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Pajon Power: Learning To Cope With Curls

by Monica Astacio, Photos by Judi Cahill

Hair salons in the Dominican Republic are a place of ritual. Everyone from young girls to elderly women wait in line, ready to get the famous Dominican blowout. As you step into the salon the smell of burnt hair and coffee fills the air. Loud chatter and weekly gossip is drowned out with the loud sound of a bachata blasting through the radio. The hairdresser comes to greet you with a warm hug and a kiss.

Straight hair in the Dominican Republic is one of many burdensome beauty standards that stem from previous Spanish colonization. These standards are still in place throughout most of the country. Even though I grew up in the United States, I still abided by these standards because it’s what my family knew best. When my mother moved to the U.S., one of the things she searched for was a good Dominican salon.

When I was young I would never sit still long enough in the hairdresser’s chair to have my hair done. In an attempt to manage my naturally curly hair, my mom decided to cut it short. At age seven, I had my first chemical softening hair treatment. Everyone loved my newly straight hair, and I loved how I felt more beautiful.

The more compliments I received during middle school, the more I would go back to the salon for another blowout. Gradually, all my confidence hinged on my weekly blowout routines. Sundays were for church and the hair salon.

At this point, my hairdresser became more of a family friend. I began to get a hair relaxer every three to four months just to keep my hair straight. I couldn’t even remember what my curls looked like.

In high school, a few of my friends began showing off their natural hair. I admired them for it, but in my mind that was something I could never do. I’d have to grow out my chemically straightened hair and stop using heat. The thought of this time-consuming process led me to carry on with my regular routine.

At one point though, my hair stopped growing.

I changed my relaxer routine from every three months to every six months.

With a longer break between treatments, I started seeing my roots puff up a bit. My hair was growing! Even though I continued to get regular blowouts, I decided that I was no longer going to relax my hair.

When I discussed this with my hair stylist she did not agree with my decision to go natural. I realized that along with breaking up with using heat, I also had to break up with my hairdresser. Because she had grown so close to my family over the years, I felt guilty. But ultimately it’s my hair and I get to decide what to do with it.

I eventually started straightening my hair at home. Not only did this save me money but it gave me complete control over what I was doing. I gradually straightened less often, and even though I didn’t feel confident in the transitional phase I knew the end result would be worth it.

After seven months, my hair was half curly and half dead-ends. Afraid of damaging the new curls, I completely stopped straightening my hair. Most of the time, I wore my hair in a bun or braid. This was the most difficult part of my hair journey because I was forced to become comfortable with myself.

In August of 2017, I decided I didn’t want my dead-ends any longer. I picked up some scissors, trimmed all of my ends and was finally free — completely natural.

Soon after, a friend asked me for some advice about bringing back her curls. I gave her a rundown about hair products and helped her throughout her curly hair journey. It made us even closer than before.

The transition from straight to curly hair was a long process that helped develop my confidence and love for my heritage.

My 7-year-old niece from the Dominican Republic reminds me of younger self. She has beautiful, long curly hair but at such a young age her mother already straightens it.

My niece once asked me, “Why do you wear your hair in a pajón?” (Pajón means Afro in Dominican slang). I told her it’s important to love our pajón, our natural hair, because it’s a part of who we are.

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