Hair on Earth salon bustled with activity the afternoon of September 12. But it was far from a typical day at this Sunnyside business. Sharply dressed volunteers of all ages zipped in and out of the building with trays of food and coolers of drinks as sounds from the Broncos game broadcast in the background. Large shade tents bordered the parking lot and banquet tables sat ready.
That day, colleagues, friends, family, and longtime clients of Hair on Earth’s former owner Virginia Gonzales came together to throw her the retirement party that had been delayed by COVID-19. The salon’s new owner Crystal Marquez, who took over the business in 2019, sees Gonzales as a great asset to the community and wanted to plan something big for her.
Gonzales’ friend Gerry Pergola arrived early to help set up food tables. She reflected back over the years she and Gonzales spent together, “Virginia’s friendly and helpful, very attentive to her customers. She always had a snack or a drink for us. She wanted us to really enjoy the experience. We became friends.” Gabriela Ramirez, who worked alongside Gonzales for over 25 years, described her as “beautiful, inside and out. Kind, generous and loving.”
Gonzales arrived to smiles and hugs, and the celebration began. Mariachi Luna arrived a short time later and the air buzzed with new waves of excitement. Party-goers hit the blacktop dance floor, with Gonzales herself demonstrating some of the best moves.
When Gonzales took over the salon and dubbed it Hair on Earth in 1974, women-owned businesses were uncommon. The local small business administration and banks she approached had little confidence a woman could succeed. But the salon’s owner at the time was eager to find someone to take over, and the young Gonzales had business savvy, undeniable skills and a base of clientele amassed from a decade working in the profession. He offered her a rental agreement with an option to buy the business after the first year.
The seeds of Gonzales’ career as a hairdresser were planted at Denver North High School when she and her cousin Jenny Gonzales attended a career day presentation given by Emily Griffith Opportunity School. Cosmetology was described as something women could do while also raising a family. Gonzales saw it as a way to pay her own way through college, where she went on to study business management and communications.
In her first decade as a hairdresser, Gonzales worked for—and eventually managed—in-house salons for May-D&F and the Regency Hotel. And then her father, a successful business owner himself, encouraged her to start thinking about writing her own paycheck.
“Women who stepped out of the box, we sacrificed time with family. Sometimes we were judged for this.” But Gonzales’ son Eric Bueno remembers it from another angle, “I knew my mom was always there for me.” He could easily walk to the salon from school or home. He has warm memories of a place that was always active with conversation and familiar faces from school or family or neighboring businesses.
When asked about her favorite hair styles over the years, Gonzales pointed to the iconic Dorothy Hamill wedge-style cut inspired by the 1976 Olympic women’s figure skating champion. “The Dorothy Hamill moved the industry. And it gave hairdressers a good name. It was easy to cut, and it looked really good.”
And before that, the beehive. “It was fun to do. With the backcomb, you sculpted the hair. And if the hair was longer, you could do a French roll with the beehive on top.” As a businesswoman, she recalled, styles like the beehive that took a little longer also generated a bit more revenue.
As hairstyles changed over the decades, so too did business trends in the industry. When Gonzales started, hairdressers worked as employees of a salon and then commissions. And now it’s common to rent a booth as an independent contractor. Was there a particular business challenge in all those early years? Gonzales worked diligently to find the right people to work for her. She sought out and developed trusting relationships. When a chair opened up, according to Bueno, his mom “looked for people she could help grow in the profession.”
Gonzales didn’t skip a beat with a retirement that began in tandem with a pandemic. She’s been involved in the community for years. She remembers back to her earliest support of Latino candidates running for office. Her building adjacent to the salon was vacant at just the right time for Laura DeHerrera to headquarter her campaign for Colorado House of Representatives there (she served from 1977-1982) and then Frederico Peña not long after.
Gonzales won’t leave those involvements behind. And she’s picked up an entirely new one: softball. In 2019 she began playing with the Colorado Peaches, a senior women’s softball organization. The Peaches are competing in the Huntsman World Senior Games this month, and Gonzales is optimistic her team—a combination of the 70+ and 75+ age groups—will medal.
Now that she has passed the baton to Crystal Marquez back at Hair on Earth, Gonzales is having a blast learning a new sport and enjoying the camaraderie of the Peaches. Bueno points to qualities that have served his mom well over the years, “She’s motivated, hard-working, smart, and competitive. And she’s unselfish, giving, and loving.” These qualities, and more, will continue to serve Virginia Gonzales well as she’s snapping up ground balls to right field, running the bases toward home, and cheering her teammates on.