Two years ago, Victoria Mejias gave up her slavish pursuit of sleek braids – a common obsession in Venezuela where hair and racial identity are closely linked.
After a nearly two-decade struggle with harmful chemical straighteners, she’s adopted her naturally curly hair and a bold, shoulder-length afro style and says she feels “divine.”
From the age of 12, when her mother started to relax her hair, “I felt compelled to present myself in a certain way, because straight hair gives you status,” Mejias explained, today. hui, 28 years old, in a living room in the center of Caracas where she was treating. itself to a moisturizer.
Mejias said she had long been ashamed of her “pelo malo” (bad hair), as natural black hair is called in Venezuela – a symptom, according to some, of deep-rooted racism.
Then she changed her mind.
“I was fed up with salons (for straightening treatments), not having the freedom to let my hair get wet (like it would frizz).
“It looked like a form of slavery,” she told AFP.
Switching to an afro style was “like seeing myself again. It was the best decision I could have made.”
Venezuela has a racially diverse population due to the mixture of indigenous peoples, the Spanish conquistadors who arrived in the 15th century, and the African slaves they brought from the colonies.
The country has also received an influx of Europeans fleeing the ravages of World War II and people from other Latin American countries fleeing dictatorships and armed conflict over the decades.
Today, more than half of the population identifies as MÃ©tis or âMÃ©tisâ. Yet, it is widely believed that the darker your skin, the more likely you are to be poor in Venezuela and suffer from prejudice.
– ‘Not with this hair’ –
Despite a 2011 law against racial discrimination, the country has a complicated relationship with its cultural identity.
Racism is sometimes overt, often subliminal.
In Venezuela, “anything that comes from being black we see as bad or … exotic is not the norm,” sociologist Zulima Paredes told AFP, who wrote on the aesthetics of afro hair.
The country, which has enjoyed disproportionate success in the world of beauty pageants, has won the Miss Universe title seven times.
All of her winning contestants were fair skinned and had straight or slicked back hair, reflecting the nation’s continued pursuit of a âWestern Europeanâ beauty standard.
In 2018, when dark-haired, olive-skinned model Isabella Rodriguez was crowned Miss Venezuela – her hair was also artificially slicked back – she was ridiculed online for her humble origin and mixed race roots.
Hair discrimination also has more practical everyday implications.
Paredes, who is also mixed race, said she suffered discrimination at work because of her hair. Once, when applying for a job sporting an afro, “they said to me, ‘look, no, with that hair you won’t come in here’.”
And victimization starts young.
“You can’t go into school with an afro hairstyle, you have to tie it … or straighten it,” according to many dress codes in effect, hairstylist Gabriela Delgado said.
Under such indoctrination, she used long, straight hair extensions herself until four years ago, when she decided to switch to dreadlocks.
– Hair “can’t be bad” –
“There are people who start to relax their hair as early as six or five years old,” said Delgado’s colleague Ludizay Gardona, 35.
The couple work at Afro Caracas, a salon specializing in black hairstyles.
âPeople haven’t yet shaken off the stereotype that black people were slaves and not much else. These prejudices are what we’re trying to changeâ¦ We have to get strong,â Delgado said.
“This hair hasn’t hurt anyone, it can’t be bad.”
The issue was addressed in the 2013 Venezuelan film “Pelo Malo” about a young boy’s obsession with straightening his hair, which won the Best Picture award at the San Sebastian Film Festival.
Venezuela is not the only country to have struggled with this problem.
In 2019, South African Zozibini Tunzi became the first black woman with a short, natural haircut to be crowned Miss Universe.
âI want to reassure people that this hair is as beautiful as any other hair,â she said at the time.
In July 2019, California became the first U.S. state to ban discrimination based on a person’s natural hair, in a law that made hair a common ground of racial discrimination, especially for blacks.
Â© 2021 AFP