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Curly Hair Controversy

A Puerto Rican TCK takes on the hair care establishment.

Photo: Lexi Green/Savage Grey Studios

Longtime entrepreneur Arlene Rivera, 55, is a has been doing hair for three decades. She operated salons in Puerto Rico before relocating to the Rocky Mountains and is a self-proclaimed “hair doctor” who believes that understanding curly and wavy hair is about more than simply knowing an individual’s ethnicity.

Classifying and then pegging curl types to corresponding hair-care products is simply “a way of marketing” to people who may not fully understand their waves, she says. “So, I am controversial. What the mainstream market says (about curls) is different than me.”

Cultivated Coif

Rivera was born in New York City, where her parents were also in the salon business. Both of her parents were Puerto Rican, but one was dark-skinned and the other was fair-skinned.

Much of this stylist’s worldview comes from being a multiethnic, third-culture kid during the politically tumultuous 1960s, when she and her family relocated to her parent’s homeland.

Puerto Rico is an ethnically diverse Caribbean island that was inhabited by indigenous Amerindians prior to Christopher Columbus’ arrival there in 1493. It endured a lengthy Spanish colonial period until Spain ceded the island to the United States in 1898 following the Spanish-American War.

Today, Puerto Rico and its citizens are the result of decades of ethnic commingling among its Tejano natives along with the decedents of European settlers, African slaves and international immigrants.

As a child, Rivera sat quietly (at first) in her mother’s salon and soaked it all in. She observed how her mom applied her trade to creating beautiful, natural hairstyles for some clients, and then, recreated identical looks using wigs for other clients.

By age 6, Rivera knew she wanted to be a hairstylist and found it hard to resist the urge to give her mother styling notes.

“It’s bigger on this side, Mommy.”

“You missed a piece of hair on that side, Mommy.”

As a young adult, Rivera recognized an opportunity within the salon business to specialize in curls.” My mother loved what she did, and she did it well,” Rivera says. “So, I always say that I’ve been doing hair since I was in her belly.”

She speaks with warmth and compassion about how multiethnic individuals, such as herself, were long forced to feel ashamed of their curly hair. She recalls the way many of her early clients said, “You’re the first stylist who didn’t shame me for my hair.”

For generations, the mainstream beauty industry treated curls as something that needed to be tamed rather than a genetic gift worth celebrating. This awoke in Rivera the desire to teach and empower her clients to grow and maintain healthy, naturally curly hair.

“The secret to being able to manage curls is more than identifying what type of curl you have,” Rivera says. “We need to identify what type of hair you have. If your hair is fine, medium or course, it will determine what type of service” a client needs along with the best hair-care products for that individual.

And those individuals are not always brown or black.

“I get Caucasian girls with highly curly hair, devastated because they don’t know what to do with it,” she says. It is common for clients to break down and cry in her chair.

Nature Knows Best

Rivera quickly found there was a dearth of professional education about how to cut curls well. Experience paired with trial and error taught Rivera that moisture is what curls need more than anything else. That moisture should come from natural rather than processed ingredients. She has since gravitated toward organic products rich in aloe vera. She’s particularly fond of the Loma Hair Care line.

“Coming from the Caribbean moisture to the dryness and altitude of the mountains changed my philosophy,” Rivera continues. “My hair got extremely dry [after arriving in Colorado, where she moved to be closer to her adult children], and I couldn’t understand what was happening.”

Today, Maxine’s is truly a family affair. Rivera’s husband Roberto Gomez joined the team four years ago as a barber and loctician.

“Curls are the reason I’m here,” Rivera concludes. “I want to empower curly hair people!”

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