeks new hair started to grow back in, still wiry, still curly, still orange, but never again at that volume level—and no one played “beauty parlor” on me ever again. It was a miracle.
Another miracle also happened. My mother finally stopped fighting with her hair…somewhat…and started using a new ConAir blow dryer to create soft waves where tight coils had once been. And when Titi Dulce next came over and found my mother in the midst of styling, she nodded her approval. When she saw me, she didn’t even blink, she just hugged me and said, “All revolutions have to end sometime. Choices have to be made. Sometimes it’s not easy. But I’m glad to see you’re finally making your own.”
My mother is now in her eighties and wears her soft white hair mostly natural. Titi Dulce is in her seventies. She recently chose to stop dyeing her “natural chestnut” hair and can’t wait until it grows back “real.” And as for me, my hair is still just like me: almost like everybody, exactly like nobody…and it submits to no one.
Note: “Exactly Like Nobody” (original title: “Viva La Curl-volution!”) was first developed as part of the No, YOU Tell It! performance series in March 2022.
Note: This fiction part of Big Other’s Puerto Rican Writer’s Folio: A Hauntology
Michele Carlo is a native Nuyorican and an author/storyteller/comedy-adjacent performer who's appeared in NPR with Latino U.S.A., the Clearwater Music & Arts Festival, RISK! live shows and podcast, Story Collider, PBS's Stories from the Stage, and the MOTH's GrandSlams and Mainstage. She is the author of Fish Out of Agua: My Life on Neither Side of the (Subway) Tracks.