efe-epaBy Yeny García Havana

Young Cubans are challenging stale conceptions of beauty and embracing their African roots with an increasing number abandoning aggressive hair straightening techniques in favor of styling their hair naturally and sporting afros.

"Sometimes I get asked if I've lost my brush," Leydis chuckles.

Three years ago she abandoned the torturous practice of straightening her locks and embraced her naturally curly hair.

Even though more and more people have begun to sport afros on the Caribbean island and half the population is of African descent, Afro-Cuban culture has been relegated to an almost marginal status.

But a youth movement is aiming to topple this trend by championing one of their identity's most visible traits: their hair.

For young people keen to connect with their African roots, transforming beauty canons is the first step.

There was a short-lived trend that coincided with the civil rights movement in the United States (in the early 1970s) when people started to sport their natural, unstyled hair.

But the fashion did not survive the test of time and was soon replaced for permanent straightening techniques and braiding as a way of controlling unruly hair.

"Even though many people identified with their afro roots from a religious perspective, there is a disconnect in the way in which people feel of African descent," Adriana Heredia, coordinator for the "Beyond Roots" project, told Efe.

The project is planning to launch a shop that stocks Afro-Cuban products and has set up links with beauty companies that specialize in cosmetics for black people.

Beyond Roots aims to break down European stereotypes which are sadly pervasive, Heredia added.

"People would tell me: 'I love Afro culture, I practice santería (religious rites)'.

"But when you ask them why they wear their hair straight they respond: 'I don't think I look pretty with my natural hair'," the young entrepreneur, who teaches economics at the University of Havana, continued.

In order to "decolonize minds," the project hosts workshops where people get together to share beauty tips.

Techniques on how to care for black hair also take place, and the audience, increasingly, includes men too.

Erlys Pennycook, a self-taught hairdresser, is stunned by the success her "Que Negra!" ("How Black!") range has enjoyed.

She started researching natural ingredients and plants to develop products for curly afro hair after a disastrous experience a few years ago when she fell ill and suffered from alopecia after years of straightening and braiding her hair.

The chemicals used in permanent straightening techniques, such as potassium hydroxide, are very damaging.

Even though Pennycoock has now shed any hang-up about her appearance she sais she suffered from a double discrimination.

On the one hand, there are those who do not consider her black enough to mingle with black people and those who feel she is too black to mix with white people.

She decided to own the cruel term people used to describe her, "jabá".

"I am a 'jabá', which is a disrespectful term, but I am and proudly so.

"I started getting involved in these types of events because I didn't want teenagers to go through what I had to and I wanted them to know that they could feel beautiful with their natural hair," the hairdresser and activist added.

"My mama would straighten my hair despite my father's objections," 17-year-old Arla told Efe.

"At first I didn't' know how to curl my hair, it was a horrible transition because some areas would curl and others wouldn't."

Nineteen-year-old Sheyla said she had always sported her hair in its natural state but complained that there were not enough salons that specialized in afros.

"I identify with my curly hair, with all the melanin that my skin has, with all the history it holds," the teen continued.

"Why would I straighten my hair and become another face in the crowd?

"Life is too short to wear boring hair," Sheyla concluded. EFE-EPA