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I was taught my Afro-curly hair is 'bad hair.' I'm now teaching girls that it's beautiful

Growing up in a Dominican household, my sisters and I would relax our hair. My mission today is to show young girls to love their hair just the way it is.
Pelo Malo
Entrepreneur and Miss Rizos CEO Carolina Contreras reflects on what she was taught about hair growing up — and why she wants to reshape those ideas for young girls today.TODAY Illustration / Yael Duval
/ Source: TODAY

Carolina Contreras is the 34-year-old founder and CEO of Miss Rizos Salon in the Dominican Republic and in New York City that helps people with Afro-curly hair care for and embrace its natural texture. For Latinx Heritage Month, Contreras reflected on her memories of hair from her childhood and how they shaped who she is now and informed her mission as an entrepreneur.

I grew up in a Dominican household in Somerville, Massachusetts, with my mom, my three sisters and my two brothers. There were five women in the house, and as a Dominican family, it is tradition that when you’re of age — usually in the DR that’s about 15 — you’d relax your hair with chemicals. But it was first done to me when I was around 7.

My memories of hair from childhood are always attached to making it look closer to what we saw on TV, whether it was the Disney Channel or the telenovelas we watched. It was very important for our hair to be straight and to be done, or in Spanish you say arreglarlo, which means to be fixed.

As the oldest of four girls, I held the responsibility of making sure that my little sisters’ hair was always relaxed. We’d use rollers to make it look straight. I inflicted so much pain in them, because after you relaxed the hair, you have to do a rinse with vinegar. You can imagine a scalp that has just been exposed to chemicals, then being rinsed with something so acidic — it causes a lot of pain. As they’d cry, I’d tell them this was what they needed to do to get ready for school in September, to be more beautiful.

Now, I look back at that like, what was I thinking?

Essentially we’re all just a product of our society, a product of our family upbringing.

I started questioning it all in high school. I was 14 or 15 reading “Race Matters,” by Cornel West, which is not a book a teen is usually picking up, but I remember reading the first few pages like it was yesterday. West described his experience as a Black man in America, and I thought, “That happens to me. I’m Black, too.” A lightbulb went off.

After college, I traveled to the DR — on a very millennial whim, as I joke — to discover my roots. I was born in the DR and left when I was 4, but I hadn’t been back. So I bought a ticket for two months to backpack the country. And those two months turned into what’s now been 11 years.

But those first nine months there, I felt for the first time that it didn’t make sense to keep my hair straight. It was hot and humid, but most importantly, I think being in the DR and looking at everyone around me — most people are Black there — I felt I was looking in a mirror and wanted to fully embrace who I was. I understood that I was straightening my hair not for an aesthetic reason or to be fun or funky, but because I thought it was my rite of passage to enter professional or formal spaces.

Then an incident happened that detonated all these feelings I had. I was at the beach in the DR with a group of ecologists from the university there. I felt like I was with a bunch of progressive people. I was sunbathing and one of them said, “Hey, you need to get out of the sun. You’re already Black, you’re going to get blacker.” I said, “What do you mean?” We got into a discussion about skin and colorism and one of them said, “I don’t know why you’re defending Blackness if you’re the one straightening your hair.” It was one of those things — they call it in Spanish una galleta sin mano, a slap in the face without someone using their actual hands. She was right. So the next day I cut off almost all of my hair. About 3 weeks after I cut the rest.

I remember seeing the magazines in the DR, and even though much of the country’s racial makeup is Black, they didn’t show any Black people. The only Black people who were photographed were in between other people in the social pages. I was so troubled by that. I had maybe an inch of hair on my head and people, women particularly, would stop me in the street to ask me about my hair.

I was inspired to start my blog, Miss Rizos, and then I immediately knew I wanted to teach little girls about what I was learning too. I was working at a nonprofit then, but I started doing workshops for girls as well.

They ranged anywhere from age 9 to 15. As for the workshop curriculum, you’d think it’d go really deep, but it’s very rudimentary. For the one workshop about hair, we’d say, “Throw out names — what do you call hair that looks like mine?” We’d get answers like “Afro” and “curly” but also “a mop” or “a Brillo pad” or “bad hair” — in Spanish, pelo malo. Then we’d ask, “What are words for straight hair?” They’d say “good hair” — lacio. We’d throw all these phrases on a whiteboard, put it in front of them. Then we’d go word by word: “Can you do dishes with your hair?” “No!” So we’d cross Brillo pad out, make it visual. “Can you mop with your hair?” “No!” Finally we’d get to “bad hair,” and we’d ask, “What is bad? Someone who steals, who’s corrupt, who cheats.” We’d watch them come into themselves as they thought, you’re right, that does sound silly. Then we’d put big circles around the right terms for hair — Afro, curly, straight.

The next day, these girls were so comfortable, that they came in with their hair out in a beautiful pajon, or big, curly Afro. Their fathers or mothers or siblings would come in wondering what we taught them because they’re coming home telling their families not to say “bad hair” anymore. These girls become more than just peer leaders, peer educators. They’re teaching older folks too.

About four years into it, I knew I wanted to do even more. I have been an activist since I was 13. I come from a lot of turmoil in my upbringing, so I used activism as a good excuse to not be home. But from a young age, I felt a strong sense of wanting to leave the world better than when I found it. I still don’t fully know where it came from, but I suspect it’s from being raised in a Latino family. Latino folks are so giving, they're so welcoming, and they want to fix people’s lives. They want to be there for their community.

I wanted to create a company that could grow and be purpose driven while still sustaining its social impact. So that’s where we are with Miss Rizos. We turned 10 this summer. We have a salon in Santo Domingo dedicated to curly hair care and recently opened our second location in Washington Heights in New York.

The entrepreneurial aspect of my journey hasn’t been easy; I’m a bicoastal person who travels back and forth from the DR, a supposed “developing nation,” to the U.S., the supposed “land of opportunity.” The juxtaposition has been really interesting because I have found so many difficulties here in New York as an entrepreneur. There are a lot of constant struggles for someone who looks like me to be in business and be successful. Even the search of the location for the salon and the amount of gentrification happening in Washington Heights — facing that wasn’t easy. It still isn’t. And when the pandemic hit five months after we opened, that was even more difficult. But we’re still here. We’re still going. It highlights the resiliency of the Latino community, and of me, my ancestors and where I come from.

As told to Bryanna Cappadona. This interview was edited and condensed for clarity.

During Hispanic Heritage Month, TODAY is sharing the community’s history, pain, joy and pride. We are highlighting Hispanic trailblazers and rising voices. TODAY will be publishing personal essays, stories, videos and specials throughout the months of September and October. For more, head here.

For more of our Hispanic Heritage Month coverage, tune into TODAY All Day’s special, “Come with Us: Celebrating Hispanic Heritage Month,” hosted by Tom Llamas. Watch Wednesday, Sept. 29, at 12:30 p.m., 4:30 p.m. and 8:30 p.m. EST at