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  • I stepped out of my room having just wet and prepped my hair to be straightened.

    “I’m ready!” I said, excited to be getting my hair done after weeks of searching for a hairdresser.

    I ran into the kitchen of my host family’s apartment - which would serve as today’s salon - where my host mother, Ania, and my hairdresser Elena, a family friend, waited.

    Elena took one look at my hair and her jaw dropped, her eyes widened as if she were a cartoon. She turned to Ania, who gave her a sharp “I told you so” look.

    “What’s wrong?” I asked, standing there confused as water and leave-in conditioner ran down my neck and through my shirt.

    “Que pelo tienes!” Elena said. “You didn’t tell me you had that much hair!”

    “Was I supposed to?” I said.

    I was perplexed. My afro is fairly large and ferocious on a good day, but it had never intimidated a professional hair dresser before. I didn’t know whether to take pride in this new-found afro power or to be concerned for what was to come.

    “I have to go back home and get some more tools,” she said frantically. “And I’m so ashamed to ask you this, but I have to charge you more.”

    She was flustered and her caramel skin was turning red. I didn’t mind paying extra. She was originally charging me the equivalent of $4 for a service that the salon across the street from my university in the U.S. charges $45 dollars - with a student discount.

    But things are a lot different in Havana, Cuba, where I studied abroad for four months last semester. Afros are not a common sight. The norm for women with coarse hair is to rid their manes of its natural kinks with flat irons and chemical perms. The few afros that I did see belonged mostly to my friends who were foreign students from the US or Africa or the occasional “free spirited” Cuban woman. Even when Ania saw my hair the night before, she exclaimed how she thought it made me look like an artist or a hippie.

    The natural hair movement of the U.S. that had shaped my identity and that of thousands of African American women the past few years had not reached the island nation. So, I understood why she was overwhelmed.

    “What kind of tools are you talking about?” I said, my hair even quivered at the thought of a fiery hot comb hacking through my curls like a machete in a jungle.

    “There’s no way your hair is going to get straight with the flat iron I have,” she said. With "Pelo Crudo" like mine, I would need the big guns, she said.

    But I told her that was not necessary. She didn’t understand how protective and fearful "naturalistas" are of heat damage.

    I began to have doubts about letting her proceed. Her fear made me uneasy- but I felt like she was my only option. The very reason I even had Elena do my hair was because I didn’t trust the hair salons after hearing many stories from other foreign naturalistas who went to salons where the stylists selfishly sneaked chemical relaxers into the conditioner treatments to make their hair easier to work with. And didn’t even understand why they were upset afterward. I got the impression that in that part of Cuba, natural hair just wasn’t coveted the way it is by black women here in the states.

    I even tried to get braids before all of this. It’s more common to see a young woman with twists or braids, but finding braiding hair in Havana is harder than finding quick internet access (In a communist country). A friend of mine only had her extensions because her father went abroad and brought them back as a gift.

    So, I explained to Elena that I didn’t want to fry my hair off of my head. I wanted a different look, but I was more concerned with the health of my hair than the conventional look. She didn’t quite understand aesthetically, but she obliged.

    I sat down at the kitchen table and she began to blow dry my hair. She was annoyed as I micromanaged her styling from the chair- “Por favor, can you detangle from the end of the strands up?” “Do you mind waiting a second while I apply my heat protectant?” Ania laughed and told Elena to take good care of my afro.

    It took 2 hours that night and 3 more hours the next morning to finish. We passed the time talking about race in Cuba, the politics of Black hair and, of course, watching Novellas. Elena is a professional and she did a great job. My hair was far from bone straight – more like an elongated poof - but I loved it. She didn’t, but was content that I was pleased.
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