I don’t like to think of it as a bucket list, but I do have a few things I’d like to get to before my name appears in the obit section of the newspaper.
One of which is to speak Spanish fluently, or close to it, which is how I ended up hanging out last week at the Brooklyn Hair Styler salon in Boyle Heights.
Let me explain.
I can understand most of what’s happening in a Dodger game when I listen to Jaime Jarrin call the games in Spanish. I can understand most of the medical advice doled out on Farmacia Natural, a daily Spanish language radio program whose callers are prescribed oil of oregano and other natural cures for what ails them.
I’d be better off if my father — whose parents were from Spain — had spoken to me only in Spanish when I was a kid. But he didn’t, so I took Spanish in school and had a private instructor for a while about 15 years ago. But I’m losing brain cells fast, and you’ve got to stick with a language to make any progress.
So I figured I’d find a place where I could hang out now and again — a place where I could get conversational Spanish rather than the text-book stuff. Maybe a barbershop or salon, where people come and go and the conversations never stop, like at Tolliver’s Barber Shop in South L.A., only en español.
But I just couldn’t find the right place. So I headed to Boyle Heights and asked Ellie Hidalgo, pastoral associate at Dolores Mission Church and School, if she had any suggestions.
Hidalgo didn’t hesitate.
Maria Garcia, she said, is a parishioner who owns a salon. Hidalgo called Garcia with me standing by, but it didn’t sound like the phone call was going well.
“She’s laughing,” Hidalgo told me, holding her hand over the mouthpiece. But Garcia agreed to let me come by so she could take a look at the gringo with this crazy idea to study Spanish at a hair salon.
The unisex salon, which Garcia has run for 19 years, got its name from the days when Boyle Heights was a Jewish neighborhood, and Chavez Avenue was called Brooklyn Avenue. It sits across from La Parrilla Restaurant, next door to La Monarca bakery. There’s life on the street, where trees filter the sunlight and musicians stroll by with guitars or trumpets, on their way to wait for jobs at Mariachi Plaza.
Modesto Navarro runs a taco shop and juice bar on Garcia’s block and he told me she’s been cutting his hair for years. Leonor Turcios runs Cesar Chavez Travel, a full-service operation that can help you plan your trip, get married or divorced, or do your income taxes. Turcios said she too is a longtime customer of Garcia’s.
Garcia was still laughing when I got to her salon and asked, in Spanish:
Are you my teacher?
She didn’t seem interested in the $20 an hour I was happy to pay, but Garcia agreed to give things a try before handing me a dunce cap.
Soon, I had the run of the place, with its religious wall hangings and figurines and scents of perms, polish and dyes. On one wall, Garcia has a photo of the pope and pictures of her three kids and six grandchildren, one of whom had just texted her from Texas to say hello.
If Garcia was busy with a customer, I hung in the employee lounge area with other hair stylists and we talked about children, jealous husbands, telenovelas, gentrification and politicians national and local who have had zipper problems. If I got lost, Maria or a stylist named Jomary Avendano helped bring me up to speed, and I felt like I was back in Spanish school.
“We hear everything in here,” said Avendano, a 16-year employee who said customers often want more than a dye job or a cut. “We’re like psychologists. Like therapists. They talk and talk.”
About good times, about bad marriages, about deaths in the family.
“Sometimes I get emotional because I’m very sentimental,” said Avendano, who put me in her chair and gave me a great haircut at the men’s rate of just $12, un precio muy bueno.
“I love Maria like a second mother,” Avendano said, telling me she doesn’t know a better hair stylist or a kinder person.
If you were dropped into Brooklyn Hair Styler blindfolded, from some distant place, it wouldn’t be too hard to guess you were in Los Angeles. The radio plays Spanish ballads, but in the middle of the salon are three nail stations manned by Vietnamese-speaking employees. Garcia explained that during a nearby robbery and chase a year ago, a car crashed into Paul’s Nails, leaving the business without a place to operate.
The building still hasn’t been repaired, so Garcia rents space in her shop to Paul and Maria Dang, a husband and wife.
“She welcomed us with open arms,” said Maria, and Paul told me he now speaks a little bit of Spanish, English and Japanese along with Vietnamese.
I asked Maria Dang if she could teach me Vietnamese, but she said it’s much harder than Spanish and would take me years.
I’ll stick with Spanish for now.
I visited the salon three straight days and was reminded that the thing I love most about writing stories in Los Angeles is that you can find them behind every door: universal stories about dreams and disappointments, about starting in one place and aiming for another.
Garcia spent her early childhood in Jalisco. When her father went north to work in the bracero program, she and her mom and siblings waited and waited for him to come back, then boarded a bus and moved to Mexicali, where he joined them for a time.
When she was a teenager, Garcia said, she often rose at 2 a.m., with two brothers, crossed the border into Calexico and waited for a bus that took them to the fields to work long hard days for less than $3 an hour, money they turned over to their father to help with the bills.
She said she worked for 3½ years picking tomatoes, onions, lettuce and grapes. She worked in Yuma, Phoenix, the Imperial Valley, Sacramento and Modesto. Sometimes the farmworkers’ quarters were OK, sometimes not. Potable water was not always available, she said, remembering a time she had to bathe in a canal in Modesto.
Even now, when she shops for vegetables, she recalls the excruciating back pain from stooping all day, the suffocating air of buses with no air conditioning, and the rashes she got from poking her hands through prickly vines.
She recalls seeing Cesar Chavez in those days, and she told me about how much working conditions improved because of the movement he led. Now here she is, running her own business on a street named for him.
“It gave me experience and it gave me strength to do that work. Nothing after that seemed hard, and my life is easy,” said Garcia, who got married, started her family, got divorced, worked at J.C. Penney, worked in an auto parts factory, folded clothes in the garment district, and saved enough to go to cosmetology school and start her own businesses, first in the Imperial Valley and later in Bell and Los Angeles.
Garcia and I are the same age, and she said that, like me, she got to a point where she began thinking about the things she still wanted to do. At the top of her list was to study theology, so she completed a three-year program at the Loyola Institute of Spiritual Development and then started another three-year course, even as she helps take care of an aging mother who has forgotten her own story.
Garcia now chairs the pastoral council at Dolores Mission. One day at the salon, she had to excuse herself to meet a friend with whom she works on housing and immigration issues.
Gracias por todo, Maria.
Me gusta su escuela.