Dominicans Con RIZOS - (Part 6) Meet Karen

What does being Dominican mean to you and why?

This seems like a simple enough question, right? Wrong. Born and raised in New York City, on paper at least, I'm American, first-generation to be exact. When I asked my father what I should consider myself he said, "You were born with a blue passport, so you're as gringa as they come." Ugh...that reply just didn't sit well with me. You see, I was raised in the northernmost part of Manhattan, otherwise known as Washington Heights/Inwood. Some call the area "little D.R." because it holds one of the largest populations of Dominicans in the United States. My first language was Spanish, and though I'm fluent in English as well, it's the language I refer back to during the most extreme moments. I grew up eating la bandera (rice, beans and some type of meat) every single day of the week, ate conflay (referring to any type of cereal) in the morning, habichuela condulce (sweet beans) during holy week, sancocho (soup) on rainy days and spaghetti at the beach. I was surrounded by mostly Spanish-speaking people, merengue and bachata blaring out of car windows, talk of American citizenship, knowledge of political rivalries in DR (el PLD vs. el PRD) and celebrated the 27th of Feb (Dominican independence) harder than any July 4th. Sitting at the salón under the inferno known as la secadora (hair dryer) with a hair pin burning my ear was a weekly ritual, and I was never one to miss a desrizado (hair relaxer) because showing my new growth was NOT AN OPTION!

So am I Dominican? Heck yea! Sorry, dad.

That being said, being Dominican-American means the best of both worlds for me. It means being able to enjoy all of the freedom and opportunity America offers while still embracing my rich and diverse Caribbean culture. We come in all shapes and sizes, backgrounds and colors, and we’re proud of who we are and how far we’ve come.

So you are a Spanish teacher! Tell me how the students received you and your hair?

Yes! I'm a first-year teacher at a high school in Newark, and boy has it been one heck of a ride so far! I'll preface this by saying that the school where I teach is 96% African American and 4% Latino. It's important for me to explain the demographics so that you get an idea of what my student perspective is. I am a Dominican-American woman, but one might say I'm racially ambiguous upon first glance. I have a fair complexion (a bit ghost-like if you ask me), green eyes, small to average features and a huge head of tightly coiled rizos...or as we call it, UN PAJÓN!

So when my students first saw me, I could tell they immediately wanted to ask questions and know more about me. Teenagers are super nosey, and they are not afraid to ask about anything!  The first time I wore my hair out: *girl raises hand* "I have a personal question if you don't mind. Are you mixed? Cause you definitely don't look like you're just black."

And the questions haven't stopped since.

My hair has been a huge topic of conversation among the students. From the "Oooh, your hair is poppin!" to the "Have you ever permed your hair?" or "How do you get it to look like that?"... I've heard it all.

When I wear my hair straight it actually gets more of a reaction these days, since it happens so seldom. Students have said its my "fancy look" and encourage me to get it done more often. Thanks, I guess.

When it's out and curly, the girls ask me about products, ask to feel it, and always feel the need to express their own hair struggles. The boys are also surprisingly really aware of my hair, and compliment it often! Apparently, they're more concerned with our hair than I thought.

The constant questions from the students gave me the opening to educate them on their hair texture, do's and don'ts and some best practices. I decided it would be a great opportunity to start a natural hair club at the school. After hosting an interest meeting, over 20 young ladies showed up! We all had one thing in common: an incessant struggle with our hair. I talked to them about years of perming my hair to tame el "pelo malo" and how I ended up having alopecia (medical term for baldness) from all the harsh chemicals. I shared horror stories about a weave pulling out most of my hair and having to cut it all off among many other nightmares I've suffered throughout my hair life.  Not only did I have their attention, but being able to relate to them like this created a deeper bond between us. We all have some type of love-hate relationship with our hair and I was more than thrilled we could bring that all to the forefront in a shared space.

Since then our club has joined forces with our schools' girl's group, and though it is a very slow process, I'm sure the club will benefit many. Even if it only benefits one, than it's one more than I originally bargained for. 

Photos by: Maleknaz