Climbing a ladder made of lipstick

Altagracia Valdez drops off a Mary Kay starter kit of cosmetics to her new recruit, Gabriel Sanchez, who rummages through the box while Valdez describes the products.
(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)
Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

Altagracia Valdez is dreaming of a perfect pink Cadillac. All she has to do to win it, according to her boss at Mary Kay Inc., is expand her list of conocidos.

Those familiar connections, she says, can adorn Valdez’s 60-year-old hands with diamond rings, pump up her bank account with enough money to pay the bills, buy a house and help her finally enjoy some middle-class financial security.

If Valdez can recruit a sales force of 30 and sell at least $18,000 worth of cosmetics in four months, she can win a free lease and insurance for her first Mary Kay car -- not the signature pink Cadillac emblazoned with the Mary Kay logo, but maybe a Saturn Vue or a Pontiac Vibe that she can trade in for a Cadillac if she keeps meeting sales quotas. If she falls short of winning the car, she can still earn a promotion if her sales total $16,000. And she can always try again.

The women Valdez is counting on to broaden her direct-sales force are mostly Spanish-speakers she meets knocking on doors in Azusa, La Puente and West Covina, immigrants with little spending money but a burning desire to improve their looks and finances.


In a land of opportunity, cosmetic direct sales looks like a shortcut to the middle class, a corporate ladder whose first rung doesn’t require a high school diploma or even English skills. As Latina saleswomen rise through the ranks, they are changing the face of Mary Kay, long associated with blond Texas founder Mary Kay Ash.

Mary Kay Inc. sees potential in the immigrants’ battered apartments and modest tract homes. Both Mary Kay and rivals such as Avon have recently seen sales swell among Latino immigrants in California.

“Sometimes a woman can have an empty stomach, but she has to have lipstick,” said Valdez’s boss, Sandra Chamorro, a Nicaraguan immigrant and single mother with a house in San Gabriel and a new pale pink Cadillac convertible, the Mary Kay reward for top sellers.

“Maybe,” Chamorro added, “you buy a little less milk.”

In November, in the dim living room of a West Covina tract house, Valdez was making that case as she gave a facial to Mary Lee Mejia, 19, a striking Salvadoran with blond highlights, blue-gray eyes and porcelain skin.

“There are no limits -- a woman can work for what she wants,” Valdez promised in Spanish as Mejia, who works in a recycling center, lifted a pink hand mirror to admire the results.

“And what about us?” asked Mejia’s fiancé, a Mexican mechanic who was smoothing on hand lotion as his brother dabbed on face cream. “Can we sell too?”


Sure, Valdez said, reassuring the man that joining her sales team wouldn’t interfere with his home life.

Valdez pointed to her daughter Cindy, 20, sitting beside her. Cindy is developmentally disabled, nonverbal and shy. Valdez takes her everywhere, even to her facial appointments and Mary Kay meetings. At first, Cindy hated the Mary Kay social gatherings, but she has grown to love the routine -- and the rewards. In the privacy of their one-bedroom apartment, Cindy models her mother’s rhinestone crowns, prizes Valdez earned for her recruiting.

This is a family business, Valdez told Mejia and the men. “Mary Kay said first comes God, then comes family, then business.”

Then Valdez made her pitch: Which items did Mejia and the others like best?


They couldn’t afford to buy anything. Mejia sank into her fiancé’s arms, whispering about lotion. But they were saving for a wedding, and the $22 lotion was too expensive.

Valdez changed tactics -- maybe they could sell for her. To start, she said, they would each need $108 for a sample kit of cosmetics. Once they began selling, they could keep half of the selling price -- $11 for the $22 lotion, for instance, with the remaining $11 divided among Valdez, her boss and Mary Kay Inc. She passed out Mary Kay catalogs. Give them to co-workers during lunch breaks, she said. Show them the new colors. Ask them what they like. Friends become clients you can count on to pay.

Mejiawatched Valdez pull a gold satchel from one of her makeup bags, unzip it and withdraw pink sign-up forms.


They all signed. They would find the money.

Valdez guided Cindy back to her 2000 Ford Focus, which had been acting up. She was disappointed she didn’t sell anything. But the new recruits, the consultoras, give her hope.

She was particularly pleased with Mejia, a delicate girl she first spotted through the window of a nearby apartment. La guera, she called her later, “the white girl.”

“Can you see that lady selling Mary Kay? She is going to make money because everybody wants to look like her.”

Valdez’s skin is caramel-colored, lined with age and hard times that Mary Kay creams and lotions can’t smooth away. But she has learned to use her grandmotherly looks to entice customers. Immigrant women welcome her into their homes like a relative, often during the day, to buy cosmetics while their husbands are away. They call her Alta, “tall” in Spanish, an ironic nickname for a diminutive woman who stands 5 feet 2, always looking up to somebody, always listening.

“It is a vocation, talking to people,” Valdez said as she drove to visit customers on a chilly Sunday night. “Sometimes they just need you there to listen, especially women.”

During their free facials, women vent to her about marriages, children, jobs, the stresses of life as some of this country’s most underpaid and underappreciated workers. Valdez listens, gently reminding them between peels that they deserve better -- a job, say, where they can work on their own schedule, spend time with their children and end the day looking better than when they started.

She highlights the reasons why she joined Mary Kay two years ago: to support her children, get out of the house, become independent. She doesn’t dwell on the darker details -- how desperate she was after she left her husband of 33 years, an illiterate construction worker who threatened to kill their children and once beat her so hard he broke her jaw.

Valdez doesn’t tell them that many of the 1,000 other mostly Latina sales consultants in her local network earn significantly less than their boss, who is one of 500 national sales directors. Talented new consultoras earn about $2,000 a month without benefits. By comparison, Chamorro, their boss, earns a six-figure annual income and is eligible for group health insurance.


Valdez has been promoted higher than a regular consultora -- she’s a “super estrella,” or superstar. But she still needs one more promotion, to director, to make her eligible for health insurance.

Valdez doesn’t tell her new recruits how torn she feels trying to move up the corporate ladder, to manage business and family, help her consultoras and please her boss.

Chamorro’s top sellers gather by rank for their monthly meetings at a small office in Alhambra. The veterans sit up front, flaunting their $300 purple suits, black pumps and real diamond and gold pins. Then come the new recruits, recent immigrants, hair tied back, clutching pictures of their dream cars as they slip in late and sit on folding chairs at the back. There’s Maria Sanchez, Carmen Torrez, Lorena Ramirez, Rosario Molina, Rita Villareal and Reynata Arradondo -- about 40 women, almost all mothers, some grandmothers.

If Valdez reaches her sales goal, she’ll be sitting up front with the veterans, too.

At the November meeting, Chamorro assumed her seat at a pink table at the front, flanked by portraits of the late Mary Kay Ash, who once invited her to tea at her famous pink Mary Kay mansion in Dallas.

What was your dream when you came to the U.S.? Chamorro asked her top sellers in Spanish. A ranch house in the hills? A pool? A car? All you need to achieve those dreams, she said, is to sell.

Your children will bug you for rides. Your husband may not respect your work. Don’t listen, she said. Stay focused on that dream.

Family is Valdez’s weakness.

She has seven children. When her oldest daughter, a public school administrator, needs a baby-sitter, Valdez cancels facials. When her recently separated son has trouble with his kids, Valdez stops by instead of calling potential customers. When Cindy, her baby, gets sick, Valdez stays home.


“When it comes to the family, I just can’t say no,” she said.

Many of her consultoras and customers have the same problem.

At one stop, a tract house with cars packed onto the narrow driveway, Valdez was greeted by a pregnant woman, an undocumented immigrant. She wanted cream to treat the spots on her face, but her husband insists that she save for the baby. The woman gave Valdez $70 to buy her a crib instead, a favor her trusted superstar consultora agreed to in the hopes of future sales.

Sometimes, Valdez cuts corners to recruit poor consultoras. She helps them cover their start-up costs. She gives some of them free makeup kits until they earn enough to pay her back. She supplies others with a few items to sell. Instead of paying them in cosmetics and pocketing the difference, the way some Mary Kay managers do, Valdez lets the women keep half the selling price.

Her generosity binds consultoras to her and helps her feel better about using them to achieve her goal.

“She’s really very good. Have you heard her on the phone?” said new recruit Esperanza Garcia, 21. Valdez was signing her up at Garcia’s office, a West Covina payday loan store where neon signs in the window announce: “We Buy & Sell Pesos.”

It was Nov. 30, Valdez’s last day to meet her $18,000 sales goal, and it was pouring rain.

Customers were canceling facials. Garcia, whose first name means “hope,” was the final recruit Valdez needed to meet her goal. The new consultora had $3,000 in sales lined up, but prospective sales didn’t count toward Valdez’s goal. She was about $2,000 short.

So Valdez slipped on her gold suit and climbed back into the car with Cindy, next to a pile of handouts her boss had made for her sales force.

“This is a decisive month for Altagracia Valdez to arrive at her goal,” the handouts said in Spanish, urging consultoras to sell at least $200 worth of makeup.

“Remember, to give is to receive.”

In the rain, Valdez approached locked apartment courtyards on Dora Guzman Avenue in La Puente, calling to children in Spanish to let her in. Inside, it smelled of Mexico -- cheap laundry detergent mingling with the sweet scent of simmering corn tortillas.

Valdez made her way through mud puddles, past garden Nativity scenes and apartments with pictures of the Virgin of Guadalupe taped to the windows, to a rickety stone staircase. Cindy climbed ahead. Valdez, loaded down with pink Mary Kay cosmetics bags, sped up behind her on JC Penney pumps.

Just as she reached the top, she slipped and fell.

Almost instantly, Valdez was up again and smiling, reassuring Cindy that she was OK. She knocked on the door of a consultora, a pregnant woman who had promised to recruit customers. The windows were dark. Neighbors didn’t know where the woman was.


Valdez tried a few other apartments, plodding with Cindy through the cold and damp. No luck.

Still, she didn’t lose hope. To win a car, she said, “we have to put our hearts into this and pay the price.”

Later that night, Valdez and one of Chamorro’s deputies calculated her final sales tally. Huddled over a pocket calculator on Valdez’s kitchen counter, they did the math to see if she had won the car.

In the end, she was $2,200 short.

There was some good news. Valdez was only $200 shy of her promotion. The deputy promised to make up the difference. Valdez will be crowned again with rhinestones, join the weekly managers’ meeting in a new black uniform and become eligible for health insurance. Most important, she said, she will double her commission on her consultoras’ sales, from 13% to 26%.

As for the Cadillac, she said, she will just have to go back to her conocidos and try again.