I’m four years old, sitting on the linoleum floor of my childhood living room. “Fat Albert” is playing on the television. I’m shirtless because my mother doesn’t want the mayonnaise in my hair to drip onto my clothing. Globlets slither behind my ears onto my shoulders and down my back. Mayonnaise was a hair smoother, according to my mother’s cousin. I imagine I don’t smell mayonnaise, but the magically delicious Lucky Charms advertised between cartoon segments.
“You’ll be pretty,” my mother assured me every Saturday morning when she sat me in front of the television, slicked and smelly.
The Spanish word for curls is rizos, but I didn’t learn that word until almost middle school. My first Spanish vocabulary lessons took place with my shoulders gripped between my mother’s knees. She wielded the fine-toothed comb to tame my nido de ratones, enjambre, or escobillon. She raked through and tugged at my hair so fiercely I thought maybe the devil got stuck in my tangled mess. A raw scalp and the smell of mayonnaise were a small price to pay for redemption from bad hair.
My coarse coils defy the Latina commandment: “Thou shalt not be seen in public with ese pelo malo.” Latinas will walk out of the house with their hair set in ginourmous multi-colored rollers (the more discreet among us will wrap it under a scarf), but never with their hair in its natural state. The consequences are dire: No man will want you. No one will hire you. No one will take you seriously. What will people think?
They might think I’m Latina. I might reveal my non-white, tropical, jungle roots. I was taught these are the “uglies”, the things to cover up. It is better to blend in, try to pass because non-Latinos just wouldn’t understand. That’s the problem, though: No one will ever fully understand me or see me as I really, really am if I only put forth what I think people will like or find familiar.
When I decided earlier this year to let my hair grow, I knew my kinkies would be a challenge. They get tangled, knotted, and ensnare random leaves and small insects. The surprise has been that no one sees a bad girl with bad hair. Only me.