SANTO DOMINGO – In a school auditorium filled with laughing students, actresses Luz Bautista Matos and Clara Morel threw themselves into acting out a fairy tale complete with a princess, a hero and acts of derring-do.
Morel had wrapped a white plastic sheet around her multi-colored blouse, while Bautista donned a brown paper bag over her blue tights. The two black actresses wore their hair free and natural, decorated only with single pink flowers.
“Yes, you’re a princess,” Bautista said to Morel, who fretted that with her dark complexion and hair she didn’t look like a “traditional” princess. Bautista then turned to a young girl sitting in the front row, who shared the same African-descended features as both actresses. “And you too,” Morel said as the child smiled back at her.
The theater group Wonderful Tree has visited schools all over Santo Domingo and some in the countryside to spread the word among black children that their features and heritage should be a source of pride.
That message has been nothing less than startling in this Caribbean country, where 80 percent of people are classified as mulattos, meaning they have mixed black-white ancestry, but where many still consider being labeled black as offensive.
Wonderful Tree represents a larger cultural movement that’s working through arts and education to combat the country’s historic bias.
Dominican choreographer Awilda Polanco runs a contemporary dance company that’s trying to rescue Afro-Caribbean traditions, while the Technological Institute of Santo Domingo has been training primary school teachers to respect and celebrate their students’ African heritage, including with skits that young children can more easily understand.
It’s a bid to transform a color-obsessed society where a majority of the country’s 10 million people choose to identify themselves as “Indio” – or “Indian” – on government documents, despite their black roots, and many reject afros in favor of closely cropped hair or sleek blowouts.
Public schools for decades even prohibited students from attending classes with their hair loose or in a natural frizz.
Such hair, in fact, is called “bad hair” in the local Spanish lexicon, while straightened hair is “good hair.”
The Dominican population “has tried to disconnect itself from its African roots to the point where they’ve constituted a community that’s mostly mixed” but calls itself “indios,” wrote historian Frank Moya Pons in the prologue of the book Good Hair, Bad Hair.
In her school presentations, Morel flaunts her own natural looks as a point of pride. At one point in the play, Morel clutches a mask featuring straight black hair, only to pull it away and reveal her dark brown kinky curls.
“This should be a source of pride because your color, your skin, your hair is an inheritance,” Morel told the children at the Albergue Educativo Infantil school in the town of Moca. “It’s the legacy of your parents, it’s the legacy of your grandparents.”
Morel said students have long been bullied and even attacked for their hair, while public schools have re-enforced the prejudice by cracking down on children sporting natural African hair, defending the measures as prevention against lice outbreaks.
“If it was only a health issue, it’d be fine but children think there’s something bad about their features,” Morel said.
Maria Cosme, a Santo Domingo housewife, recalled the day she sent her young daughter to school with loose curly hair and a ribbon around her head. Teachers quickly tied up her daughter’s hair and warned it should remain that way if she wanted to attend classes, Cosme recalled.
“It’s a matter of racism but also protocol,” said Cosme, who has straightened her daughter’s hair since age 4. She is now 7 years old.
Elizabeth Veloz, a graphic designer who always wore her hair natural, said the human resources director of her former company criticized her hair shortly before she was fired.
“He told me that curly hair is not proper hair, that it’s beach hair,” she said. “But the worst part is that he’s black, like me, and he cuts his hair really short because it’s kinky.”
Not everyone sees the hair issue in racial terms. Hair stylist Yoly Reyes said she’s been relaxing her hair since she was 15.
“I am black and that will not change if I straighten my hair. But I think I look prettier with straight hair,” Reyes said. “When have you ever seen [President Barack] Obama’s wife with kinky hair? I don’t think she straightens it to stop being black.”
Women in the Dominican Republic spend an estimated 12 percent of their household budgets on hair salons and treatments, according to Good Hair, Bad Hair which included an economic and anthropological study of Dominican beauty salons.
Dictator Rafael Leonidas Trujillo, who oversaw the killing of some 17,000 Haitians in 1937 in an effort to expel them from the Dominican Republic, was himself a mulatto who used makeup to make his face lighter.
Trujillo was the first to include the term “Indio” in official documents, said historian Emilio Cordero Michel.
Yet U.N. officials noted in a 2013 report that “Indian” identifiers don’t accurately reflect the country’s ethnicity and expressed concern about the country’s denial of racism. The government’s migration director, Jose Ricardo Taveras, has repeated such denials, insisting any racism is isolated.
It’s a claim that many reject, including Desiree del Rosario, coordinator of the Center for Gender Studies, who runs the technological institute’s teacher training program.
Del Rosario said the country’s racism was tied to its troubled relationship with neighboring Haiti, where the population is darker-complexioned and where African culture holds a prominent place in society. Del Rosario summed up the common Dominican mentality as “The Haitians are black, and we, white.”
For Bautista and Morel, however, change is coming one child at a time. After one typically spirited, even goofy show, a dark-complexioned boy with his hair shaved close to his scalp approached Morel.
“I want to be part of your group,” the boy told the two women. “I want to be an Afro-descendant.”