This post was previously published on September 10, 2010. Photo by Adam Jones, PhD
At the age of 10, my mother could no longer manage my hair. “You have too much hair…I can’t deal with it…” she would repeatedly say in Spanish, as she brushed and pulled my thick and wavy hair into three tamed colitas (horse’s tails) — one on top, two on the sides.
Saturdays at Yolanda’s Beauty Salón
So, at the age of 10, I began to spend my Saturday afternoons at Yolanda’s Beauty Parlor (El Salón de Yolanda), a block away from our apartment building in Washington Heights. By 12 noon, the place was packed with cheerful and colorful women, sitting, waiting, laughing, talking, doing their hair and singing the songs blasting from the radio. Getting my hair washed, rolled up (into huge rollers), dried and groomed took about 3 hours every Saturday. That’s a lot of time, you may say. But it was time worth spent. Yolanda’s salón was a comfort space outside of home. A place where Latina women of all ages, from all walks of life, would come together, merge and collide. This is where I learned the details on extra-marital affairs, relationship problems, the struggles of making ends meet, and the trials and tribulation of immigrant life. Most importantly, it was at Yolanda’s salón that I internalized the strength of Latina women, and the power of their relentless spirit. For 3 hours, I sat there quietly. But I was listening. I was taking notes. And even when my face was buried in the book I was reading, I still noticed. Those 3 hours kept me Latina all those years, especially as I continued to grow up American.
A Place to Connect, Share and Celebrate…
Yolanda’s Salón was like a life soap-opera. I loved coming in and quietly catching up on the lives of the women who came regularly to get their hair done, and those who worked there. It was a place of conversation, laughter and pampering. It was a culturally-accepted space for women to gather and share. Oh, yes, did I mention the fact that kids were totally welcomed? On a good Saturday, there were at least one infant sleeping on a stroller and another toddler cuddled up on a hair-dryer chair. Kids hung out on mother’s laps. Older children served as errand runners for their parents or the customers who couldn’t come out to put a quarter in the car meter. Yolanda’s Salón was also a place for celebration: this is where it was announced that someone’s visa had been finally approved, or that someone was pregnant again. The lives of women, the ups and downs, were followed with a mix of interest, curiosity, gossip and support. These women saw me grow up – from grammar school to college. I remember how very proud they were when I was accepted to Columbia University. They saw in me the promise of an education. But with college came my absence from the salón.
Once in college, I visited Yolanda’s Salón a couple of times a year. By then, college had changed me. I saw things differently, I had gained new perspectives. I was able to fully appreciate the value of these weekend experiences – and how these had shaped my identity as a bi-cultural woman. While in college, my naturally curly hair, without rolling it up, became a part of my new identity. I wore my hair wild with pride. I felt beautiful and sexy. The relief of just washing and going (as supposed to washing and sitting for 3 hours), was huge! Yet, I remember missing being a weekly part of my salón family. Yolanda sold her salón to Sonia, one of her long-time hairstylist. After working long hours for so many years, Yolanda had achieved her Dominican dream. She returned to Dominican Republic with plenty of resources to afford her a good life. Yolanda is hard to forget. She was a role model. She came to this country in her late teens, and managed to navigate the entrepreneurship world in a country that did not speak her language. Along the way, she created a powerful community around her beauty parlor and touched many women’s lives. Despite some changes, life went on at Sonia’s Salón. Women came and went. They laughed and share, and pampered themselves and each other — all while getting their hair done… Thirty-three years later, I still feel nostalgia when I drive by the salón that now sits there. Sonia left years ago, and a whole new generation walks in and walks out of there everyday. From afar, the place looks smaller, much smaller than I recall. I can’t stop the mild pain in my stomach (and la nostalgia) when I drive by and peak inside for a few seconds. That was my life 30 years ago…