As I drove down 23rd Street on my way to Erica’s Beauty Salon on Saturday morning, I wondered how many people had already canceled their hair appointments.
The clouds were still slumbering at 9 a.m., but the morning news report had assured everyone that heavy showers were inevitable. Rain equals bad hair, which means no customers and, thus, a high probability of failure in my attempt to profile the small beauty shop. But owner Erica Mendoza was expecting me, so I decided to show up anyway.
Approaching the salon I look through the windows.
I count four stylists, nine customers—some waiting on red couches—and three children playing with the toys Erica has laid out on in the waiting area. The space is less than half the size of a school classroom with a shallow ceiling and a tiled floor. Mounds of cut hair piled at each beauty station suggest the staff has been already been working for some time this morning.
It’s now 9:30 a.m.
Mendoza greets me. The 29-year-old is perfectly coiffed, dressed in black jeans, black boots and a black jacket. She tells me I’m welcome to speak to her customers and staff “as long as they want to talk to you.”
My heart beats a little faster.
Mendoza says 90 percent of her customers are Spanish-speakers. In fact, she prints her marketing materials only in Spanish. It’s been a long time since I’ve spoken Spanish.
I make my first attempt with Jaime Martin.
¿Vienes aquí frecuentemente? “Do you come here often?”
I cringe. It sounds more like a pick-up line.
He tells me his wife comes here regularly, but for him it’s la primera vez. He got a buzz cut.
¿Cómo le gustas tu peinado? “How do you like your hairstyle?”
Muy bien, he says, giving me the thumbs up.
Mendoza tells me what she loves most about her job is being able to make people feel good.
“I love the first time I see their expression,” she says. “You get to see the before and the after.”
In the couple times I have met her, Mendoza’s demeanor is polite, yet reserved. But her enthusiasm begins to bubble when we stumble onto the topic of highlights.
“It’s so different than a regular haircut—you can really see the difference,” she enthuses. “I like giving people makeovers.”
A whole new look is what brought Elizabeth Illan to the shop today. She’s ready to start another year fresh and is planning to celebrate her 31st birthday at a concert in San Jose.
Illan tells me she is taking 30 friends with her to the event.
A person for each year, I joke.
Illan is friends with Mendoza’s sister and has been coming to the salon for a couple years. She used to live in Richmond but now lives in nearby Hercules.
“I used to go just wherever,” she says. “After the first time I came here I told my mom about it right away.”
Her mom and sister are now regulars, too.
Mendoza tells me that up to this day few of her own family members are clients.
“They think that if they were clients they could get it for free,” she says, laughing.
At least one family member, though, gets an exception.
“She did my hair for a quinceañera,” says Mendoza’s niece Kimberly Mendoza, 14. “She gave me a ‘bump’ with curls.”
(For those unhip to the term, a ‘bump’ is a more modest version of the now infamous Snooki hair pouf.)
Kimberly has been spending her afternoons working the cash register at the salon. It’s a convenient first job. The teen, who is wearing a rhinestone headband and jewel encrusted jeans today, simply walks across the street from Richmond High School on weekdays.
“It’s funny, I normally come in on Fridays around 3 p.m. when the students are coming out, and then I walk in here and I recognize people from high school,” says Efrain Schroder, who went to Richmond High School in the 90s with Mendoza and Illan.
He’s a tall, handsome man with slicked-back hair. As he waits for his appointment, he tells me what he remembers about Mendoza.
“She was a quiet person, always studying,” he says.
Mendoza remember things differently.
“I was always doing everyone’s hair for rallies and prom,” she said. “In high school, I knew I would never be someone who worked in an office.”
However, she never pictured herself as a business owner either.
At 14, Mendoza emigrated from Michoacán, Mexico—the same state where my own mother grew up.
After graduating from Richmond High, Mendoza worked for the Burger King at Hilltop Mall while putting herself through a cosmetology program. When she got her license she was happy to find work at an existing beauty salon. Then one day a family friend told her about a hairdresser that was closing up shop and a landlord who was hoping someone would come take the business over, equipment and all. With a small loan from her father she decided to take a chance.
“It was scary,” says Mendoza, who is married and a mother to one daughter. “I knew I was going to have all these bills to pay, and I couldn’t be sure of a paycheck anymore.”
But the decision turned out to be fruitful—at least in the beginning.
“The first two years were so good,” she says, her eyes widening. But then came the storm that hasn’t quite stopped. “Now it’s a roller coaster, up and down, because of this economy.”
Schroder is quick to praise his classmate for hanging in there. He says he can’t recall any other high school friends who have their own businesses right now.
In March, Erica’s Beauty Salon will celebrate its fifth anniversary. Mendoza says she has no regrets about the choice she made.
I’ve been interviewing people in the salon for a few hours at this point. I’m impressed—albeit concerned—by how many hours any stylist can work with the smell of peroxide, hair spray and nail polish remover wafting through the air.
Mendoza’s team works quick and efficiently. As soon as one woman’s hair has been wrapped in foil they seat her to the side for the color to set in and seat the next person at the mirror.
I take a second to note that these women are all styled as neatly as Mendoza, and my own vanity kicks in. I turn to the side and smear on some lipstick. My mom always told me that where she comes from, looking put together is not just about looking good, it is a sign of respect for the people you work with.
I chat briefly with Carmen Campos who has been working at Erica’s Beauty Salon for more than three years. Like Mendoza, she emigrated from Mexico as a young woman. The two friends also worked together at Burger King. A few years later, Campos decided to go to cosmetology school, too, and eventually came to work at Erica’s Beauty Salon.
Today, another Erica walks through the door–Erica Lopez and her teens Sofia, 14 and Georgie, 15.
¿Me prestas el libro con peinados differentes? “May I borrow the book with different hairstyles,” she asks Mendoza.
The women huddle together. They are making a last minute decision. Today is Georgie’s quinceañera, an event Lopez says they’ve been planning for more than a year.
The two Ericas begin speaking rapidly, and I struggle to follow their Spanish. Georgie pulls out a hair ornament from a plastic box: pink and silver feathers wrapped in silver ribbon with crystal beads hanging from the side.
The group settles on a popular hair choice: a bump with curls.
I ask Georgie what her dress looks like.
“Pink and pouffy,” she says before flashing me her hands.
She came into Mendoza’s salon yesterday to get her nails done. They’re pink with silver glitter tips and rose appliqués. The middle fingers have Hello Kitty faces.
Her sister Sofia is still looking at the hairstyle book. She spots a model with ear piercings and tells her mother, “You should let me get my ears pierced.”
Her mother shoots her a ”not this again” look. Then, before the confrontation can escalate any further, Campos steps in.
¿Estás lista? “Are you ready?” Campos asks Lopez, directing the mother to her beauty station.
I ask Sofia how often she comes to this salon, and she says it’s her first time. Then I ask her if she can imagine being back here next year for her own quinceañera.
“I don’t want a quinceañera,” she says. “I’m hoping to go to Europe next summer.”
I laugh to myself. Not because her goal is a lofty one, but because it was the same choice I made when I was her age. I passed on the pouffy dress, on tradition and begged my mother to send me on a foreign exchange trip instead.
Lopez tells me she is open to funding her daughter’s trip, but she wants Sofia to see Georgie’s big day first. She wants to make sure Sofia has no regrets about skipping the coming-of-age celebration.
It’s close to noon and sunlight is breaking through the clouds. Hours from now the showers will hit hard, but for the time being everyone’s hair is safe.
I walk over to Mendoza’s station where she is curling Georgie’s hair.
She tells me she loves working on hair for weddings and quinceañeras.
“They want to look gorgeous and all the details we put into their hair—I think we make their day,” she says. “I love what I do for work.”
So far Georgie looks like “Cousin It” from the “Addams Family.” Tresses of hair cover her face.
But with each layer Mendoza peels back, you get a better view of a beautiful woman in the making.