Sitting by a garden in the Dominican Republic, Sofia explains beauty to a little girl in a poetic analogy. The little girl tells Sofia to straighten her hair so that she can be "beautiful."
Pointing at the garden Sofia asks the little girl “Which one of those flowers is your favorite?” The girl responds, “That red rose.”
To which Sofia replied, “Well, my favorite is the sunflower over there. Would you ever take the petals of the rose and put it on the sunflower to make it prettier?”
With a confused look, the girl responded, “No!”
Sofia smiled and said, “Exactly. As humans, we are like a garden of flowers. Made differently by God because that’s what He wanted. Just like there are many different, beautiful flowers - with their own beautiful petals - there are many different people. What makes one person beautiful doesn’t take away from what makes another one beautiful. I feel beautiful as God made me. Can you imagine if God only made roses? I wouldn’t even be able to enjoy the beauty of a sunflower.” The little girl smiled innocently to herself. The following day, she approached Sofia about her hair and how she makes it that way. I'm sure there are many women with textured hair who wish they had been told a beautiful analogy like that at nine years old.
The 29-year-old, also known as Sofi is no stranger to the hair discrimination many Afro-Latinx face. With a specialization in International Business, Fashion Marketing, and Management, Sofi has dominated the creative field through numerous artistic and photographic projects. Her goal is to help break a few standards that society deems as acceptable, professional, and beautiful.
Tell me a little bit about growing up Dominican-American in Camden, NJ?
Growing up in Camden, NJ as a Dominican-American was pretty decent. We were a small community (including the Dominicans in Philadelphia) so we were all very close. We grew up feeling more like a family rather than just friends. I remember my father, the late great Dionel Valerio, being the manager of the softball team in Camden. Every Sunday we would go down to the Pink Elephant aka “el pley de Camden” and it felt like a family reunion. There was softball, of course, music, the red truck with all the snacks, your grandmom with the illest pastelitos, and US! There is so much beauty in communing - in unity. It was the one day out of the week where I felt completely free.
Why is that?
I didn’t realize it then, but this was a place where I felt “normal” because I was around people whom I identified with… Rather than people who asked me, “Where are you really from? Why do you talk like that? What are you mixed with? Why do you know how to speak Spanish? What is that stuff your mom put in your lunch box? How do you say your last name?” You know, a place where I was free to be Sofia - nothing more, nothing less. No explanations necessary.
When did you realize hair was a big issue in our community or Latin America in general?
The moment of full realization was when I personally decided to go natural. I had just little pieces of knowledge to support my decision of going natural. I didn’t know enough for all of the backlash I received when I did “the big chop.” I can honestly say that it was incredibly overwhelming seeing how MY decision affected so many people, both positively and negatively. I mean, it’s MY hair. How could that offend someone else? Right? Right. When I would defend my decision with a few facts I had at hand, this would further hurt them, and they became defensive. It was then that I realized that I was fighting something bigger than the texture of my hair.
Elaborate a little on the bigger issue?
Before then, I didn’t think there was an issue within the community, I just thought I was the person with the problem hair. I specifically remember being about 5 or 6 years old and the hairdresser my mother, my sisters, and I would go to say something very negative about my hair. I was super sad and my dad asked me what was wrong. When I told him they insulted me in regards to my hair, he went into the salon and told them that the way they spoke to me was wrong and that we’d never go there again. He was my superhero. He defended me and kept his word.
Nonetheless, the damage was already done. I believed there was something wrong with my hair and it was only reinforced by society as I grew up. Everything from comments like “Tu hija si tiene el pelo malo! Sofi es la que tiene el pelo mas malo!” which translates to "your daughter has bad hair, Sofi is the one with the worst hair!" to witnessing all of the women on tv and magazines with straight hair made me feel like my kinky curls were just not becoming. I don’t remember exactly how young I was when I got my first relaxer - it was the “Just for Me” brand- that was specially formulated for young girls to straighten ever kink out of their hair. I’d say I was about 6 or 7 years old. The case is that I grew up not knowing at all what my hair actually looked like in its natural state.
What was your maintenance before transitioning?
My transition from relaxed to natural was due to being a struggling college student. I could no longer afford to get a relaxer every two months, let alone my weekly visits to the hair salon. Yes, I was super high maintenance - you couldn’t tell me anything in high school. Then I moved out of my mother’s house and realized that adulting required a lot more financial discipline than I’d thought. Mostly, I was too broke to relax my hair. So that created my disconnect to the “creamy crack,” but I was still straightening my hair in my apartment. I would literally fry my hair with the flatiron trying to get the same sleekness I’d grown accustomed to my entire life.
What motivated the decision to go natural?
It wasn’t until I took a Latin American History course that I was able to make the decision to cut all of my hair. I was a student at Rutgers Camden, and this was the first time that I had an unbiased professor (or any teacher) teach me history. She was terrific and extremely passionate. I loved the class; I loved the discussions. Due to financial issues, I had to drop all of my classes so that I could work more. Yes, that was hard, but the seed had already been planted. Latin America, like most of the world, suffers from extreme Eurocentrism. This realization came with a lot of mixed emotions. I was hurt in a way because I noticed that this entire time I had just accepted what I had been taught for face value. Why hadn’t I questioned these things before? Why was this information hidden from us? Who has given them that right? I also felt empathy. I understood why my mother felt the need to keep me “presentable.” We have similar hair texture and I could only imagine how her childhood had been, how she had been mistreated for kinky curls. She didn’t grow up with luxury of getting her hair straightened weekly. My mother was using what she knew to protect me from the same society that hurt her and made her feel insecure. (This was not a conversation that we had. This was simply me correlating information and applying it to my life.) I also felt relief. So, it’s not me with the problem. We have been conditioned from generation to generation to hate and shun anything that has to do with our African ancestry. We were taught wrong. We were taught self hate. I thought to myself, “What if I am actually beautiful being myself? Yes. I can just be my kind of pretty. That’s okay, Sofia. Go ahead, try it.” I did. It was so hard. The struggle just made me feel more beautiful. It made me build a stronger character. It made me inquire more about my history, my culture, and my identity.
Were the women in your family supportive?
I can honestly say that the vast majority were very passive aggressive with their critiques. “Dime, y esto ahora? Pero esta bien, a ti te luce lo que sea.” With the most judgmental gestures. The older generations were a bit harsher. “Pero no me digas que vas a salir así? Te sientes bien, tu no eras así? Pásate un peine por lo menos.” As time went on, they became more supportive once they realized how adamant I was about my natural locks. The ultimate support came when they stopped relaxing their own hair and sporting their natural look. They’d come to me for advice. Now, this took about 5 years but I was very proud to spark the change in my circle.
At what age did you fully understand the differences between race, ethnicity, and nationality? And How?
I came to understand the differences between race, ethnicity, and nationality when I took the Latin American History class when I was about 19 years old. I feel like before then, I lived in a cloud of confusion. I had always been inquisitive and knew our history - but I didn’t understand it. Growing up in the United States, the terms “black” and “African-American” had been used interchangeably. (Americans from Africa seemed to always have an issue with this which I’ve grown to understand why.) It confused me how a visibly dark-skinned Dominican was not considered “black” if we had African ancestors. Why is he considered “Indio” ( Indian ) in the Dominican Republic while someone with the same (or even lighter complexion) in the United States would be considered “black?” Furthermore, if our history consists of a similar mix (European, Indigenous, and Africa), why do we look at our races so differently? The more I inquired and read, the more I realized that we have a lot more in common than what I had been lead to believe. Different European countries colonized different places which caused a difference in language and overall culture. But there is one common denominator, the hidden African diaspora. In each Latin American country you can find the influence of African culture; Palo music in the Dominican Republic, Bomba y Plena music in Puerto Rico, Guaguancó music in Cuba, Punta music in Honduras, etc.
How can we raise future Latinx on embracing hair and race?
Like anything else, I feel that it all starts with education. When you understand that THIS is your story, these are your roots, and it is as beautiful as every other aspect of your culture, you’re more likely to enjoy being who you truly are. In my experience, there is a direct link between self-knowledge and self-love.
Tell me a little bit about living in the Dominican Republic and the differences in gender roles.
Oh, wow. My experience living in the Dominican Republic was eye-opening in so many ways. I was born and raised in the United States and took for granted the social norms that exist here. Everything from individualism to feminism exists in a different position of the spectrum I’d grown accustomed to. As much as I’d heard about how machismo thrives in Hispanic communities (and many other cultures) I couldn’t fathom to which extent. I got the notion that it is acceptable that a woman educates herself and has a career, but a man washing dishes is a joking matter - let alone doing any of the other more tedious house chores. Granted, there are exceptions and outliers. But the vast majority would most likely judge the woman if they walked into a house that’s a mess rather than judge the couple as a unit.
How do you express your afro-latinidad?
I express my afro-latinidad in many ways, both verbally and non-verbally. I’m naturally drawn to learning new information so I enjoy open dialogue with people about this topic - whether they identify as afro-latino or not. I feel that I learn the most this way because I can stay in tune with the zeitgeist. I also feel that it’s important to understand why people are still shunning this beautiful part of our culture with all of the information that is out here.
I am unapologetically myself, 100% natural, the way God wanted me to be. I knew that wearing my afro (my crown) was a statement from the moment I stopped straightening it. However, it became even more evident how much representation is needed when I lived in the Dominican Republic. I realized how the phenotype that can be traced back to our African ancestors is frowned upon (darker skin, coarse hair, broad nose, etc.) An astounding majority of the Dominican population share these traits and live in self-hate due to social pressures to conform to Eurocentric beauty standards. According to these social norms, I am a rebel. Simply being exactly who I was born deems me a rebel. In a world of hate, love is a revolutionary act.
How do you integrate this into your personal style?
Oh, my personal style. It is eclectic, to say the least, as eclectic as my gene pool. Being Dominican-American, born and raised in New Jersey, I have been influenced by many different cultures and fashion eras. My absolute favorite go-to style is wearing my natural curls/afro with a well-tailored suit. I love to see the clash of emotions and prejudices in people’s faces. Yes, I am a professional rebel - Miss Rebel if you’re nasty!
What is something you want your followers to know about you?
Something that I’d like my followers to know is that I’m human, just like them. We are all on a journey trying to understand the world around us. Rather than to try to understand me, I’d rather them use that energy to further understand themselves. In this rollercoaster ride called life, I’ve realized that the more I learn and understand about myself, the more I can understand others. I still judge, I’m not completely free of human flaws, but I judge way less. I seek to understand why people are the way that they are and at the very core of every issue I find that there is a lack of education. Not necessarily formal education (some people have degrees of biased information) but a lack of emotional intelligence.
Photos by the author.