After Hurricane Maria, Puerto Rican Women Embrace Their Natural, Curly Hair

Jun 3, 2018
Originally published on June 29, 2018 8:10 pm

Early on Saturday morning, business at Laura Om's salon on Calle Loiza in San Juan, Puerto Rico is booming. Hurricane Maria, in a roundabout way, has something to do with that.

Om specializes in styling curly, natural hair — something that Puerto Rican women often go to great lengths to straighten with strong chemicals and hair dryers.

Eight months after the hurricane, it appears that Hurricane Maria — and the subsequent power and water outages — created a new market for Om's skills.

After the storm, many Puerto Ricans didn't have electricity to blow dry their hair. According to Om, "A lot of people decided, I'm not gonna deal with that anymore."

Many have embraced the change.

In the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, many business owners on the island had hard decisions to make. Could they afford to rebuild? And was it even worth it?

Three weeks after the storm, one of Om's other businesses, a restaurant, flooded again with "agua negra" — dirty runoff and backed up sewage. She was unsure whether the restaurant would survive. But she was determined not to lose her salon.

"Even if it has to be in the backyard," she told NPR then. She knew that recovery would take time, but, she said, "I do a very specific work, and I want to influence Puerto Rican hairstylists."

Today, Isis Berreal, 48, is happy with her "new" hairdo. She went curly after the hurricane — a big departure from her usual look.

"Plancha todo el tiempo — como desde los treinta años," Berreal says. She has flat-ironed her hair since she was 30 years old.

Om says straightened hair is a cultural norm that has been reinforced on the island for a long time. Many of her customers had been getting their hair straightened since they were young girls. When they came to her salon after Hurricane Maria, Om says, they didn't even know what their natural hair looked like.

Many Latina and Caribbean women are made to believe from a young age that "if you don't have straight hair, you're not well put together," Om says.

That view is starting to change.

"I'm very happy that I can help young girls love themselves the way they are, and it's not always easy," Om says. "A lot of times it's harder to wear your hair natural, but we help them get there. And we are mixed so we have to embrace that. We have to be happy with that."

Sitting on a chair next to a wall of hair products, Oscar Seary watches sports on his phone while his wife gets her hair done.

Seary says that before the hurricane, she straightened her hair.

"She's a businesswoman, so that's the kind of style they use," he says. "But she had curly hair when we met, so I'm glad she got her groove back!"

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

After Hurricane Maria hit, many small business owners had hard decisions to make. Could they afford to rebuild? Was it even worth it?

Now we're going to introduce you to a hard-charging entrepreneur named Laura Om whose decision to keep the doors open helped women reclaim a sense of normalcy, and even pride, in the midst of a disaster.

My colleague Tom Gjelten met Laura Om just a few weeks after Hurricane Maria hit. It had rained hard just the day before, and one of her businesses, a restaurant, which had just been cleaned up from the hurricane, flooded again with agua negra - dirty runoff and backed up sewage. She was unsure if the restaurant would survive, but she was determined not to lose her hair salon.

LAURA OM: Yes, yes, yes. Hair salon will happen even if it has to be in the backyard (laughter). I can't leave the island. I love this place, and my clientele is here. I know it's going to take a while. Well, they're - the ones that stay here - it's going to take a while for them to have the money and the attitude to get their hair done. But I do a very specific work and I wanted to influence the Puerto Rican hairstylists.

MARTIN: That's because Om specializes in styling curly, natural hair, something that Puerto Rican women often go to great lengths and expense to straighten with chemicals and blow dryers. Eight months after the hurricane, it appears that Hurricane Maria - and the subsequent power and water outages - created a new market for Laura Om's skills.

Early on Saturday morning, business at Laura Om's salon on Calle Loiza is booming. And Hurricane Maria, in a roundabout way, has something to do with that.

OM: Now because of not having power, a lot of people had to wear their hair natural because they couldn't blow dry their hair. So they had - a lot of people decided to - I'm not going to deal with this anymore. And I don't know what is going to happen next in Puerto Rico, so I'm going to embrace my curly hair and see what I have because a lot of people didn't know - a lot of my clients didn't know what kind of hair they had.

MARTIN: They didn't even really know what their natural hair looked like?

OM: No, no. Some people get straight hair - like, relaxed - since they're 3 or 5 years old.

MARTIN: Do you feel like there might be a movement for natural hair now because people are realizing that, you know...

OM: More people.

MARTIN: I think it's kind of cute.

OM: Yes (laughter).

MARTIN: I mean...

OM: No. I'm very happy that I can help even - mostly, like, young girls to love themselves the way they are. And it's not always easy. It's harder - a lot of the times, it's harder to wear your hair natural if you have a very curly hair, but we help them to get there. And we are mixed, so we are - you know, we have to embrace that, be happy with that.

MARTIN: Isis Berreal is happy with her curly hair. She's here for a haircut. She's gone naturally curly since the hurricane, which was a big departure from her usual look.

ISIS BERREAL: (Speaking in Spanish).

MARTIN: She says she used to flat iron her hair always.

BERREAL: (Speaking in Spanish).

MARTIN: Berreal is 48 years old, and she says she straightened her hair for three decades. Laura Om says that's a cultural norm that's been reinforced on the island for a long time.

OM: You know, Latinas and Caribbeans, we are educated that if you don't have straight hair, you're not well put together.

MARTIN: That view is starting to change.

OSCAR SEARY: My wife is getting her hair done.

MARTIN: Sitting on a chair next to a wall of hair products, Oscar Seary watches sports on the phone while he waits. Oscar says that before Hurricane Maria, his wife did not embrace her natural hair.

SEARY: No, she had it straight. She's a businesswomen, so that's kind of the style they use. But when we met 24 years ago, she used to have curly hair. So I'm glad she's got her groove back. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.