Jul 30, 2015


Growing Up with Hair Rollers and Bobby Pins

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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…

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Angélica Pérez-Litwin

Angélica Pérez-Litwin

Dr. Perez-Litwin is the Founder & CEO of ELLA Leadership Institute, a multi-platform professional development organization designed to advance the careers and leadership of women. She's the creative force behind the LATINAS THINK BIG™ national tour, sponsored and live-streamed by Google.

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  1. LOVE IT!!!!

  2. I love this post! It’s funny how hair can be one of the most separating characteristics of women, but it often is. I watched my own cuñada struggle with the inner battle of wanting to be accepted and accepting herself as a beautiful Latina. She knew that leaving her hair natural would call attention to her “Latina-ness” and often that would provoke certain un-welcomed comments. I think it’s so important for women to gain strength in each other and shake off the negative stereotypes about “bad” and “good” hair and just feel confident in who they are. Thanks so much for sharing this!

  3. I literally grew up in a hair salon as my mom had her own Salon de Belleza in Brooklyn, NY. She even invented the booster seat (got one made especially for me!) so that she can put my hair in rollers and dry it when I was about three or four. I learned so much about beauty and women growing up in the salon and from time to time boast to my hubby after doing my own hair that I just saved him $60. I tend to give myself light relaxers from time to time.

    Oh and let’s not forget the dubi! I have to admit my hair was gorgeous back then when my mom took care of it. Now she’s semi-retired and in a different state and sure miss it!

  4. I just came across this article and thoroughly enjoyed it. I sat in Dominican salons many times watching my mother get her hair cut, trimmed, dyed, whatever. And women of all colors came together to gossip and just be together. And, of course, the corner stores and restaurants were just around the corner for us children to munch on while our mothers stayed there for hours.

  5. This is too funny! My mother (Dominican) just finished doing my rollers! Im in our dining room and while sitting under this dryer (with my red steaming face) I came across your article. This was a great read, I really enjoyed it. However, for me the rollers which is always done by my mom while she watched her novelas always consisted of good talks or her telling me I need to take better care of my hair. I guess rollers has been a cultural and bonding moment for me and my mom. But I know its going to end when I move out….there goes getting my hair done for free too! Lol :(

    • Angélica Pérez-Litwin Angélica Pérez-Litwin says:

      Amanda, I can totally relate to that scene too, LOL! And, of course, who can’t relate to a mom watching telenovelas while cooking, cleaning and multi-tasking a million things?!

      When you move out, you will surely miss those perks, especially Titia’s cooking!


  1. […] Growing Up with Hair Rollers and Bobby Pins […]

  2. […] Dominican enclave in New York City. Oh, I can share some really good stories of my years there – the Dominican beauty parlor; the bodega on the corner; the young drug-dealers hanging out on the street; the loud merengue […]

  3. […] relaxing industry in the United States, the Caribbean and Latina/Central America.  A trip to the hair salon every 8-12 weeks to relax the new hair growth is a normal part of many Latina women, of all ages. […]

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