Free Curls In Cuba: An Afro Hairstyle Revival Of Identity And Politics — And Fashion
In the island nation, Rizo Libre (free curl) seeks to rescue Afro-descendant roots on the island.
Talking about Afro hair is not just a matter of aesthetics and fashion.
Oral histories suggest hairstyles braided by Black slaves had coded significance, and some people are said to have kept wheat seeds in their hair to sow later. For this reason, when they were forced to cut their hair, or straightened it with chemical products, in a certain way they also cut part of their identity and roots, part of their culture.
During the 1960s and the Black Power movement in the United States, embracing Afro hair became a symbol of resistance, an act to rescue Black self-determination and "Blackness as an identity."
In Cuba, at least in the last decade, this self-determination has also been promoted by initiatives that seek female empowerment and fight against racial discrimination against Black people.
Rizo Libre, or "free curl," is one initiative that seeks to rescue Afro-descendant roots on the island. For Yadira Rachel Vargas, the creator of Rizo Libre, the initiative wants to break stereotypes and achieve freedom for women to be proudly Afro.
The world of styling Afro curly hair
A mother of two girls, and lover of arts and woodwork, the 31-year-old entrepreneur calls herself an incomplete poet, who found with Rizo Libre an essential piece of her life: delving into the world of styling Afro curly hair.
When asked about the idea, she refers to her childhood. At just 10 years old, she learned to braid her own hair, because she didn't like the hairstyles her mother did for her. Then, in high school, she began doing her mother's, aunts' and cousins' hair. Her aunt Nancy was a hairdresser, and with her, Yadira learned many hair care techniques.
She never gave up her hair.
“My mother is an extremely authentic and natural woman in every way. She never gave up her hair, but thanks to my impulse she stopped straightening it and embraced her Afro identity and left it natural,” she says.
“My mom felt happy when I combed her hair and she could see the results in the mirror. That happiness was my fuel. There was the energy that I had to use as a boost of impulse to create Rizo Libre. It was like a prophecy that I longed to fulfill, and without realizing it, the dream materialized from that care I learned to give my and my mother´s hair.”
Proud to wear natural hair
Since 2016 Yadira has been proudly wearing her natural hair, and three years later she began to study hair characteristics and needs.
"Basically I consumed the content published by the Colombian stylist and influencer Cirle Tatisy and similar Brazilian stylists. In Cuba, I followed the content on hair care, definition techniques and cosmetic products for styling Afro-curly hair," she says.
Only 10 days after the birth of her second child, Yadira decided that she would start styling hair professionally. Rizo Libre became her third child. In a strange coincidence of fate, her Aunt Nancy, with whom she learned about hair care, died the same year she started her new business.
Yadira Rachel's measure of her results and customer happiness are before and after photo shoots.
Rizo libre via Instagram
Afro hairstyles at the center
Yadira Rachel's measure of her results and customer happiness are before and after photo shoots. "I have had the joy of creating a wide spectrum of clients, from 5-year-old girls, adolescents, adults, senior women, to young men and children. When it comes time for the final photo, I marvel at the poses, the facial expression, the carefree smile. Then, I know they were satisfied.”
She says she feels lucky: "Despite being a new venture, all the bookings that come to Rizo Libre don’t cease to amaze me."
Although it is a business focused mainly on the female audience, it has also had male clients. "My husband was the first male model for the Rizo Libre posts, and you won’t imagine the love he got. Men also want to have their crowns shiny. I love repeating the term crown, when referring to Afro hair because it's a powerful word and I like my clients to feel like kings and queens when we finish the makeover."
Even many white women also crave well-groomed curly hair. Between smiles she tells me a personal anecdote. “Once I wrote in a WhatsApp status about the beauty of Afro curls of black women in Cuba, and the GP from my health center responded, asking what about the curly white women, like her. I agreed with her. I understood that curly white women watch what I do. The services at Rizo Libre are also for them, and those who want to express themselves through their hair,” she says, proudly.
Finding the place that their Afro identity occupies in their lives.
Rizo Libre finds new meaning every day. “I am a historian, and I recently received a master's degree in Conservation of Cultural Heritage. That was for many years my passion, the rescue of the valuable, of the authentic, of the essence and identity, which later remained in print with my dissertation. But with Rizo Libre, I found the space to communicate that knowledge that nourished me and nourishes as a Black, Afro-descendant, Cuban woman, practitioner of the Yoruba religion."
For her, each client is a fascinating world. “Listening to them talk while they wait for their crown to shine is the opportunity to know the place that their Afro identity occupies in their lives. For this reason, in addition to making posts in social media of the hairstyles, I write texts to reflect on the paradigms of beauty, the vindication of type four hair textures, which are full-fledged Afro hair and also other issues related to motherhood," she says.
Mother and entrepreneur
“My daughters are my teachers. Each one has taught me the most difficult lessons, patience and calm. I have always considered myself strong-minded and focused on my ideas and projects, but I only achieved the lucidity to materialize the idea of Rizo Libre after becoming a mother," she says. "Something happened inside me. I decided not to sabotage my happiness, and I started styling, even though the girls were little. They deserve an example of a mother who is happy with what she does and who bets on her growth, without ceasing to see them as my priority."
She has a strong support network, composed of her husband, mother, mother-in-law and daughters, who are the biggest motivation. "Meli, with her two years, stands in front of the mirror and with her fingers touches her hair and combs it. And Lucia, like clockwork, when I'm about to finish the styling, begins to demand that I breastfeed her. I feel that in a few years when I review my life I will think that I was crazy to jump into a new business idea with two little girls, but that in the end it was worth it," she says.
Motherhood and entrepreneurship practically came into her life together so she is in a moment of assimilation of both. “I must achieve a balance between them because each one has its own dynamics. Still, we cannot lose sight of the fact that time passes and the business can prosper, but the children grow up and that time does not return. I am what is known as self-employed: I still do not have a work team, but I know that the time will come and I must be prepared."
So far, the experience has been challenging, because her husband is also busy, and they must balance the loads so that they both enjoy quality time with the girls. "I believe that we deserve the respect of our family and the support to go out in search of our purposes without feeling guilty," she says.
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