Growing up “different” in Venezuela
by Megan Smith
No matter his sexual orientation, in his hometown of Caracas, Venezuela, nine-year-old Junior (Samuel Lange) is queer. He’s queer because he is biracial—his complexion reflecting that of his Venezuelan mother (Samantha Castillo) and his now-deceased black father. He’s queer because unlike the other boys his age, he’d rather be a singer than a soldier when he grows up. And the thing he hates the most—his kinky, curly “bad hair,” or pelo malo—queers him.
Venezuelan writer-director Mariana Rondón brings us Junior’s story of budding identities in her latest film, Bad Hair (Pelo Malo). Although Junior doesn’t yet understand his identities, they’re already used against him by those around him—their lenses muddied by homophobia, racism, and cultural norm expectations. “I wanted to make a film about respecting our differences, how it’s important to respect the right to be different and think differently,” Rondón told NBC News. “I also wanted to explore what happens when there is no respect for our differences—the violence that surges and wounds that occur when these differences are not honored.”
Junior wants nothing more than to take his school picture with straightened hair and dressed similarly to one of his pop star idols. He often stares into the mirror, pulling his hair down in an attempt to make it appear straight. He also sings along to the radio, memorizing the lyrics to all his favorite songs.
His mother, who is unemployed and struggling to raise Junior and his baby brother, refuses to tolerate Junior’s “effeminate” behavior. He is immediately reprimanded when he plays with his hair, and his mother moves away from him on the bus when he begins to sing. Junior is also forbidden from seeing the teenage boy who runs the local newsstand after his mother finds him wearing one of the boy’s shirts. Her main concern? That Junior is gay and needs to be “fixed.” She even goes as far as taking him to the doctor for this “condition,” and is visibly frustrated when he informs her that Junior is perfectly healthy.
Junior originally finds solace in his paternal grandmother (Nelly Ramos), who tries to convince his mother to hand him over into her care. She spends long amounts of time straightening Junior’s hair with a blow dryer and promises to make him a “singer’s suit” for him to wear in his school photos.
When Junior tries on the suit, he is originally quite pleased with the ornate stitching and smooth fabric. But upon looking in the mirror, he becomes horrified and convinced his grandmother has made him a dress. In that moment, it is very clear that Junior is internally conflicted over who he desires to be and what he has been taught is “right” for a boy. He pushes his grandmother away and wants nothing further to do with her.
But following an intense fight, Junior’s mother threatens to send him to live with his grandmother if he does not change his behavior—sending him into an emotional panic. To stay, he promises to cut his hair and to give up singing altogether.
In the film’s final scene, we see Junior—hair buzzed close to his head—standing among his peers. As those around him sing a school song, Junior stands silent and looking straight ahead—the ultimate sacrifice for his mother’s love; the sacrifice of his self-identity.
Bad Hair (Pelo Malo) is playing at the Museum of Fine Arts Houston on December 12–13. For more information, visit mfah.org/films/bad-hair.