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Roots show at this salon

Adults who first came to Pueblos Unidos for haircuts as children still patronize the Compton shop, with new generations in tow.

September 05, 2008|Marjorie Miller | Times Staff Writer

Shortly before 5 a.m. on a recent Saturday, Josie Reynaga welcomes three generations of the Castaneda family into her Pueblos Unidos hair salon in Compton, where half a dozen stylists await the groggy clients with curling irons and cans of Aqua Net at the ready.

A dozen mothers and daughters, sisters, cousins and in-laws file in to get their hair done for Irene Castaneda's quinceanera, her elaborate 15th birthday party. And Reynaga knows most of them by name.

Among the first to be seated in a glow of fluorescent light is 85-year-old matriarch Maria Domitila Lopez, whose stockings sag under the weight of early morning. Her thinning locks present a hairdresser's challenge. Martina Castaneda, 44, sits next to her mother dispatching advice and flipping through magazines for inspiration. As the smell of sweet bread wafts in from the panaderia nearby and ranchera music drowns out the noise of blow dryers, the sleepy teenage star of the show is prodded into a stylist's chair.

Over the next three hours, hair is teased and curled, pinned into buns and sprayed into ringlets. Reynaga herself studs the youngest ones' tresses with plastic jewels that twinkle like pink and purple stars. Most of the women admire themselves in the mirror through an aerosol haze. But one cousin pulls apart her new hairdo, muttering, "I look like my mom."

Finally, a tiara is set atop Irene Castaneda's coif and her braces-filled grin beams unfettered joy.

"A quinceanera is very big, very sacred," Reynaga said. "The most important thing is that the 15-year-old girl leaves here happy and feeling like a princess."

This one does.

But for Reynaga, the day is just beginning. As the party crowd departs, the staff throws open the doors to the rest of the customers.

Pueblos Unidos has been a fixture in the Latino community of Compton for nearly a quarter of a century, a kind of town square where men and women take their children for haircuts on Saturday mornings and run into their neighbors. For wedding, baptism or quinceanera groups willing to make a down payment, Reynaga will open before dawn. By 8 a.m., the phone is ringing with requests for same-day appointments, although Reynaga notes that many clients show up late.

A flat top or fade cut, the most popular styles for boys and young men, costs just $7, and the shop is trouble-free in a city that has known its share of trouble on the street.

Just in case anyone is thinking of bringing their problems inside, a sign in Spanish warns patrons that "if you have come in a bad mood . . . or thinking we don't know what we're doing, or with bad intentions, or jealousy, go away and come back another day when you feel better."

Despite this -- or perhaps because of it -- as many as 100 clients come through on an average Saturday. Reynaga works reception and greets her customers as if she were a small-town mayor in Mexico.

"I say, 'How are you? Why haven't you been in? Where's your mother? How's the baby?' " she explained.

Much of the traffic is walk-in, and many of the first customers on this Saturday morning are men trying to get ahead of the women who want time-consuming color treatments, perms and extensions. As in a bus station waiting room, there are rows of benches for patrons biding their time, and frequently they are full. Children don't appear to mind the wait, fascinated by the chatter of adults who seem to have forgotten children are present, and the distractions of quarter-fed horse rides, table hockey and gum ball machines. You never know, there might be a piece of bread from the bakery for good behavior, or cherries from the fruit vendor passing through.

"You don't see any crying," said Cesar Garibaldi, 35, who came in for a cut with his 11-year-old son.

Reynaga, 49, is a single mother with six sons, ages 10 to 32. She learned hairdressing from an aunt in Sinaloa, Mexico, before coming north to California as a girl. She had her first child in 1976, when she was 18, hoping that an American-born baby would help her get legal residency, which it did. She has been working ever since, raising a family, running a business and helping her Catholic church.

Reynaga has the bearing of a confident woman. She wears her bleach-blond hair long and her jeans tight. Her eyebrows are tattooed. Once she sees her youngest into his teens, she said, she plans to run for Compton City Council.

In the meantime, she's an operator, perfecting her political skills. She displays posters advertising a horse show and fundraiser she's throwing for her church, which will use the money for a Mexican Independence Day celebration at which Reynaga will promote her salon.

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