About Roberto's Albuquerque Hair Salon

“Almost 31 years ago I started with a Kmart mirror and two lawn chairs.  I had an old desk, a phone and nothing on the walls.  It was pea green.”,  Says Roberto.

Roberto Vasquez walks through his salon on San Mateo Boulevard NE and points around the room and reminisces.  It is funny how the cheap, stick-on mirrors are gone and in their place are huge makeup dressers.  The lawn chairs are now sleek, leather barber seats, and the bare walls are filled with pictures of clients, both famous and not, and numerous awards.

Up until 20 years ago, Roberto was one of the roughly 80,000

functionally illiterate adults in Albuquerque – people who can’t read a prescription label or write a check.  He finally picked up the phone and called the literacy program for help.  He didn’t fit the illiterate profile.  He is a successful businessman.  He even graduated from high school.

Roberto was born in Albuquerque shortly after his family fled Mexico in 1952.  In Mexico, Roberto’s father wrote newspaper articles in the early 1950’s advocating human rights for the poor, which angered some Mexican officials of the day.  The family fled certain persecution.

After arriving in Albuquerque, Roberto’s father, Merced, became one of the first tailors at Stromberg’s Clothiers for Men.  The family still lived in poverty in Martinez town, east of downtown Albuquerque.

Roberto remembers, “We were so poor I remember every time

it would rain, we’d put buckets everywhere.  The water would be pouring on the floor.  When it stopped raining, my dad would get the newspaper from the neighbor and make a paste with flour and water to patch the leaky ceiling.  I can remember eating my beans and tortillas and looking up at the ceiling and seeing cartoons plastered to the ceiling.  We could not afford TV so that was my entertainment.”

Roberto grew up speaking only Spanish.  When he started school at Longfellow Elementary, his first grade teacher would grab him by the arms and shake him because he could not speak English.

“I flunked the first grade and when I got back to school, I had the same teacher.  I said, ‘I am not going through this again.’ I hid in the trash cans in a nearby alley and listened for the bell.  On cue, he would walk home as if he went to school every day.  The school caught on and told my parents if I didn’t go to school they were breaking the law.  I had to go to school.  My parents were afraid they would be sent back to Mexico.”

Roberto learned to bring his teachers little gifts – his mama’s fresh tortillas or a bundle of lilacs he picked – to win their hearts.  As the teacher’s little helper with a big smile, school life changed for Roberto.

“I noticed the teacher did not shake me anymore.  I brought her something every day.  I did not care what it was.  She passed me.”

Other teachers passed him as well, all the way through Albuquerque High in 1971.  When he graduated he did not know how to read or write.  Thus began the trek into the world of deception.

Whether it meant filling out a deposit slip with the aid of a numbers chart or writing checks only at home, Roberto was able to hide his secret to even close friends for years.  Roberto’s sister, Olga, a first grade teacher, was his crutch.  She helped him spell.  He also used the yellow pages to find pictures to find the spelling of words.

When Roberto graduated from high school, the draft board was picking numbers for Vietnam.  His three brothers had already been drafted and warned him he needed to stay behind to take care of their parents if they did not return.  He could not go to college because he was too poor and did not know how to read and write.  He did not have the money to go to Canada to avoid the draft.

Then someone told him about becoming a priest.  I thought, “That is easy, all you have to do is pray.”

Roberto went to the seminary school in Santa Fe.  He got through religious training classes by conning a tutor into doing his homework for him.  He found out quickly that the priesthood was not for him.  After leaving the religious life he could not find a job.  He could not even take a trade class because of his inability to read and write.  The stress led to a severe ulcer and he was admitted to the hospital.

His friend Father Conran Runnebaum would visit him. He asked Roberto what he wanted to do with his life. The father suggested Roberto become a hairdresser because while in seminary he had cut

the children's hair in the pueblo. At first, he was reluctant because he knew his father only paid 50 cents for a haircut. He told Father Conran there is no money in cutting hair. Father Conran told Roberto, “Your parents have lived their own lives. It is time for you to live yours.”

Roberto’s illness became so bad he qualified for disability programs. Father Conran and Roberto’s doctor referred him to a vocational rehabilitation center in Arrito, New Mexico. “They gave me a toolbox with scissors, combs, and a book. I could not even pronounce it.” It was anatomy and physiology. He felt he would fail.

When he got to class the teacher told his students to put their books away. They used pictures. It was a blessing because pictures were what Roberto was good at remembering. Father Conran bought Roberto a tape recorder and he took notes in his own cryptic language with the use of select words. When state boards came along Roberto was allowed to take the written test orally.

The mail arrived Roberto had passed the exam. He had succeeded at something he really wanted to do. Roberto got his first job in Portales and later moved to Aztec. Later another dream came true and he began working for Sebring international in Albuquerque.

He saved enough for school in Paris and soon was able to attend classes in Italy and London. He became so advanced he was completing courses from Vidal Sassoon. He worked at Channel fashion shows and went to European hair styling tours in New York, Malaysia, and Tokyo. He opened Roberto’s Le Salon in 1981.

Today Roberto speaks to kids across the state about his experience in special education. He tells his story of how he defied the odds by becoming a success. One child asked, “Why don’t you learn to read and write?” Roberto made a deal with him. When the child got out of special education Roberto would learn how to read and write. Roberto made the call even though it was hard to face reality. Roberto chose Chicken Little as his first book to read. Next came Hansel and Gretel. Reading became one of his greatest gifts in life.

Roberto’s Father, Merced, taught him how to heal with herbs. Merced formulated a special hair care line before his death from cancer. Before he died a tradition began. Roberto holds a yearly fundraiser for causes such as AIDS, living through cancer, Youth at Risk Program Hospice.

After completing the literacy program Roberto wrote a poem especially for his father. He honored his father at the fundraiser by reading the poem aloud in front of the guests. After 38 years he could read and write. The poem compared reading to learning how to swim.  He described how it felt the first time he floated out in the Indian Ocean in a hand carved boat, how he stuck his head into the ocean and saw “God’s underwater garden.”

Today Roberto’s Le Salon hair care is sold across the planet. The all-natural ingredients and healing properties benefit the hair and body. The products are designed to go one step further by detoxifying and purification.

Map to Roberto’s