When Dalila Hernández Rodríguez went out in public, her mother and husband would always remind her to be careful with her cebolla, the large mass of thick chestnut-coloured hair that she’d roll up and secure to the back of her head in the shape of a giant onion. “I was born with really thick hair,” she explains, “and since I was a little girl, people have always tried to buy it.” For years, she would politely refuse the cash that strangers on the street in Havana would offer in exchange for her mane, but as her hair grew long enough for her to sit on it comfortably, her family began to worry. They had heard rumours of women in Cuba having their hair stolen by scissor-happy thieves. Rodríguez had to make a tough decision. “We were short on money anyway,” she says, “so I found a salon across from the Havana Libre Hotel and asked if they would buy my hair.”
Rodríguez, who owns a shop selling manga comics in the Nuevo Vedado neighbourhood of Havana, was offered $140, nearly five times the average monthly wage in Cuba. She spent almost three hours in the salon, and received what she describes as the best haircut she’s ever had. The hairdresser first carefully washed and dried Rodríguez’s hair. It was then separated into sections and combed backwards to single out the most resilient strands. These were cut off in locks, carefully secured with an elastic band and prepared to be sold off as hair extensions. She doesn’t know whose head they eventually ended up on, but was told that since her hair had never been chemically treated or coloured, it was especially valuable.
Celia Mendoza, who has worn hair extensions for the past decade, tells me how she used to walk the streets of Havana and ask mothers if they would sell her their daughter’s ponytails. “They usually don’t mind because most schools in Cuba have a problem with lice, so it’s better to have short hair anyway.” Five years ago, she says, this was very easy to do, but as Havana’s economy has improved, she has had to expand her hair-sourcing operation. She teamed up with Moira Coet, who owns a hair salon in Havana with her sister, and employs a small team of hair buyers who travel to eastern provinces like Ciego de Ávila, Santiago de Cuba and Camagüey. “It’s not an easy job,” says Coet. “They need to travel for days and visit far-off villages, sometimes even trek between mountains.” However, the hair they return with is first rate. “Its owners are modest, hardworking women,” she says. “Their hair smells of the fields.” Texture, volume and length are the key characteristics for determining its price, which can be as much as $80 for a good head of hair. “It’s a lot of money to them, but also think about how long it takes for hair to grow.”
A similar sourcing process is used by Belleza Latina, a beauty salon and Havana’s largest emporium of human-hair extensions, located in the upscale Miramar neighborhood. As well as famous singers, actresses and well-heeled Habaneras, its clients include Angolan medical students – who buy it for themselves and for relatives back home – and tourists from nearby countries like Mexico, where human extensions are much more expensive, processed, and often mixed with synthetic hair. Belleza Latina’s human-hair showrooms contain thousands of ponytails in a variety of shades and textures, ranging from sinewy black coils to wavy golden tresses, some tinged with exotic hues of red and orange. Neatly labelled with identification numbers, they dangle from hooks in what feels like a cross between a library and a carwash. Some have been divided into hair-extension sized locks and are comically tied together by a condom, in place of an elastic band (condoms in Cuba are abundant and one Cuban peso each; rubber bands are more expensive and harder to find). Others hang as full ponytails and may eventually be used to make wigs. Ranging in price from $150 to $400, some are so long and thick, they look like they could have been snipped from a horse’s backside.
The majority of the extensions are 100% human hair and Cuba’s rich cultural mix of European and African heritage is responsible for the large variety of textures and colors available. While “virgin hair”, or the hair that comes from young girls, is especially popular because it’s soft and healthy, grey hair is highly sought after by women who want to go bleach blonde, since the blonde pigment adheres to it more effectively. There are even rumours of people robbing graves in search of long grey manes – a hair-raising thought indeed.