Carolina Contreras is an unstoppable force in the curly community—for Latinas especially. The founder of Miss Rizos Salon—one of the first hair salons specifically catered to naturally curly hair in Santo Domingo—is a business woman, a curl expert, an entrepreneur, a natural hair advocate and an activist all in one. Her mission goes way beyond helping women of color embrace their curls and transition from chemically-processed or heat-damaged hair to healthy curls. Part of her work is helping brown and black women rethink the Eurocentric beauty standards that have been placed on us for centuries and making sure they see their own beauty reflected. The salon was just the beginning. Contreras—a revolutionist in every sense of the word—is just getting started.
Contreras who was inspired by her own journey of transitioning from chemically processed hair to natural curls, opened up her salon in 2014 for women in the Dominican Republic who needed a place to go if they wanted to style and wear their natural curls. Since opening the doors of her salon, she has become a very important figure and powerful voice in the natural hair community and movement. Representation is key for Contreras, which is why her new partnership with Unilever as pat of their #QueTeMueve campaign was such a perfect match.
The campaign embraces the diversity of passion points among Latinos which aligns with Contreras mission to empower brown and black girls and women around the world to embrace, love and own their natural beauty.
“One of the reasons why partnering with Dove has been so great is because I’m able to be my authentic self in this campaign. I don’t have to make my hair look a certain way or say a certain thing. The key message is to inspire and motive people,” she tells HipLatina. “Dove approached me with the opportunity and one I was so excited about the campaign because not only is Dove a household name—all of my family have something Dove in their homes—but also Dove’s platform being on there as a Latina with curly hair and dark skin and being able to represent diversity in the Latino community was really important to me.”
Contreras had the opportunity to test out a number of Dove products including her favorite—The Dove Refresh + Care Fresh Coconut Dry Shampoo. “There’s a lot of misunderstandings with certain products and curly hair,” she says. “They (the curly community) says you can’t use this and you can’t use that. I would stay away from hairsprays because it drys out the hair and we don’t want our curls to be fixed. We want our curls to move. But curly girls can absolutely use a dry shampoo and I love this one because it has coconut, lime and other natural plant-based extracts that help nurture your hair.”
If you have no clue how to use dry shampoo on our curls—don’t stress. Contreras has got you covered. “With dry shampoo, what’s important is to make sure that you’re using it 8-12 inches away from your hair because a lot of times what happens is you do it so close that it leaves your hair white and feeling chalky,” she says. “The right way to use it is to section your hair so that your scalp is showing and then spray.”
This partnership is just one of many hats Contreras is wearing right now. She has in many ways already left a legacy behind because of her salon and her natural hair advocacy.”It feels amazing to know that the sleepless nights and all the hard work, the struggles, and the sacrifices I’ve done for years and even those crazy all-nighters in college, studying activism and social justice, all of that has contributed to me having an impact in the world and for me to leave a legacy,” she says. “I feel very lucky to be able to be alive while this is all happening and that I’m able to experience the change now. It also feels like I have a heck of a responsibility. With great power comes responsibility so I feel like I have to make sure that I use all the power I get from collaborations like this to make sure that my messaging is a message that will impact and inspire other people.”
Contreras started with Miss Rizos’ salon and while it’s still a big part of the work she does, her brand has grown tremendously and expanded. “I just did a rebranding from Miss Rizos to Carolina Contreras which was nerve-wrecking but it was so important and necessary,” she says. “My brand has evolved and it has grown beyond me. It’s no longer me. It’s my teams. It’s my readers and followers and it’s way bigger than me. I’m excited to be able to continue to work on Miss Rizos but Carolina Contreras is another brand that’s continuing to evolve.
She has recently launched two podcasts: Guayando la Yuca con tu Corazón in Spanish and Hustling With Your Heart in English. The podcasts provide tips and trigger conversation around travel, love, life and entrepreneurship. In fact, entrepreneurship is one of the many things Contreras loves to talk about with fellow Latinas and WOC because she understands the importance of encouraging more Latins to go into business and business ownership.
“It’s important because we don’t see enough of them at all. It’s important to showcase that it is possible and it is important to be able to have a say in how companies run,” she says. I started with two people and now I have a team of 20 and I’m able to design positions and train and mold people into amazing professionals and see them grow. I had my receptionist who started with me 3 1/2 years ago become the general manager of the business. I had someone who was a junior stylist become kind of like the floor director. To see that growth of the girls with me is so amazing.”
Contreras’ salon is located in the Dominican Republic but the bi-coastal businesswoman works back and fourth between the DR and NYC. Women across the states—from NYC especially—have flown to Santo Domingo just to get their curls cut by her, so it’s surprising that she hasn’t opened up a Miss Rizos salon location in New York. When asked if that was something in the works, Contreras responded saying: “I plead the fifth. Soon come, soon come,” followed with giggles. You heard it here first.
As far as activism goes, Contreras believes that beauty is so much more than what meets the eye. It goes well beyond aesthetics and it many ways it is political and does play a role in social justice.
“I think that [beauty] is innately just pure activism in every way from the fact that representation matters from the work we’re doing,” she says. “We’re able to create a platform that does represent us. I feel like it’s everyone’s job to have a part in this change. We can sit here and point fingers at the media—which I do—but as I point fingers I’m also doing something about it. I’m not waiting for magazine covers to put women that look like me on their covers. I’m creating a platform and I’m becoming that model. We’re not waiting for someone to make the change happen. We’re taking matters into our own hands and making sure that it happens on our clock.”
One of the things Contreras takes pride in, is knowing that she has contributed to the doing away of the painful and harmful term “pelo malo” a.k.a “bad hair” that many of us Latinas grew up hearing about our textured strands. She believes that it’s not just about encouraging women to love themselves and their curls, but also about educating people about what the term “pelo malo” means and the lie associated with it.
“We have to look at the facts. What is the word malo? Malo has all these connotations that our hair is not. It’s just a factual thing. My hair doesn’t do any harm. My hair doesn’t hurt anyone. Therefore it’s not “bad,” so using that term is calling it something incorrectly,” she says. “We have to do away with something that doesn’t make sense. Do I think that I’ve contributed to the fading out of the term “Pelo malo?” I’d like to think I have but I don’t like to take all the credit. I think it’s something that folks from way before me started and I just continued the legacy.”
If there’s one thing we’ve learned from Contreras’ legacy and all the natural hair advocates before and after her, is that there is a place for all of us to be ourselves, embrace our natural beauty—what makes us unique—and proudly and confidently take up space. If the natural hair movement has done anything at all it’s been that and boy has all those years of hard work and activism paid off.