Exiting at the Lavapies stop on Madrid’s metro line 3, the bold colors of the street art that covered the walls of many establishments peaked my interest. Powerful portraits of black heroes like Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King and Barack Obama made me feel at home. As I walked up Calle de Zurita, African men adorned in Kente cloth dashikis waved, greeted us in their native language and welcomed us into their community as if we have returned to the Motherland. Senegalese restaurants, African-owned discount stores and beauty supply stores seem to be the most popular businesses in Lavapies.
When I was a child, my mother often played ‘kitchen beautician’ when I would lay my head across her lap as she fashioned my kinky-curly hair with plaits and twists, alongside beads, ‘bubbles’ and ‘clips’ (often called barrettes) to match my school uniform. Before getting my new ‘do’, making the monthly visit to the local beauty supply store that had products featuring images of black women with the newest hairdo made getting my hair done a fulfilling experience. Walking through the streets of Lavapies will be nostalgic to those who understand such experiences. However, there is a whopping difference between beauty supply stores within Black communities in America and these in Madrid: African women are in the back braiding hair, while Asian men, who most likely own the stores, sell products in the front.
Lavapies is the melting pot of Madrid where people of West Africa, Asia and Caribbean countries like the Domincian Republic and Puerto Rico mingle and do business. One immigrant, Raja, 29, who owns Tala Comésticos and four other shops that feature ethnic hair products of brands like Cantu, Aphogee, Shea Moisture and more, says Europe is great for immigration and business. He expands on why he enjoys living in Spain: “I came here when I was six. My family moved here from Pakistan. This is a family business. My family has been here for the last 50 years. Everyone says ‘American dream’, no one says the ‘European dream.’ America is good for making money, but I don’t like the inequality of America. They have social classes like a Third World country. Even in Pakistan, they’re super messy between [the] two classes and I hate it. I believe in equality. In Pakistan, you are categorized by your ethnicity.”
Like Raja, many people migrate from West Africa and Asia to Spain and other countries in Europe to find better jobs, and many of them end up owning their own businesses because of the difficulty in finding a job. Because of how profitable the business of black beauty is, but also rather necessary in communities like Lavapies, having many stores are important. The products themselves are important for business, but the services that African hair stylists provide has also been a large portion of the profit that Raja and other beauty supply store owners receive.
According to Raja, the African braiders that work in the beauty supply stores are all professional and have legal citizenship documents and work permits, which is required for the hiring processes in his shops. Not only is there proper certification for the worker, there is proper certification for the products in his shop. Raja says, “Most of my products are from the U.S. or all over the world. The Afro community is smaller here so there isn’t a high demand for these kind of products so we [have] to get them from the countries like the U.S., where these products are manufactured or most popular.” Specifically, the virgin hair that is sold in his shops is all certified, which is the most popular items at his shops.
There has been a growing popularity of virgin hair in the black beauty markets. Virgin hair is chemically unprocessed hair that comes from a single donor and it is free from dyes, perms or bleaches. It has been a profitable business for many people around the world, especially in China and India. However, in this unlikely site in central Spain, Spanish entrepreneurs are taking over that hair business and become a primary seller to the people of Madrid.
Since Spain isn’t the most popular site for virgin hair businesses, I asked Raja if his hair business in Spain makes money; he said, “Yes, we make a lot of money and the customers love it. We get the hair straight from the Indian and Chinese vendors. To get virgin hair, you have to process it and get medical certification of the hair. So all of the hair is certified and they love it. ” His relationships with the vendors has allowed him to become a wholesale supplier for other people who sell hair as well.
A quick walk around Lavapies will reveal many different beauty supply stores that have hair stylists that specialize in braids or sew-ins. An employee at Indian Cosmetics Y Peluqueria, a beauty supply store two blocks down from Raja’s, explained that she does wigs, sew-ins and different types of cornrows. She explained that there isn’t a lot of discrimination or racial problems within Lavapies because most of the people who reside there are immigrants and can relate to each other because of that similarity.
Most interestingly, she explained that non-black residents also come to her shop to get braids and other hairstyles popular in the black/African community. European beauty standards have historically been fair skin, slim frames, and long, blonde hair. Braids, locs and twists have never been seen to be the most desirable, according to the standards of beauty that society has implemented, but they are becoming widely popular in Western culture– specifically locs. The term “dreadlocks” has roots from Rastifarian culture where their tresses are a symbol of African identity and severance from Babylon, a white imperialist government that oppressed blacks for centuries.
Now, although seeing white people wearing locs may be considered cultural appropriation, Spain is definitely redefining beauty not only for Europe, but for the world by spreading black culture through hair.
Hair has always been an important aspect to black identity because of the oppression endured from the moment Africans were captured from their Motherland and taken to the New World. Hair is expression and the way we show that we are not afraid and we will appreciate ourselves in the most unapologetic way possible. Whether it be lemonade braids, tribal braids, a frontal sew-in, a wig or a twist-out that we probably will put into a puff because we didn’t like the way it turned out, being able to express ourselves is essential. Having multiple beauty supply stores in an European city allows black culture to spread and to be preserved in Spain. Like Beyoncé said, in her song “BROWN SKIN GIRL,” “With you and all of your glory, Your skin is not only dark, it shines and it tells your story.” Our skin, our hair, our lingo, our culture–it all tells our story. With every store that provides the necessary products black men and women need to tend to their hair, black culture will continue to be appreciated in Spain and all over the world–and beauty will continue to be redefined.
Edited by Julissa Ramirez.