The sound of the dryer can be heard from the sidewalk as one approaches Omar and Cristian’s salon. The light enters through the windows and the reflections of passing cars are seen in the mirrors. La Cubana runs her fingers through a customer’s hair, “done?” she asks. She finishes combing his hair, walks to the other side of the room to take a seat, and begins to share her story.
“Life in Cuba is a bit difficult,” Deborah Hecheveria says as she leans back in the hairdresser’s chair. “My mother had a private hair salon and there we did straightening and dyeing and I did the nails. I already had an idea of what I wanted and from there on, fighting.”
Hecheveria, 38, works at a hair salon on 22nd and Alabama streets. Her dyed reddish-purple hair contrasts with her dark complexion. Her long purple fingernails adorn her hands along with her rings. Hands that have been cutting and styling hundreds of heads in the Mission since 2006.
She is originally from Havana, Cuba and has been married for 20 years. She and her husband emigrated to the United States together in 2004, but their journey was not straightforward or easy.
“I left Cuba… and from Guatemala I spent nine months to claim my husband. When I had practically arranged everything for my husband, they had already given him his visa and everything in Cuba for Guatemala, I had to leave Guatemala with other Cubans for Mexico. There I was detained in Tapachula, later in Mexico City and there I found my husband. After being there, a month and 16 days, they gave us freedom. With the right to live in Mexico and then I went to live in Matamoros. In Matamoros, I crossed the border to Texas,” narrates Hecheveria.
She and her husband encountered some problems in Mexico. Authorities didn’t allow them to move through the territory, even though they had the documentation that gave them free passage to any part of Mexico. Hecheveria disputed the case with the authorities until they were finally granted free passage.
They were detained in Texas for a week in late 2004. The two took a three-day bus ride from Texas to Oakland, California, where they were reunited with Hecheveria’s mother and brother who already lived in the U.S.
“There are nine brothers in total. One in Cuba, one in Puerto Rico and the rest of us are spread out in the U.S.,” said Hecheveria.
Having already done nails in her mother’s salon in Cuba, she already knew what she really wanted to do. But she wanted to take another trip, moving from hand to head.
“I like hairdressing… I think I was born with that gift. I work calmly, I work well. It’s my job. I’m not trying hard to do something I don’t like. When I put in effort, it is because it is a job that I like”, she acknowledges.
She studied hairdressing in this country and has been working with the same Argentine owners of the salon Omar and Cristian for 16 years. She says that she is very comfortable there and that she has a good relationship with her co-workers.
“I work from Tuesday to Sunday. I have flexibility with time, for example, if I want to arrive at 11 in the morning, I can tell him I will come in at 11 a.m.”
Cristian Baldini is co-owner with his partner Omar. Baldini spoke warmly of his experience working with her.
“We clicked immediately, she has a very good sense of humor. It was a relationship that grew, today it is as if we were family. After so many years we have shared happy moments, sad moments, everything, absolutely everything…,” said Baldini.
“Deborah was very eager. She loves what she does, everything is very easy for her and she fits in with us…”, said Baldini, who cut the conversation to prepare to tell a funny anecdote about her: “It was the first day of work. I had a lot of people that day. Deborah was used to the hairdresser being a bit slower but that day we had so many people. She came well dressed with her heels. She left and I told Omar, she’s not coming back. Because she left tired…well…the next day she came back.”
As Deborah was serving a client, she suddenly interrupted: “And the next day, at six in the morning,” she said with an air of pride, while releasing a laugh.
Hecheveria identifies as Latina. When asked what the words Afro-Latina, Latina, and Black meant to her, she answered using a phrase that sounded more like a specialty offered at a candy store or pastry shop: “They call me chocolate because I’m like chocolate. They tell me, “hey, you don’t speak English and you’re “morenita.’” I am from Cuba, in Cuba there are all colors, there is a mixture.”
However, she is aware of how sensitive the issue of colorism and racism can be. It all depends on the situation and the way things are said. When asked about how she felt being called by those nicknames, she replied:
“They call me Black woman for everything. Normal. It matters how they say it. I do not feel that they are discriminating against me for being Black. Black woman over here, Black woman over there, OK. But everything is OK. I don’t have a problem with my color,” Hecheveria said.
She says that people confuse her with being African-American, and that she doesn’t feel a connection to Afro-Latino culture or words.
“I am Latina. Although they confuse me with being an African-American, I am Latina,” she said.
She says that she would like to see the Latino community be more united. In addition to the Cuban beaches, she misses her friends and the sense of community and brotherhood.
With almost 18 years living in the U.S., Hecheveria continues to have a special affection for her homeland. She has traveled to Cuba to bring food and medicine for her family, especially with the effects of COVID-19.
La Cubana is preparing for her next trip to Cuba with her husband: “This time I think I’ll be there for a month. Because now we do go with time. I’ll travel with my husband, I’ll go with more peace of mind.”
We conclude with me asking, if you could go back in a time machine, what advice would you give yourself? And Hecheveria replied:
“I would have studied something else. Maybe the hairdresser but with more effort… but since I don’t know English that stops me a little. But anyway, everything can be done. What you have to do here is fight and get on with it.”