At a Santo Domingo Hair Salon, Rethinking an Ideal Look


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Carolina Contreras at work at her Miss Rizos Salon, in Santo Domingo.

Credit
Meridith Kohut for The New York Times

On my first trip back to the Dominican Republic in 10 years, as I wandered down the streets of La Zona Colonial, I noticed how their names were weighted with history. Calle de las Damas, a street made specifically for the wives and daughters of noblemen from colonial times to walk down. Calle José Gabriel García, named for a Dominican historian and journalist, among other things, who shares a first and last name with my father and made me think of him while I was there. Calle Isabel La Católica where I felt a connection to my paternal grandmother, Isabel Mireya Garcia. Born in Bani, she lived and died on the right side of Hispaniola and raised my father in Santo Domingo.

During my trip I would text my father pictures of the streets, and he would always text me back a story from his youth that occurred close to or near the street I was on.

“That’s the street where I shook Pope John Paul II’s hand in 1979,” he texted me, referring to Calle Padre Billini.

He likened La Zona Colonial to Times Square, but to me it resembled too much of the Old World.

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A natural style is called a pajón.

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Meridith Kohut for The New York Times

The cobblestones, the colonial-style houses that were more like haciendas, Christopher and Diego Columbus’s house-turned museum — this all reminded me of the Spanish who once lived here and the continuing reverence for their influence in a country whose residents have African, European and Asian ancestry.

Before I knew it, I was standing in front of the Miss Rizos Salon on Calle Isabel La Católica. This was a departure from that reverence.

Long hair that hangs down your back has so long been the prevalent beauty ideal in the Dominican Republic that many residents who mastered hair-straightening on the island emigrated to the United States and opened successful salons throughout the country.

The phrase “Dominican salon” is now synonymous with immaculately straightened hair, but Miss Rizos is expanding that definition by catering to a clientele that until fairly recently did not exist: Dominican women, many of them expatriates returning home for a visit, who want to retain their hair’s natural texture. For some Dominican women it has become as much a ritual as habichuelas con dulce on Holy Week or Johnny Ventura records on Christmas.

One of them, Candace Lai-Fang, recently traveled from Washington, D.C., to Santo Domingo for a haircut.

“I could not see myself not going to the Dominican Republic for this haircut,” said Ms. Lai-Fang, who made her way to the salon after a stay in Punta Cana. “I made the trip to Santo Domingo because I wanted to visit the salon and get my hair done.”

“I had to come here because I wanted my hair done by people who knew what they were doing,” she said, noting that the owner, Carolina Contreras, 29, was “hands on.”

The salon is an outgrowth of a blog that Ms. Contreras started after deciding to cut her chemically straightened hair. She sported a close crop and began to experiment with natural recipes to keep her hair moisturized.

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Tools of the trade at Miss Rizos.

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Meridith Kohut for The New York Times

“I would walk down the street and women would stop me and ask me how I got my hair like that,” said Ms. Contreras as she closed her salon on a Friday. She decided to start a blog in Spanish for the Dominican women who wanted to go natural but did not know how to do their natural hair.

“There were many blogs in English but not many in Spanish,” she said.

The blog gained traction and popularity, and she decided to open a salon for the women who had nowhere to go if they wanted to style their natural hair professionally in the Dominican Republic. After raising $10,000 through an Indiegogo campaign, receiving donations from friends and using a majority of her savings, she opened the doors to Miss Rizos Salon.

“You feel like a part of a family here,” said Micooky Mota Lopez, 30, who was getting a roller set to stretch her hair. “That doesn’t happen in any salon; it’s very unique here,” she said.

During a recent trip to the Dominican Republic, Eileen Fuentes scheduled an appointment for her three daughters at Miss Rizos Salon.

“I didn’t see any of my relatives on this trip,” Ms. Fuentes said, but making it to Miss Rizos Salon was on the family’s “must-do list.”

Ms. Fuentes remembered sitting in a hot overhead hair dryer in “extremely hot weather during family trips to the Dominican Republic and then not getting in the beach or the pool,” to prevent her hair from reverting to its natural curls.

“I didn’t want that for them,” said Ms. Fuentes about her daughters. “It was important for me that my daughters go to a place in the Dominican Republic where the natural pattern of their very curly hair would be embraced,” she said.

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Miss Rizos Salon empowers with naturally curly hair.

Credit
Meridith Kohut for The New York Times

Ms. Fuentes’s youngest daughters, Leila, 11, and Soraya, 9, both got haircuts at Miss Rizos Salon. Her eldest, Imani, 16, had her hair styled and got a lesson on how to keep her hair curly and healthy.

“I really like that they use healthy products in my hair,” Soraya said. “And I liked the books in the salon about different races and their hair,” Leila added.

Ms. Fuentes was relieved that her daughters did not have to think about their hair at all during the trip, which was meant to educate the family on where they come from.

“I could just get in the water and get out, and my hair was still nice,” Leila said.

“We have been programmed to not embrace our very obvious African heritage, and I wanted to break that vicious cycle,” Ms. Fuentes said. “We are black, our hair is kinky, and we are very proud of it.”

The mantra at Miss Rizos is “Yo amo mi pajón,” or “I love my puffy, or Afro-like, hair.” It’s an attempt to aid in the discovery of the beauty in natural hair.

Of course, many still believe that the straighter the hair the better and that wearing your hair curly or in an Afro is unkempt.

Ms. Contreras finds she is constantly educating.

After a cab ride to her apartment, the driver asked Ms. Contreras if he could touch her hair, at the time styled in a pajón that shadowed her head.

“You see? It’s not rough, right?” she asked as the man put his fingers in her hair and felt its texture. “It is very soft, right?” she said. The man nodded and sped away.

During my trip I wore hip-length box braids that I got done in Harlem because I wanted to enjoy the steamy island without worrying about hair breakage, straightening and blow-drying my hair. They were the easy way out. Now I know that on Isabel La Católica, amid the old Spanish-style streets, there is a place for me.



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