I’m Afro-Boricua And Didn’t Know I Had Naturally Curly Hair Until I Was Nearly an Adult

As a kid, I had no idea that my hair was naturally curly

afro boricua curly hair

Photo courtesy of Shayne Rodriguez Thompson

As a kid, I had no idea that my hair was naturally curly. I grew up in a Puerto Rican household in a mostly Black and Boricua neighborhood in New Jersey in the late 1980s and ‘1990s. My mom always embraced our Afro-Boricua roots, but life was complicated and she did what she could to make things easier. One of those things was how she handled my hair. I’ve always had curly hair, but I didn’t know it until I was in high school.

When I was very little, every morning, my mom would take a boar bristle brush to my hair and smooth it into braids or pigtails with the help of plenty of hair grease. If I ever wore it out, it was again, brushed into some sort of puffy, half-up/half-down situation. Back then, lots of people got curly perms and brushed the curls out to achieve that high-volume, teased look, so while I didn’t love my hair like that, it didn’t make me feel “different.” At school, people would ask me if I was “Indian,” meaning Indigenous, and I always said, ‘no, I’m Puerto Rican.’ Now I know that my natural curls are the result of plenty of Indigenous Taino blood and a healthy dose of African DNA, but at the time, that wasn’t something I thought much about. I was just Boricua. 

Image Credit: Shayne Rodriguez Thompson

To be honest, my hair was always the biggest point of contention between me and my mother. We almost never fought unless she had a brush in my hair. Frankly, the stereotype was true in my case — my mom was quick to give me a whack with the brush if I complained or fought her too much. And wow, we cannot forget the rollos. Pure torture in an attempt to loosen up my natural curl pattern. Of course, that’s because she was trying her hardest to fight something that was always meant to be, to tame my curls into something more manageable for our busy mornings. 

Once I was a little older, she turned to heat tools and would blow my hair out weekly, finishing my straight style with a pass of a curling wand and to make sure the edges and ends were perfectly smooth. She taught me her ways, and by the time I was in middle school, I took over the two-hour task. Not much time ever passed between washing my hair and the blowouts, so I really only ever saw my hair as wavy at best.

I still recall my mom — who actually went to beauty school — making comments to her friends about how she would never use chemicals (meaning relaxers) in my hair, but at that age, I didn’t realize that it was because my hair was really quite curly and a lot of people with similar hair textures did just that.

Then, came high school, and I was exposed to an entirely new-to-me community. I got into a competitive college-prep Catholic high school, where a huge percentage of the student body was either white or Asian and came from wealthy families. I truly hadn’t had a lot of exposure to non-Latino or Black people until then. Well, I was quite surprised to find that instead of smoothing their hair into low buns with deep side parts, most of the girls were perming their hair, gelling it, scrunching it and hair spraying it.

I asked mom if I could do the same, and she told me I didn’t have to perm my hair, but that I just needed to start using gel and mousse instead of hair oil or “grease.” So, I washed out my blowout and gave it a try, and it worked. That was the start of my journey to unleashing my curl power. But still, after so many years of heat styling followed by using all the wrong products, because well…in the early 90s, pretty much no one had a clue how to actually nourish curly hair, I didn’t actually know my real hair texture until I was in my 20s.

Image Credit: Shayne Rodriguez Thompson

I toyed with wearing my hair naturally in college, learning about different methods to nourish and moisturize my curls, but once I started job hunting, I went back to weekly blowouts. Now with a flat-iron in hand, I managed to cut down the time it took to around an hour depending on how long my hair was at any given time. I thought I couldn’t look professional with curly hair, so I just kept doing it. 

When I was 26, I was pregnant with my first child, and eventually, straightening my hair was just too exhausting after a long day at work, and touching it up in the mornings when I was nauseated and feeling sick wasn’t ideal. So, I dived literally head first into embracing my natural hair. I put away the heat tools, and started looking for products that would get my curls to their healthiest state and keep them there.

Like so many curly girls, I became a complete product junkie, and the more I learned and the more I tried, the more awesome my curls became. Even then, choices were still limited, but now, wow! It’s been pretty cool to see so many women — so many Latinas — turn to the natural hair movement, and to see the world respond to it. 

Now, I can go to pretty much any store or online and find rows and rows of products like, All About Curls Bouncy Cream or All About Curls Daily Cream Conditioner, and for the days I want tons of definition, the All About Curls Boosting Foam and All About Curls High Definition Gel. The fact that I can now truly be Curly to the Core, and still wear my hair in tons of different styles, because these products exist is huge. The fact that my daughter’s curls have been celebrated and embraced since birth is huge. 

Image Credit: Shayne Rodriguez Thompson

I don’t blame my mom or my community for my lack of knowledge about my own hair. It was definitely a different time, and options were incredibly limited, but I’m still sad it took so long for me to discover something that has actually become a massive part of my physical identity. I wouldn’t trade my curls for anything! 

Discovering the curly hair community that has developed over the past decade — especially all of the amazing and empowering Latinas and Afro-Latinas embracing their curls — along with exploring all of the incredible products that are now available to help me show off rather than hide my natural texture, has been a life-changing experience for me, and I’m so happy to be able to share my curl power with my little mini me.

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