Missing my 2 p.m. bus from Belo Horizonte, Minas Gerais to Sao Paulo only to catch a much later one and arrive at 4:30 a.m. at the Tiete Rodovaria in Sao Paulo was TOTALLY WORTH IT!!! In fact, I would do it again if it meant that I would be able to spend another day with hairstylists and afro-hair activist Dora Alves!
I can honestly say that even though I have loved my time in Brazil, I had been a little disappointed in the amount of “good, quality, thought provoking research” here. However, after spending the day with Dora, and her clients at her salon, Dora Cabelererias, in Belo Horizonte, I am feeling WAY more excited and invigorated in my project here in Brazil than I was before!
So a few months ago, well really, more like a year and a half ago, the four part PBS documentary, Black in Latin America, by Harvard Professor Dr. Henry Louis Gates Jr. was released. (Click here to watch the Brazil Documentary) In one of the 55 minute segments, he focuses on Brazil and the racial makeup and issues that Afro-Brasilians face. For part of his tour around the country he goes to Belo Horizonte and talks with Dora Alves about how blackness is perceived for women in terms of beauty norms. Needless to say, after I saw this, I knew that I too had to find Dora and talk with her about “cabelo afro” here in Brazil, and how Indian hair extensions have given more styling options to women with black hair, but at the same time reinforce the westernized beauty norms of long straight flowing hair. I was even more excited to speak with her because she is also a black hair activist and campaigns tirelessly around Minas Gerais to help increase young girls self esteem by promoting the beauty of Black hair and skin. Needless to say I became a bit obsessed in finding Dora, and ever since my time in India, I have vigilantly scouring the web for information on Dora Alves in Belo Horizonte! Call me a stalker if you want, but I was on a mission! Besides, it was all justified in the pursuit of my project and all things black hair.
After leaving a rainy, cold, and mold infested Salvador, Bahia, I came to Sao Paulo to get myself situated in “Base Camp” before embarking on my mission up to Belo Horizonte. I stayed in Sao Paulo for two days, then headed up to Rio de Janiero, where I was supposed to meet up with owner and founder of Beleza Natural, Zica, but plans changed, and I ended up basking in the sun and lounging on the beach and taking in the sights for 5 days- all in the name of research of course! lol! 😉
After staying in Rio for 5 days, I packed up my bag and hoped onto a 6 1/2 hour bus ride up to Belo Horizonte. Arriving at 10:30pm and having the hostel to myself, save for the staff, I took advantage of the free wifi, called home, sent a litany of emails, and downloaded some definitely needed software updates! As well, I half heartedly tried to quell my raging allergies! Since the attack of the mold at the house I stayed at in Salvador, my sinuses have not been the same. However, I was super successful in my tireless google search for Dora Alves! And it tuns out, she is very popular in Belo Horizonte. Not only does she have a successful beauty salon right on the main thoroughfare street Avenida Amazonas, but she also started a group that promotes positive self esteem/ self image for young afro-brasilian girls! She mainly helps them find the beauty in themselves, and promotes positive self image. She teaches these girls to learn to love their hair, skin color, and entire self as a whole; only one word can describe this woman: AMAZING!!!
Having found multiple articles, blog posts, and business information about her via my very fruitful google search, I closed Henry (my computer) down for the night, flicked off the light, and finally got some much needed rest.
My first official day in Belo Horizonte I woke up super late, as in after 2 p.m. late, so I spent the rest of the afternoon, after my shower, finding a good place to eat, scoping out the “downtown” area, and intending on finding the salon where Dora works. Unfortunately, my poor sinuses sent me reeling back to the hostel after a few hours, but I had successful completed my food finding mission! That evening, I sat sniffling up the steam in the shower trying in vain to breath through my nose, but much closer to finally being able to talk with Dora about hair, her activism, and what it means to be an Afro-Brazilian woman with nappy, kinky, black, afro hair.
Day two of my Minas Gerais adventure sent me on a colonial history tour of the quaint colonial town of Ouro Preto (translated it means black gold). I had already purchased my bus ticket to Ouro Preto when I arrived to the bus station in Belo Horizonte Thursday, so my mission, “Find Dora” had to be put on hold for a day. At noon, I boarded a bus with the rest of the Brazilian tourists headed up to Ouro Preto, and two hurs later we arrived in the quaint, quite, gem stone filled town.
Ouro Preto used to be the mining capital of Portugal’s “new world” and was also the location of the first independence movement against Portuguese gold taxes. Although the revolt failed, of the 3 ring leaders, known as the Tiradentes (teeth pullers, since the main rebel rouser also moonlighted as a dentist), 2 were banished to Africa (Mozambique and Angola) and the third drawn and quartered. Before I got started on my walk through the maze like city built upon hill after hill (lets just say that my bunda and calves got quite the work out- who needs sketchers shape ups, when you have never ending hills to climb! lol!) I took a 20 min bus ride to the town of Minas de Passagem to go on a exploration of an old gold mine. The mine tour consisted of a rickety descent on a old mine cable car (the highlight of the entire mine tour) and, complete with our very non enthusiastic tour guide that told us very little about the mine- in Portuguese. Even my rudimentary grasp of the language made me realize that I could have probably given a tour of the mine- and I didn’t even know anything about it! But I digress. The true highlight of Oro Preto was definitely, without a doubt, THE JEWELRY!
Literally I almost had a heart attack looking at all of the jewels laid out in the window displays! I even had to hide my wallet from myself because I started making excuses about how I deserved all these pretty things, and that not everyone needed a gift from Brazil! But I was good and only bought an agate ring for 15 Real ($7.50 USD). Unfortunately my small purchase did not quell my raging desire to swipe my scenic banking card until I had carpal tunnel, so I opted for a much cheaper option and took myself out to a nice restaurant, filled to the brim with kissing couples and had a romantic dinner for one. In fact, because of all of the pairs of people, I had 2 glasses of wine to stifle all of the odd looks of pity directed at me by the kissing couples around me. Sometimes eating alone can be more difficult tothan necessary. After dinner, I realized I only had 20 min to get back to the bus station, conveniently located at the top of a hill, so I hustled up the hill and arrived 15 minutes later panting, and with a severe cramp on my side to the bus station 5 minutes before the scheduled departure time.
I made it back to Belo Horizonte 2 hours later, and prepared myself for my final day, and my upcoming interview with Dora Alves!
Finally, THE BIG DAY!
I woke up, packed my bag, and told myself I had 2 hours to interview and meet Dora at her salon since my 8 1/2 hour bus ride from Belo to São Paulo left the rodovaria at 2 p.m. sharp. Since I was a wee bit tired that morning, I took a quick power nap, (mistake number one) so around 11 left the hostel on my mission to find the woman I had internet stalked for over 9 months. After google maping the area and the salon, I was confident that I would find the salon with ease. I mean, she was located on the most busy and popular street in Belo Horizonte, but, in usual Alex traveling style, I got lost. I ended up at the wrong end of Avenida Amazonas, then got on the wrong bus to get to the other end of the avenue, and then when I finally got on the right bus I got off 3 stops further than I was supposed to, and ended up having to back track 8 blocks! But, it was all worth it, because by the time I made up to the third floor of the open air shopping market and into Dora’s salon sweating profusely and breathing like was going through labor, I finally saw her. There she was, standing on the side of the wash bowl shampooing a clients hair, and gossiping about the latest episode of the telenovela Cheais de Charme. Out of breath, I walked up to her, and said, “por fin encontré a voce!” (Finally, I found you!) When I introduced myself as an American researcher doing a project on Black women’s hair around the world, and that I had seen her on the PBS documentary being interviewed by Dr. Henry Luis Gates Jr. and that I had been looking for her ever since, she cried. Yes, I mean, she actually broke down and cried, and said she couldn’t believe I had come all this way to find her and talk with her about hair.
Meeting with Dora, and all the women, and men in the salon was so amazing. I mean, I can’t even begin to describe the feeling that was there in that beauty salon, and how overwhelmed by the love and acceptance that I felt when I entered Dora Cabeleireiros.
One of the most amazing parts of my 3 hours I spent in the salon was how I felt a very real and honest connection with each and every one of them. I got to speak with Dora’s newest client, 9 year old Joyce, who does not like her hair because it is too big and too curly. She told me that all she wants is to have long straight hair like her Barbie. Even though Joyce didn’t have many other opinions about beauty and body image, she certainly told me how she was not happy with her hair. Her father brought her in that day because he had heard about how Dora can increase young girls self esteem, and love for themselves and their hair. He wanted his daughter Joyce to love herself and her hair unconditionally. I was so touched when he said that as a dad, he just want his little girl to be happy, and he would do whatever it took to get her there. I was also very thrilled that it seems as though many Brazilian woman, just like Black women in the states now are going through a Natural Hair Movement as well. When speaking with Andrea, one of Dora’s long time clients, she told me that within the last 7 year, more and more women in Minas Gerais have been coming to accept their natural hair, but there is still a huge lack of stylists that now how to deal with afro-textured hair.
Dora has been one of the few stylists in Minas Gerais to not only style and care for afro textured hair, but to provide a safe space for Afro- Brazilian women to learn to be proud of their hair and embrace their beauty. I felt truly honored to sit and talk with each of her clients, hair stylists and Dora herself about what hair means to Afro-Brazilian woman, and why so many women still do not love or accept their hair or themselves because of their African features. Needless to say I missed my 2 p.m. bus back to São Paulo, but if I had to do it again, I would in a heart beat! my time in that salon was more than worth it.
After returning to the bus station at 3:45 p.m. and getting a seat on the last bus to leave to São Paulo for that evening (8:30 p.m.) I thought about how moments like those experienced in the salon that day make my project so worth all of the difficult moments I have had this year. I felt so invigorated after my day spent in the salon that I didn’t mind the long, sleepless bus ride, the cold of the São Paulo bus station at 4:10 a.m. or the fact that I had to wait until 6:30 a.m. for the metro to begin working so I could get to my hostel and finally rest after my 3 successful days in Minas Gerais! I was and still am pumped about my project! With this year winding to a close in 7 weeks, I can definitely say, it has been worth it, and I feel more than blessed to have the opportunity to travel the world, and meet such amazing people that help validate my reason for learning about why hair is so important to Black women!
Since I am not one to keep all my long months of google searches about Dora Alves to myself, here are a few web articles that have been written about her, and her social project in Brazil. *Warning, they are in Portuguese, but you can google translate them if you don’t speak the language!
Dora’s Salon/ Bio: http://dora-cabeleireiros.blogspot.com.br/2010/06/curriculo.html
Information about her social projects in Belo Horizonte: http://racabrasil.uol.com.br/cultura-gente/164/o-caminho-de-dora-eu-quero-eu-posso-eu-251225-1.asp