I recently studied abroad in Costa Rica for 4 months. I knew I would witness many things, but I did not think my hair would be a variable in my experience.
For the first 2 months I wore a sew in. The last two months I sported my natural kinks and curls. Now, I had reserves about taking my sew in out because of the amount of questions I thought I would get by my peer group. I can get irritable very quickly when bombarded with questions. I was the only Black student out of 40. Not to mention, I was the only Black person in my area in Costa Rica. I later met some people from the Caribbean, but only a few. I stuck out like a sore thumb.
You can only imagine that when my hair went from this:
I would get some different responses. To be honest, the feedback wasn't what I expected.
Cat-calling is normal in Central America. I talked to a few men and they said it was second nature to them, like a past time. They didn't care what the response from the women was. I know that seems like irrelevant information, but I'm getting to something. When I first arrived in Costa Rica the men would call me 'morena', which means dark skinned woman in Spanish, but it is usually a term for darker skinned women with either straight or curly hair, NOT kinky. I also traveled to Nicaragua during this time and I was also called 'morena'. After taking down my sew in, the next day when I walked to school I noticed the men were referring to me as 'negrita', which is an endearing form of Black woman. During the two months I had been there I had never been placed in juxtaposition with a Black woman, although it was clear that I had some form of African ancestry.
While wearing my natural hair, this label followed me through Central America. For those who don't know, there is a myth that Costa Rica is the 'whiter' Central American country. From what I witnessed, the people tend to place a higher value on North American culture than the rest of the region. The feedback I received from Costa Ricans was different, but I had another experience with the rest of Central America.
I had the chance to voyage through El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. I traveled with my beautiful Philippine friend. Black women are definitely exotic in these countries because I got cat-called and harassed the entire trip and she didn't.
"Negrita, mi amor. Nunca he visto pelo como así. ¡Te amo!"- a random man from El Salvador.
"Black woman, my love. I've never seen hair like that. I love you!"
El Salvador was the most interesting. I had countless questions about what products I used in my hair. Photo opportunities followed the questions. Can you believe people wanted to take pictures with me just because they had never seen hair like mine? I was wearing two-strand twist, mind you. Beside the street harassment, the positive reinforcement was awesome.
Although I received different reactions to my hair, I never received a negative comment. It shows that not everyone places artificial beauty on a pedestal. I am grateful for that experience.