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Puerto Rican Designer Promotes Female Empowerment Via African Headwraps

Frances Solá-Santiago

 

The coffee pot simmering in the kitchen emanates a dark tobacco smell that triggers memories of Lenis Ramos’ Puerto Rican home. She sits in front of her mirror deciding how to style her headwrap, imitating the panache of a Yoruba goddess.  

“I am happy,” she says as she wraps her hair in a waxy Ghanaian fabric in a yellow, turquoise, black, red and white print. Every movement is matched with an affirmation. “I am powerful,” she continues, while tying the fabric on top of her head, leaving two strands hanging out.

Ramos, 24, pursues her routine with the discipline of a monk. She holds the corners of each strand with the tips of her fingers and tucks them into her original tie, creating the illusion of a flower. “I am in control,” she affirms, as she finishes her ritual looking straight in the mirror, her brown eyes full of determination.  

Only six months after moving to New York City from Puerto Rico, Ramos wants to empower an entire community women of color through the usage of the African headwrap.

“Through fashion, I've been able to attract women to have important conversations about politics, race and feminism,” she says.

Rooted in sub-Saharan Africa, the headwrap holds dual meanings in the United States. In the Antebellum south, female slaves were forced to cover their head to hide their natural hair, turning the headwrap into a symbol of oppression. But since the abolition of slavery, women of color have reclaimed it as a symbol of African heritage.

Recently, a new set of celebrities has shone light on this accessory, igniting a movement of females who claim it as means of empowerment. Think of Lupita Nyong’o wearing a royal blue satin headwrap during her “Queen of Katwe” press tour last year, or footage in Beyoncé Knowles’ “Lemonade” film, where the singer dons a nude hued headwrap.

The movement is most visible on social media. A search for the hashtag #headwraps on Instagram reveals more than 130,000 posts of women and men who wrap their heads in colorful textiles in their everyday lives. Instagram accounts such as Headwrap Nation and Headwrap Tuesdays gather these images to provide a collective display of afro empowerment.

Ramos takes this online trend to real life. She decided to start her business Ashanti Headwraps as a mechanism to empower and educate women by hosting workshops and selling her designs.

On a rainy Saturday, she sits at the center of a circle surrounded by women. The workshop is just about to start. Ramos begins the discussion with a history lesson on the Nigerian headwrap, known for its waxy fabric and exuberant colors. The women look at Ramos as if a priestess was showing them the path to self-love. And, indeed, she is. “Women should wear the headwrap like a queen wears a crown,” says Ramos, as she begins her ritual of affirmations.  

This unapologetic flamboyance is what’s novel about the current headwrap movement. Before, many women shied away from this accessory because some workplaces and schools banned it. Last year, a North Carolina high school prohibited African headwraps in classrooms, to which a group of parents responded by taking their fight to social media with the hashtag #ItsBiggerThanAHeadwrap.

Ramos says she felt this intolerance in her native Puerto Rico, too. She recalls walking home after class when a man shouted “¡Mira, la africana!” (“Look, the African”). She was wearing a headwrap at the time and the man was highlighting her African look to ridicule Ramos, a common reaction she received back home, she later says.

Yet, she was not defeated.

Instead, Ramos now focuses on learning more about the history of the African headwrap, one that is engraved on thin air due to a mainly oral tradition. But, she still manages to dig deep enough to learn that the Nigerian headwrap is also known as “Gele,” and that in Western Africa, headwrap styles vary according to social class. She has also come to understand that, to African Americans and Afro-Latinos, the headwrap is plainly a political statement used to claim an ancestry forced into subjugation.

The women she has inspired along the way are the best example of her success. Most continue to use headwraps regularly after the workshops and often share their daily affirmations on Facebook, she says.  

“I wanted to find out more about who I am and my roots, and now I feel secure,” says Mari Laura de las Teresas, 25, a client of Ashanti Headwraps.

Ramos’ Bedford Stuyvesant studio sizzles with color, as yards of fabric drape over her work table. She carefully sorts through the textiles one by one. Then she turns on the sewing machine and threads the needle. A train-like sound rumbles as she begins to stitch a new headwrap.

© Frances Sola-Santiago. Published by permission in Centro Voices 29 June 2017.