Sunday, May 25, 2014

Chicana/Latina Hair: A Discussion About Identity and Your Pelo Journey!


What is your relationship to your hair?  How much time do you fuss with it?  How much is it bound up with your identity?  I was cruising the Facebook News Feed during a break from my writing a few days ago, and suddenly I came upon someone posting a new Pola Lopez painting.   This one:

"Eye Dazzler--Southwest Style" by artist, Pola Lopez (see below for more information)
Without thinking much, I said out loud, “Wow—that’s me.”  And then I asked myself, “why?” What was it about this painting that made me relate so strongly?   “It’s the hair and the colors,” I said.  I looked at Lopez’s figure with the brilliantly colored jacket, its many symbols, the bold hat, the turquoise design on the belt, the black pants.  I liked it all.  But at the center:  “It’s the hair,” I repeated again.   The hair is thick and strongly sectioned into the braided pattern.  It's strong, like red stone bricks laid in place.

In her description, Pola Lopez writes: . . . the women in my lineage of Apache, Spanish, and French heritage, the “eye-dazzler” bolero represents a sacred geometry that is reflective of the tribal designs that runs through our blood and that we wear as symbols and reminders of what has maintained our survival.  Every color of the rainbow and each line transmit to us spiritual strength and knowledge of being in balance with nature and all that creator has given and designed. 

The color black is worn to offset and anchor the high-keyed colors of vibration.  The Concha belt made of silver and turquoise is worn as tradition.  The turquoise stone is the stone of spiritual protection.  The cowboy hat acts as a southwest corona, and serves as protection from the blazing sun, but is also reflective of a life that knows horses, the range . . . wildlife.

The hands are held firmly on the strong swayed hips in confidence that I am here, and I know who I am.  Lastly, the braid conveys the Native American belief that our hair is our antenna for energy, the connection to our culture, our power.  In the end it may be a symbol for the weaving of the masculine and the feminine, the many different cultures that came together to make la mestizaje, and for remembering.

And perhaps "the weaving of the masculine and feminine" is what had caught my attention along with the centerpiece which, to me, is the hair.  Chicana/Chicano and Latina/Latino hair are symbols of so much history, identity issues, gender, sexuality, and queer discussions.  Hair carries with it psychological, sociological, and political implications.  And hairstyles are always changing.  Writer, Sandra Cisneros’ children’s book, Hairs/Pelitos is a celebration and tribute to the diversity among Chicanas/Chicanos and their hair.  

Writer, Norma Cantú’s latest novel-in-progress, Champú, or Hair Matters, takes place in a hair salon, the center for cultural and familial discussions while washing, cutting, and styling hair.  Here’s a link to a section from the novel (click here). 

There is the well-known stereotype that if you are Chicana or Latina, you should have (1) dark hair (definitely not blond or white) and (2) it better not be muy short.  No way (unless you're butch, queer, etc.).  If you don’t fit this description, pues, how can you say you are Mexicana/Chicana/Latina?  But my grandmother had white hair:  thick white wavy plaits down her back.  My other grandmother, Juanita, told me she had a long braid most of her early adulthood. She would braid it and coil it up on her head.  When she died, I remembered combing her grayed hair (not short), and placing curled strands behind her ear.  Both of them were born and raised in Mexico. They were Mexicanas as were blonds, redheads, brunettes, and those with very dark shades of black (almost blue) walking the streets of Mexico City, Oaxaca, Guanajuato, Guadalajara, Coahuila, then up to Los Angeles, San Francisco, Nevada, Tejas, and north to the Midwest and the Eastern sections of the U.S.  It’s all diferente. 

My hair wound up in a bun
Blogger, Regina Rodriguez-Martín talks about hair in her post, “Chicana w really short hair.”  In this brief post (with pictures) she explains that her short hair is a statement, that she is not going to maintain long hair just to please men, or anyone.  She wants to simply express her own unique style. (Click here for posting)

On YouTube, there are hundreds of posted personal videos on hair style demonstrations.  Two examples are the 2011 video posting which showcases the “40s Reverse Pompadour/Pachuca hairstyle" (click here), and “Jasmine V's” posting demonstrating her favorite Latina hairstyles “for every occasion” (click here).

What is it, then, about hair and our Chicana or Latina identity?  Are you less a Chicana or more a Latina with a certain color and style of hair?  There is some validity to the stereotype that hair length and color identifies Latinidad.  But stereotypes are about only one story. Believing only one story disadvantages everyone, because it erases the many wonderful exceptions and variations, and I'm thinking here of Chimamanda Adichie's TED talk on "The Danger of the Single Story."  I am also thinking of Indra Lusero's performance piece, "The sexy chicana in me" which beautifully expresses her frustration at not being recognized for her queer Chicanidad.  She says:  "And they couldn't see my brown skin cousin Sylvia.  They couldn't see [her] beneath my skin . . . " 

In returning to Pola Lopez’s painting as well as an additional one on her website entitled, “La Trensa #2," (posted below), I offer my own journey to “pelo/hair identity,” but with caution.  The following is my pelo/hair personal story.  It in no way establishes a definitive Chicana identity. My story "contributes" to the rich, diverse identities that comprise Chicanidad y Latinidad.  

The “trensa” (braid) has been with me all of my life.  My mother and I had a ritual most every day  when I was attending elementary school.  She would brush my hair and then firmly and tightly make two trensas (braids) or sometimes one.  I had (and still do have) very thick hair and, at times, I either make my own trensa or wind the hair up on the back of my head into a bun.  Most days, it’s loose and reaches down to my waist. Since childhood, my hair color has changed. At a very young age, my hair was the color of a carrot, later becoming a darker orange, and now, (with the use of dye), it is a reddish auburn. 
"La Trensa #2"  copyright by Pola Lopez
In third grade, my teacher, Sister Mary Grosera (not her real name) was someone to fear. I was one of two students she chose to pick on that year—don’t ask me why.  One day, I begged mi mama not to pull my hair into braids.  I wanted to feel the hair loose down my waist.  She let me go like that.  It felt so good walking to school, feeling my hair uncontrolled and tousled by the wind.  Because my hair had been in braids for so long, the humidity, and the wind, made the hair frizz out. By the time I got to school, my hair was one big expansive and glorious mess. I didn’t care. It felt fun and free.  But inside the classroom, I was headed for trouble.  When Sister Mary Grosera asked me to stand in front of the class to read, she told the students to look at my hair.  “Look at how wild and unkempt it is,” she said.  “You look like a witch.”  All the kids laughed, and for the rest of the day, the bully kids called me “witch,” and “wild girl.”  I kept my cool until I got home and then cried as soon as I walked in the door.  My grandmother and mama each took turns holding me.  They told me stories about my aunts and cousins in Mexico, how their hair was a source of pride.  My grandmother told me that hair was a symbol of strength. 

Con mi Mama--giving her a self portrait with flying hair!
Since then, I’ve only cut my hair short once.  Just once.  I was in high school, feeling rebellious, and bold.  I had continually been trimming it until it was almost up to my chin. It was Halloween, and there was going to be a dance that night at the school gym.  I dressed like a 50s motorcycle dude with jeans and a white shirt, a pack of fake candy cigarettes in my shirt pocket. When I slicked back my hair, it was too long. I cut, and cut, and cut, until it looked perfectly slicked back.  I was transformed and oh so cool, I thought.  Ready to go.  My motive was to dance with the lovely Carmen Reyes.  She was one of the cheerleaders at the school and I was bound and determined to dance with her.  Hours later, I was doing just that.  Many students had no idea who I was.  Some did, but since it was Halloween, no one thought it strange.  I remember a circle formed around Carmen and I as we danced to Earth, Wind, and Fire’s “That’s the Way of The World.”  Cutting my hair had been well worth enjoying that night with Carmen.

But after that dance, what to do with the hair left on my head?  It was quite wavy and curly in sections (unless I slicked it back).  Every morning there was much fussing with the hair and its stubborn waves.  As I let it grow out, I endured each length until, many months later, the hair finally reached beyond my shoulders and I could fling it into a bun, ponytail, or braid.  The longer it grew, the better, because the weight of my heavy thick hair relaxed those wavy curls.  I was not a person who had the patience for much attention to hair primping—and therein lies the reason I’ve never wanted to cut it short ever again.  The shorter it is, the more trouble it is for me. 
Today:  My hair in a braid (photo by John Raible)
And yes, identity is enfolded into this story too.  I realize that my long hair falls into the stereotype of the Chicana, and, I like the feeling of belonging in that category.  However, I’m also aware, as I said earlier, that Chicanas/Latinas are all over the place (with hair that is shoulder length, in a bob, shaved, etc.).  The kind of attention I give my hair today is mainly about covering up the grays.  One of my colleagues from another university once told me that she decided to let her gray grow out.  She has long thick hair too.  But she soon went back to covering up her gray when she realized that with her white/gray hair, she was being identified as “white.”  “I’m Chicana,” she told me.  “I certainly don’t want to be thought of as white.” 

So I ask you, Querida y Querido La Bloga readers, what stories do you have about your hair?  Do you feel your hair defines who you are? People often see my hair before they see the rest of me.  And that’s fine by me.  Pola Lopez’s trensa paintings speak to me about my hair.  Perhaps Regina Rodriguez-Martin’s perspective (“Chicana w really short hair”) speaks to you!  Maybe this is the beginning of a collection of writing on Chicana and Latina hair.  What do you think?  And if you like Pola Lopez’s work, please click on her site to purchase her fabulous art work.  Below is her bio and more of the description of her painting, “Eye-Dazzler-Southwest Style" which started this writing for me. A shout out to Pola for giving me permission to use her work here.  Gracias!  Hopefully, she will, in turn, gain more fans!  

Wishing you all, La Bloga Readers, a fabulous rest of el mes de Mayo!  Into summer soon we go! 

Information regarding artist, POLA LOPEZ
(505)920-2638    
polalopez@aol.com         
www.polasbloga.blogspot.com
BIO
Lopez is a prominent painter whose acrylic paintings are driven by color and convey a multi-faceted array of symbolic cultural imagery infused with spiritual vision and incendiary composition, which has established her as a key LA artist in the Latina/Chicana/Mestiza genre, but whose works are also accessible to a wider audience.
Pola Lopez (check out her cool pelo/hair!)
An active and full time professional artist, she maintains a working studio/exhibit space known as 2 Tracks Studio in Highland Park, in which she maintains an “open door” policy, making her work available to the public, but exhibits widely in many other venues as well.
Through her involvement with several non-profit organizations, she has completed several youth assisted murals within the community, and also teaches and mentors youth at risk in alternative high schools, probation camps, and juvenile halls.
Early this May of 2014 she collaborated with and mentored graduating Occidental College students in completing a mural addressing diversity. This work entitled “Educational Empowerment Mural,” is installed in University Library.
Her work has appeared in books and publications, and is widely collected by both private patrons and held in public collection as well. In 2005, her work was presented in the White House in Washington D.C., as the official portrait artist of the People’s Holiday Tree, in which she was honored to represent her home state of New Mexico.


Title:  “Eye-Dazzler – Southwest Style”
Medium: acrylic on canvas
Size:  24” x 36”
Date: copyright 2014
Artist:  Pola Lopez
Credit Line:  In the collection of Paulette Razo Avila

Pola's Brief Statement on her painting, "Eye-Dazzler--Southwest Style":

This painting was a special commission requested by someone who had always wanted to commission a special work but had not decided on what the subject matter would be.  Due to the fact that I am from New Mexico and grew up steeped in Southwest Style which for me, is a fusion and juxtaposition of Native American, Mexican Charro, and a little bit of cow girl attitude, this image seemed to convey it all, the perfect Mestiza. 
To begin with, the woman in the painting is of the “wild west” where the women in my lineage of Apache, Spanish, and French heritage, the “eye-dazzler” bolero represents a sacred geometry that is reflective of the tribal designs that runs through our blood and that we wear as symbols and reminders of what has maintained our survival.  Every color of the rainbow and each line transmit to us spiritual strength and knowledge of being in balance with nature and all that creator has given and designed. 

The color black is worn to offset and anchor the high-keyed colors of vibration.  The Concha belt made of silver and turquoise is worn as tradition.  The turquoise stone is the stone of spiritual protection.  The cowboy hat acts as a southwest corona, and serves as protection from the blazing sun, but is also reflective of a life that knows horses, the range . . . wildlife.

The hands are held firmly on the strong swayed hips in confidence that I am here, and I know who I am.  Lastly, the braid conveys the Native American belief that our hair is our antenna for energy, the connection to our culture, our power.  In the end it may be a symbol for the weaving of the masculine and the feminine, the many different cultures that came together to make la mestizaje, and for remembering.  
My wild "witch" hair/pelo!  

7 comments:

Anonymous said...

Thank you Amelia ML Montes for your insightful blog on our hair. I will now seek out Pola Lopez's work. Her "Eye Dazzler" feels like all of us somehow with strength and color and always our hair.
I wake up everyday now closer to sixty and as I look in the mirror my first words are, "Oh my hair, my hair, my hair!" When I was little my hair was pin curl curly while others had braids, French or otherwise. In middle and high school I had jet black heavy hair which weight it down so it was wavy and as Whoopi Goldberg said, "luxurious." Good times for my hair even when I bobbed it senior year. In college I had to be on the bus by six in the morning so my long wet hair was pinned high up in a tight bun. The boys on the bus called me their China doll with my red glossed lips. Now for whether reason, lack for hormones or just old gray hairs, my hair is curly again. So curly that even my sister said, "I don't remember your hair ever being so curly." It's dry now and can stand up on its own like Don King when not conditioned. So now I cut it chin length and hot curl it so I can manage the curls when I work. But sometimes I let it go natural and add a little oil for shine and thank Oprah for bringing back the Afro. I've learned to embrace my hair with comforting memories when it was long beautiful and find joy with my current state of short curly grace. Happy to at least have some hair left, gray, and dry, curls and all. 2601

Regina Rodríguez-Martin said...

Amelia, thanks for linking to my blog. Your piece is very thorough and thoughtful. I guess I'm not bucking any stereotypes whatsoever if I've cut off my hair specifically to look unappealing to men (I believe most men of all backgrounds prefer long hair on their women). This is a great discussion to get going. Maybe I'll come back to it.

Anonymous said...

My hair was, at one time, long, dark and heavy, but after an illness my hair is short. Short hair gives me freedom. Teresa Marquez

Amelia ML Montes said...

Gracias and so happy to read your thoughts, "anonymous," Regina, and Teresa. Yay for all of your hair journey stories. All of our hair stories are valid, important, and meaningful. Sending you all buenas energias!

Lory Dance said...

Thanks for your blog! Hair has powerful cultural meaning. My hair defines me even when I am not trying to be defined by my hair. As an African American with a paternal grandmother who was half white (Irish, I think), my hair has caused me to change ethnicity/race. (Keep on reading, I'm serious!!!). Now, I stay the same but the change occurs when I travel, literally when I am in journey mode. In the US, I am seen as African American whether I wear my hair naturally or straight. In Dakar, Senegal, I wore my hair in its natural state and was told that I looked Brazilian. (Brazilian?!?, I was in West African, the land of my ancestors--well, the land of most of my ancestors--and told that I looked Brazilian!?!). In Sweden, I have worn my hair naturally and have been told that I did not look "African American" but mixed. I had to explain that most African Americans are mixed: That most of us have Euro ancestry and some of us have Euro and Native American ancestry. But when I wear my hair in multiple braids or cornrows in Sweden, I am perceived as "West African". Also, in Sweden, my natural hair is often called beautiful, while in the US my natural hair is something to be "fixed" because it is not straight. (By the way, it is usually African Americans who have told me to "fix" my hair, in other words, to perm it straight.)

Amelia ML Montes said...

Thank you, Lory, for your generous contribution to the conversation. Wow--for travelers like you, your experiences bring an international perspective. So much to think about regarding cross-cultures, cross-nations! Gracias!

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the great post! I've fought my coarse, wavy (not straight, not curly...just unruly) hair for many years now. As I've moved away from areas with a predominantly Mexican-American population, I've noticed that my hair is one way people identify me as Latina. And that's actually felt kind of good. It's a long journey toward loving all of our many inheritances and I'm thankful for a forum like this where we can talk honestly about these experiences! For years, hiding my hair and my battle with it was something only those closest to me would know about.