Don’t Forget About Me/No te Olvides de Mi (DFAM) is a project based on emotional connection. In the wake of traumatic events, these hairdressers seek to make a small contribution to restoring women’s self-esteem and giving them hope for the future.
“I was inspired to find a way to do this through a vivid memory of my mother,” writes Founder and Creative Director Luis Burgos. “When I was a child, we went through many hardships together, but she always made a point of taking pride in her appearance. It wasn’t vanity. ‘Just because you’re going through hard times,’ she used to say, ‘you shouldn’t forget about taking care of yourself.’
Working in the beauty business, I see how women come in for a haircut, style, color, or makeup, and feel transformed. To sit in a stylist’s chair and be catered to for an hour is a feeling we often take for granted, but for someone struggling after a devastating experience, it can be deeply restorative. It lets them know that someone cares about them, their well-being, and their future.”
We spoke to Luis and DFAM board member and volunteer Nicholas Mason after their beauty relief mission to Puerto Rico over two years after Hurricane Maria’s Category-5 fury devastated Dominica, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and Puerto Rico in September 2017. It is recorded as the worst natural disaster to affect those islands and caused nearly $100 billion in damage.
With haircuts and massage, DFAM brought the human connection to senior citizens, residents of public housing, staffers at the 24-hour mental health crisis hotline – and survivors of domestic violence.
HS: Tell us how your project for Puerto Rico started.
Luis: I work from home, and during breaks, I would turn the TV on. I saw all that happened with Hurricane Maria, and it just kept on going; it seemed like an endless cycle of bad news. I saw one image of a woman on a hillside tossing her hair and saying, ‘They forgot about us!’ Something clicked in me, and it stayed. My family comes from Puerto Rico. So I reached out to Nicholas and others and we decided to go there simply to hear their stories while providing them with services.
Nicholas: I’ve been doing hair since ‘98 and educating. So I thought, ‘Let’s go to these towns and find salons where I can teach the women who work there and have them cut hair.’ But the majority of the places we went to turned out to be domestic abuse shelters where women were starting their lives over, and not only because of the storm.
Luis: Domestic violence has been on the rise in the island in the wake of Maria – on top of what the American Civil Liberties Union documented as the highest rate of intimate partner homicide per capita in the world. It was scary at first because these places don’t appear on a map. You have to be on the phone in the car with someone who works there.
We created spa environments, barbershops. Nicholas brought music and a playlist. I bought a little speaker. We offered spaces to be normal for a little bit, even have fun. One of the women told me, ‘I’m telling you my story. And it’s not in a courtroom. It’s not in a DA’s office. It’s not to a social worker. I don’t feel victimized. I’m just telling you what happened to me.’ Once we set up shop, it became a safe place.
Nicholas: The second shelter we went to was a huge compound with a jungle gym. So as we were cutting hair, you could hear kids screaming, running around, playing. Families live in these places, not just women. To me, that was one of the best things – they know something’s not right, but they still have a safe place to go and be normal.
I asked one woman how the abuse started: ‘Were there signs from the get-go?’ And she said, ‘No. It about a year in when things slowly changed. He became more and more aggressive and controlling.’ Most people think they would leave before that happened. But they don’t take into consideration the emotional connection that’s been established. It could happen to anyone. She said, ‘When it started, he hit me in places that people couldn’t see. I didn’t tell anyone because I was ashamed. And I loved him. The day my son took my boyfriend down to the ground and was on top of him, fighting was when I said, ‘I can’t do this anymore.’
HS: Are hair salons important social spaces in Puerto Rican life?
Luis: It’s funny you mention that, because people there do their hair in the living room, in the kitchen, cooking in rollers. Someone is assigned to do the job in every house; the grandma or the eldest daughter is in charge of getting everybody ready for church or a quinceañera.
One day, one of our clients named Neida said, ‘I’ll be right back.’ Half an hour later, she comes in with empanadas for all of us! She went home and cooked. ‘But,’ we said, ‘We’re here for you!’ And with a defiant ‘NO!’ she said, ‘We are here for each other!’
Nicholas: A barber opened up his shop to us on his day off and helped us with whatever we needed. Little by little, people started popping in, and the word spread. It took a while for them to warm up to us, but they started asking, ‘Can I get a massage? Can you guys do a haircut?’ They started calling people, ‘Get over here, these guys are doing free haircuts! Products, candles, aromatherapy!’ It was a party at noon.
We played old-school salsa music, and the ladies in their seventies danced and told amazing stories. It was the week of St. Valentine’s Day, and they said, ‘This is the perfect time for you to be here. Let’s get pretty. Let’s get prettier!’ They did each other’s faces and took pictures. We felt a bit like rock stars.
Luis: I’m from that town, Santurce. To see my people embrace us, to be part of that culture and exchange hair ideas, do an impromptu class, and leave some products* behind felt amazing.
HS: So there’s the care side, helping people feel beautiful and cared for and touched. But there’s also an educational goal to help people become professional hairdressers, right?
Luis: We’re only discussing this internally, but hopefully by next year, we will have established relationships there, so we can reach out on an educational level. After you go through a traumatic abuse experience, you have to reinvent yourself, right? Many of these women get relocated; if you live on the west side of the island, they move you to the north. So if they’re starting fresh maybe they’d like to learn about hairstyling.
Nicholas: We hope to work with the shelters to send people to school. Support from an established school with what they get from the shelter would put them in the best position to succeed. Then, maybe we can help local salons create apprenticeship programs.
HS: Is there a particular attitude that Puerto Ricans have about hair and beauty?
Yes, you get done. If you’re going out, you’re done. It’s changed a little because of the hurricane, so they’re embracing a more natural look out of necessity. One girl getting ready for a field trip asked us, ‘Do you blow-dry and flat-iron?’ And I said, ‘No. It’s 85 degrees; if we were inside, I totally would help you out.’
HS: So often we hear a lot about an acute crisis and then our attention moves on to the next crisis. What are the current conditions in Puerto Rico post-Maria? How is the quality of people’s lives?
Luis: Well, in the metropolitan areas there are signs of things coming back. Tourism is coming back. Inland and in the rural areas, it’s taking a while to get it together. Electricity is still an issue. Unfortunately, a big problem is that schools are closing. And when schools close, the bad guys start recruiting, right? So you hang out with nothing to do, and you’re angry because school is closed, and you have to go to another town and reintroduce yourself. For a teenager, that’s just brutal.
HS: What do you need from the American hairdressing community? How can people help?
Luis: It’s a struggle to adapt to the mainland, right? Even where people speak Spanish, it’s still a foreign place. You’ve lost your home, you’ve lost your job, and a simple haircut, a simple massage, and a good talk are always good to bring to someone’s life.
There’s displacement all over, right? 300,000 people left Puerto Rico for New York, Florida, Chicago and many are struggling to get help. So reach out to local agencies where you live, and find places where you can go and set up shop. Bring people in and help them feel the human connection.
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To learn more about domestic violence in Puerto Rico, visit Casa Protegida de Julia de Burgos
To glimpse the continuing struggles refugee Puerto Ricans still face, watch After Maria, a Netflix documentary film about the daily toll of destabilization, specifically for the more than 300,000 islanders who fled to mainland America and those living in Fema-assisted housing in the Bronx.
*We at Hairstory are proud to donate our products to DFAM and those they touch.