“Selling hope. That’s all the beauty business is.”
– Comer Cottrell, 1931-2014. Founder of Pro-Line Corporation, which produced hair-care products for African-Americans.
Hope came in a box that was about half the size of a shoe box. On its glossy exterior was a color photo of a little African-American girl about my age, maybe seven or eight years old. Her skin wasn’t dark like a Hershey bar, but more like the Swiss Miss hot coca Mami prepared for me with lots of milk: creamy and smooth. Her teeth were as white as the mini marshmallows I ate straight from the cocoa packet. The little girl was black, but pretty enough to be on that box. Prettiest of all was her hair. Black, like mine, but smooth. Cut just above her shoulders, the ends rounded softly under. She even had bangs, straight over her forehead, ending right above her eyes, the ones that looked right at me from her smiling face on the box. Did she smile to taunt me, triumphant that she, a little black girl, una negrita, had what I wished, hoped, and prayed for? I decided that no, she smiled at me precisely because she understood my want and was willing to share the magic that would make my wish come true.
It was the late 1970s and the box held hope for good little girls like me with bad hair. My hair wasn’t as bad as the black girls who lived in my projects. Their wooly hair, pasa as Mami called it, had to be twisted, coiled or braided, and weighed down with multicolored beads or ponytail holders, so many mini plastic bits that click-click-clicked when they jumped double Dutch.
My hair was better than that, but there were no black girls in Most Precious Blood, so my hair was the worst in my Catholic school. There was only one other little Latina girl there; her family was from Mexico and she had black hair as glossy and straight as little Cindy Yun’s hair. The three of us were the exotic ones, not Eastern European nor Italian nor Irish, our faces different among those framed by brown and blond shades of hair that was straight, some wavy, a few even curly, but pretty curls like Cindy Brady. Even the two other different little girls had hair that moved in the slightest breeze, strands too limp and textureless to hold barrettes. My hair was so thick and tightly kinked that hair pins were lost and held hostage in there until my mother performed the weekly Saturday hair taming ritual.
The ritual began in the early morning, when mami dressed my hair with mayonnaise (rumored among Puerto Rican ladies in the know to have hair-smoothing powers), which I had to let sit for one hour before she rinsed my head with super cold water. Then she lathered and scoured my head with a vengeance that didn’t expel any kink-causing demons from my hair but did threaten to dislocate my head from my little girl neck. She located and disentangled all knots with a fine-toothed comb before another cold rinse, followed by an application of conditioner, a final cold rinse, and then she wrung my hair like the string mop to remove excess water before setting.
It was punishment to be handled so roughly but also to be confined indoors until my hair was dry. If I complained enough, my mother would tell me Vete, go outside then and stop being so malcriada. But how could I be seen with my hair set in giant rollers just like the older ladies at the Laundromat? The little black girls who never let me double Dutch would have certainly beaten me up. So I sat alone in front of the television in our fourth-floor apartment, and could sometimes hear the click-click-clicking from outside.
But there was hope in the box. Kiddie Kit hair relaxer for children, $4.99 at Genovese Drug Store. Such a happy day when I arrived home from school and saw the box on my dresser. Mami had bought it while I was at school and it was an unexpected surprise to find Kiddie Kit next to my music box that held the twirling blond ballerina and the glass-bead rosary I received for my first Holy Communion. The Kiddie Kit box held magic that could accomplish what was beyond the power of prayer. How much of my allowance had been spent to light votive candles at Most Precious Blood Church and yet I still had bad hair? Perhaps it had been a sin to pray for vanity, but I didn’t care. I wanted to be a pretty girl and the secret was to have pretty hair.
The church could keep my quarters and dollar bills. Mami had brought the magic home for $4.99. For the first time, I couldn’t wait for Saturday. With good hair, it wouldn’t matter that the little black girls wouldn’t let me play with them. I would be good enough to play with the pretty girls. I would be a Puerto Rican princess with smooth hair. The magic was in the box.