Embracing My Puerto Rican Roots Inspired My Beauty Routine

Zayda Rivera

I have always been proud to be Puerto Rican. As a child, I celebrated my culture with my big, loud Puerto Rican family through food, music, and cultural traditions. Although I was born and raised in Connecticut – with a short time living on the island until I was 5 years old – my Puerto Rican heritage was always at the forefront of my upbringing.

As I grew up and entered my young adult years, I still wore my culture with pride. What I didn’t realize was that while I was proudly wearing the title of Boricua, I was also denying that part of me in several ways. One major way was through my beauty routine.

I moved to New York City in my early 20s – more than 20 years ago – to pursue a career in music. But shortly after, I decided to turn to journalism. The music gig wasn’t what I thought it would be, and while it was fun to pursue that dream, I knew I had a bigger purpose to follow with my writing.

Like many Latinas who worked in corporate environments, I felt the pressure to blow-dry my hair bone straight, leaving no trace of my curls.

As a Latina working in the newsroom, I began to feel the corporate pressure of presenting myself a certain way. Like many Latinas who worked in corporate environments, I felt the pressure to blow-dry my hair bone straight, leaving no trace of my curls. After all, the women in the industry whom I looked up to all had blowouts, too. In fact, I had become so conditioned to believing that I looked my best with straight hair that I remember convincing myself at the time that my curls made me look old and less pulled together. Even after leaving corporate media in 2016, I continued telling myself this false narrative about feeling more beautiful with straight hair.

A year ago, after more than 20 years of coloring my hair and constantly blow-drying it straight, I abruptly had to stop when it began falling out in clumps. It got so scary that I worried it was the symptom of a serious health condition or stress. Each time I decided to heat-style my hair straight – and essentially hide my Boricua-ness from plain sight – I was in turn killing my curls at the root. The hair loss caused stress and anxiety, which in turn caused my hair to fall out even more. I knew it was time to not only make a change in my hair-care routine but also to start embracing my natural beauty.

Just after the new year, I finally put the blow dryer to rest and gradually began embracing my curls. I started by first acknowledging that my beautiful hair is in direct correlation with my Puerto Rican ancestors. Many had beautiful wavy and curly hair, due to the fusion of cultures that make up Puerto Ricans – Taino (the Indigenous people of the Caribbean), African, and European.

Not only did I embrace how my biological makeup created this waterfall of curls atop my head, but I also started educating myself about how to nourish my curls and heal my hair follicles from the root. Two things I realized almost immediately? I didn’t know how to properly take care of my curls, and I didn’t even know how my natural hair looked fully nourished and healthy.

I began implementing a new weekly hair routine, which includes natural ingredients easily found on the island of Puerto Rico like avocado, banana, cassava, aloe vera, coconut, and honey. A lot of folks may not know this, but there are honeybees in Puerto Rico that descended from Africa. These resilient bees, which thrive in Puerto Rico, were nearly wiped out after Hurricane Maria. Today, the bee population on the island is thriving once again, which helps enrich the island in so many ways and provides us with amazing medicinal benefits that you can get from honey.

A revelation I discovered after including these natural ingredients in my weekly hair routine was that I could also use them on my skin – my face and body. As a result, whenever I have a banana and avocado at home, I usually mix them with a bit of olive oil to make a hair mask. I leave it in for 30 minutes to two hours before rinsing out and washing my hair. I also save the banana peel. Using the inside of the peel, I rub it all over my face and neck, leaving it on for 10 minutes before rinsing. I then coat my face and neck with aloe vera by cutting the leaf open and rubbing the pulp from the inside all over my face and neck to hydrate and repair. People are always asking me how at 46 I still maintain such a youthful glow. I’m often still mistaken for being in my 30s, a compliment I humbly accept. The feedback is priceless, especially when the natural ingredients are super versatile and inexpensive.

The answer for me is simple: while I do use some manufactured products (very few), my hair-care and skin-care products can largely be found in the produce aisle or naturally growing from the rich soil on the island of Puerto Rico whenever I go to visit.

Today, my curls flow freely on a daily basis, and I am able to go 95 percent makeup-free because my skin is so healthy and radiant. The few times I do put on makeup, it’s usually a little bit of mascara, and I’ll add some color to my lips. I also protect my curls by wearing a protective style like a braid, which always makes me feel like I’m honoring my Taino ancestors. If I ever do get a blowout (my last one was in May), the stylist does it on low heat for less damage.

These days, when I look at myself in the mirror, I see a strong Puerto Rican woman who has found herself by embracing the beauty of her culture.

These days, when I look at myself in the mirror, I see a strong Puerto Rican woman who has found herself by embracing the beauty of her culture. I see a woman who shed societal constraints around curly hair and the need to wear makeup to feel beautiful.

My beauty shines through me from the inside out because I wear my shiny, healthy curls and smooth skin with honor, celebrating the legacy of my ancestors and their natural beauty.

Embracing my curls and my Puerto Rican culture has become a tradition I have been passing down to my three children, especially my oldest child, who is a gorgeous Afro-Latina of Puerto Rican and Costa Rican descent and was also blessed with a head of amazingly beautiful curls. By watching me care for and nourish my curly hair, my daughter has also felt inspired to embrace and love her natural texture. Whenever I see her with her bouncing curls framing her beautiful face and brown complexion, I am elated to know that we are a living, breathing manifestation of our ancestors.

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