When Lesly Herrera Castillo was diagnosed with three forms of cancer — brain, colon, and lymphoma — in 2014, she needed a work structure that would afford her more flexibility and support to continue her cosmetology career. She began discussing options with her friends, Joselyn Mendoza and Daniel Puerto, which would lead the trio to revisit a project they had dreamt about for years: Mirror Trans Beauty Co-op, a worker cooperative for trans Latina cosmetologists. “It was hard for me with no hair and my health being low,” Castillo says. “We started planning and it was slow, but every step was precise.”
This wasn’t the first time Castillo had to make a tough decision about her career. Back in her hometown of Hermosillo, Mexico in 1992, Castillo found it hard to land a job after graduating college. Her mother gave her an ultimatum: “Think of what you want [to do for work,] and this will be the last time I help you.” Enrolling in beauty school seemed like the smartest option because Castillo had worked in her older friend’s salon throughout her teenage years, discovering a natural flair for making others feel beautiful. “Sometimes he would have a lot of work and I started receiving requests like, ‘Go and wash this person’s hair,’” she remembers. “I started helping out with blow-drying, or he would mix the color and say, ‘Apply it from here to here.’ I learned by watching.”
Though she had the gift, Castillo (who was not out as trans or queer in those early salon days) never wanted to be a cosmetologist for fear of stigma, “but since there are no opportunities when we’re very feminine, or very feminine gay boys, it was one of the only options.” The early support from her mother goaded her into action: She funded Castillo’s beauty education to the tune of $40,000. Then, after graduating in 1995 and opening her own salon just years after, Castillo followed her boyfriend to the United States in 1999, hoping to find more opportunities and jumpstart her medical transition. “One of my goals was to make my dreams come true. I sold my hair salon and arrived to New York with $25,000 to get [sexual reassignment surgery]. But when I arrived, not everything was as I expected. I started spending the money on different things to survive.”
In New York City, Castillo scrambled to adjust to her new surroundings. It took nearly 15 months before she landed her first stateside job through a friend. She worked at that salon for several years before being fired. Then, on the quest for another job without the connections that initially got her foot in the door, she realized that she’d need a cosmetology license, which she couldn’t legally obtain due to her undocumented status. She began visiting community groups like Housing Works and Make The Road New York (MTRNY), where she found other LGBTQ+ people enduring similar employment issues. Absorbing advice from the people she met, she applied for asylum to get her career back off the ground.
“Something inside of me said, ‘Ain’t nobody telling me no.’ One person I met knew someone who worked in the Department of Licensing for the whole state,” she shares. “They sent me a number to fax. She wanted 10 interviews from my country and all of my documentation and certificates.” After following each step, she received her license about three months later — but the cancer diagnoses loomed in the immediate future.
While in the throes of recovery, Castillo thought of the many trans Latinas she met over the years who had become cosmetologists but lacked opportunities and resources. One of her closest friends, Joselyn Mendoza, fell within that category, but unlike Castillo, she didn’t have the initial familial support. “My family discriminated against me when I was in my hometown, and then [other] people started discriminating against me, too,” she says. “That was part of the reason I migrated.”
Before meeting Castillo at MTRNY in 2011, Mendoza had received a scholarship to study cosmetology and remembers she “fell in love with it after being in school constantly.” Now, she hopes the co-op will provide another route for other trans Latinas to skirt some of the social and professional obstacles she faced, especially those who are undocumented. “The co-op is going to give visibility to the trans community and help end stigma,” she says. “We’re providing a model that is accessible.”
That model, according to the United States Federation of Worker Cooperatives, requires that its worker-members “participate in the profits, oversight, and often management of the enterprise using democratic practices.” It has been regarded as “an effective tool for creating and maintaining sustainable, dignified jobs; generating wealth; improving the quality of life of workers; and promoting community and local economic development, particularly for people who lack access to business ownership or sustainable work options” — all things the longtime LGBTQ+ activist Daniel Puerto has come to champion.
Castillo and Mendoza met Puerto when he was a worker co-op developer at Make The Road New York, a member-based organization focusing on legal services, transformative education, and community organizing. Though he left the organization in 2016, he continued to assist in the incubation efforts of various businesses and believes Mirror Trans Beauty will be pioneering. “We know that Argentina and Quebec, Canada, have some transgender-led worker co-ops,” he says. “There aren’t that many cosmetology co-ops. This is one of the first of its kind, at least here in New York City.”
While their approach to the model is still evolving, at its core, it enforces equal share of the business and earnings for the participating cosmetologists. With a “for us, by us” methodology, they hope to bypass discrimination from cisgender gatekeepers in the beauty business industry. For instance, Jonahi Rosa, who just increased the co-op member count to four, experienced identity policing from a salon manager in her home, Puerto Rico. “[My boss] didn’t take advantage of me, but when she hired me she told me at the beginning of my transition that I couldn’t work with [my] hair extensions in,” she says. “[She didn’t understand that] it was something very important to me that wasn’t about being prettier, but it was for my health.” For another new member, Jamie Ariza, the co-op and the camaraderie will help other trans women “feel more empowered to work with any kind of people.”
With their experiences and aspirations finally converging, the four current members will be busy formalizing their cooperative throughout the rest of the year. They plan to officially commit to being a physical or mobile space by summer 2019. They are also in talks about whether they will incorporate or create a community-based organization that gives back to the community and helps other transgender people go to cosmetology school or start their own worker co-ops.
For now, the four members are conducting weekly meetings, fundraising, and working to recruit six more trans people to join. They are also raising their visibility by volunteering their services for low-income community members and organizations like SAGE and Women’s March Alliance in Harlem. As their plans begin to materialize, they are growing more confident in their understanding of the co-op model and what it will provide for their community down the road.
“I feel happy because I think we’re going to be the first co-op [like this],” Ariza says. “I hope we can create the same structure in other states. It’s a very big dream, and this is just the beginning.”