by Yoly Zentella–
By the time I was 16 my hair was a mess, brittle, split ends. I was told that the remedy lay in a bottle of good conditioner; but the damage from my adolescent penchant for big hair stemmed from an urgent expression of independence, a drive to establish an adolescent identity separate from that of my family. Conditioner could not help me there.
Not that I wanted to disown my cultural legacy of language, traditions, our foods, religion and ritual. I just wanted to have another dimension that would be connected to my private self, my friends, music, emotions and secrets – to own something else besides what I already had as a first generation, brown adolescent of Mexican descent growing up in a working class Manhattan neighborhood. I wanted to be me, not a shadow of my family, in particular of my mother.
Our New York City neighborhood, where we were the only Mexicans amidst Irish, Italian, Puerto Rican and Dominican families, was encircled and marginalized by the world of the affluent other. We rarely saw them, except when we journeyed to Central or Riverside Parks to ride bikes, watch the river, walk, picnic or take quick, juvenile, romantic romps far from home’s watchful eye. My tight, well connected neighborhood existed in its own working class space. Although I had no sense of social class at that time, I felt that there was a difference between us multicultural barrio kids and them, with whom we rarely associated. They lived in towers, I, in a humble, but secure and immaculate five floor walk up railroad flat, as did most of my friends–although some had their own bedrooms.
Growing up in a quasi-traditional Mexican, Catholic, Spanish speaking family, we were governed by curfews and rules, by strictness, correctness and morality. Attending the neighborhood Catholic school, manned by Irish nuns, added to an already controlled life such as mine. The factor of sin, as described by the black-habited sisters, included a built-in equation which went something like, five venial sins equal one mortal sin. For an adolescent the fives piled up quickly. Warnings of hell, synonymous to mortal sin, was a much used admonishment tool.
We wore uniforms – Catholic school grey and blue woolen jumpers, blue ties, sweaters, knee socks, and white blouses. The jumpers had to be below the knee, an agony for most of the girls; but after school and on weekends we changed to other uniforms: short skirts, Angel or Dr. Kildare blouses, black stoc
kings, lots of black eyeliner and big hair. We were little, fragile, sheltered, wanna be gang girls.
My very small allowance was spent on hair spray, shampoo, conditioner and combs, lots of plastic ones until I discovered metal ones with small teeth, perfect for teasing hair. I teased a small amount during school days. Anything over an inch would be subject to getting the bubble gum you were chewing pressed into your hair by the stern nun hovering over you. After school, the height was between you and the comb.
Big hair was a time consuming process: washing, conditioning, curling your hair with plastic rollers, end papers and curling gel that smelled like candy, spraying the rolled hair, letting it dry naturally. If you were among the higher status working class you had a hair dryer, but we didn’t. After it dried the rollers were taken out and each section was teased. The hair on the crown of your head was crucial – much serious teasing, up and down until seven inches was reduced to three inch tangled sections, this going on until you had formed a sort of dome on your head. The front portion of hair was teased moderately and smoothed over the dome. The rest of the hair on the back and sides could be swept up into a French twist or left loose.
The job completed and black eyeliner in place, a look in the mirror – I looked great – similar to what you would now call a chola, but at that time the word did not exist for me. Perhaps the closest parallel to this look was the 1940s pachucas, of which I did know of from the Mexican cinema – and, perhaps, it was this similarity that my mother violently objected to, to the perceived immorality that our adolescent dress suggested, or, perhaps it was to the otherness we represented living on our working class island surrounded by the affluent. The gang girl, the chola and the pachuca were three symbols of female rebelliousness and defiance, linked to the deviant uneducated, semi-poor. As working class Mexican immigrants my parents had a need to appear respectable. I was not helping their cause.
From 1961 to 1963, life as I had known it changed. After countless arguments on the concept of independence, my mother dragged me to her Dominican friend who reluctantly cut it off – the hair and my quest for independence. I sat in her at-home beauty parlor chair and cried bitterly. The friend avoided looking at me, trying to remain friends with my mom; yet I caught glances of apology and guilt on her face. So it was off. I could still tease it but the height would be minimal. Combed in another style, I had to admit it looked pretty chic.
In 1963 I was graduating from 8th grade and on my way to high school. I chose a public one and spoiled the annual 100% batting average of the 8th graders going to Catholic school. The tall, stern, nun admonished me. I was a traitor; I would surely go to hell. I didn’t care.
A public school sans religiosity and a subway ride away to Chelsea would bring a semblance of freedom from a rigid home.
Suddenly my hair did not matter anymore; the world had opened up for me and I could fly, for a few hours at least. With my shorter, less developed chic cut, high school freedom provided room for reflection – making very clear to me the impact of restrictive moms, nuns and neighborhoods to one’s budding independence.
The end of this era led to a new chapter, where teased hair was replaced by intellect. Literature, art, history, politics and social consciousness now contributed to my evolving identity; twisting, turning, detouring, adding, discarding and synthesizing the past and present as I struggled to find my place within my culture, my family, my class, my place among the others, and the world. The once aspiring chola would continue to live in working class barrios, comfortably reading Zola and Hardy.
At a recent dance I saw a woman with heavy black eyeliner and big hair. I had to remark to her that her look had brought back memories of my own days. I didn’t tell her what big hair still represented to me, the painful conflict with my mother, my interlude with Catholic nuns, the dormant issue of class, and the path to independence.