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Photo by George J. Tanber
Photo by George J. Tanber

Photo by George J. Tanber

Letter from Uruguay

Uruguayan Woman Overcomes
Long Odds En Route to Success

  MONTEVIDEO, Uruguay – When Daniela Borba was a young girl, barely surviving with her single mother and four siblings in single-room shanty, she used to walk through a glitzy suburb of this capital city called Carrasco.

  She imagined owning a business there one day. And, truthfully, a fantasy was all it possibly could be.

  Although Uruguay is one of South America’s more progressive countries, it’s not the United States, where success stories involving the distaff side are relatively common.

  The Uruguayan Dream. For women? Not so much.

  After all, this is a Latin American country, where men have a considerable advantage over women. That macho mentality long associated with Latino culture remains in play.

  For Daniela to achieve her goal she had to not only overcome her sex and impoverished upbringing, but also her ethnicity. As an Afro-Uruguayan, she’s part of a small minority in a country in which 87 percent of the population is of European descent.

  So, the idea of Daniela owning her own business anywhere in Uruguay, let alone Carrasco, was simply not likely.

                                                                 * * *

  Fast forward several decades. It’s a Monday morning in Galeria Roma, a swanky retail mall on Avenue Alfredo Arocena, Carrasco’s commercial center.  It’s the very place young Daniela imagined she might someday operate her own business.

  Except, it’s no longer wishful thinking.

  Half way up the mall’s main hallway is a shop with large block lettering on the frosted glass front. It reads DANIELABORBA, just like that. Inside is Daniela herself, sitting in the chair where, as a hair stylist, she tends to between six and 13 customers every day except Sunday.

  Although she’s been here a decade now and is a neighborhood fixture, Daniela has to remind herself from time-to-time that she really has traveled this distance.

  “To have this place, cost me a lot,” she says. “And to keep it going 10 years is, honestly, amazing. There were many hard moments. And lots of tears.”

  Daniela smiles easily and naturally, and has a large, infectious laugh. Her charismatic personality fills the room. I had been told she’s instantly likeable; the review was correct. Daniela is smartly dressed from neck to toe in black and white with immaculately groomed hair and nails. Given her profession, there’s no surprise there. She looks younger than her 48 years. That is surprising, considering her upbringing and the effort it took to get here.

The Early Years

  Her mother, Isabella, was employed as a domestic. She raised her five children alone, as her husband abandoned the family when Daniela was six.

  “My mother hated her work,” Daniela recalls. “But she had no choice. Her goal was to provide for her children and hope they could do better. So, she worked hard. Very hard. And persevered. She always kept going.”

  Our conversation about the past triggers a pleasant memory: As a young girl, Daniela remembers how she loved combing her sisters’ hair and that of her mother’s visiting friends, foreshadowing her future.

  By the time Daniela was 10, Isabelle had earned enough to buy a larger home to provide more room for her family. An uneducated woman, she made sure all her children attended school. Daniela made it half way through high school before leaving.

  At 16, she had decided on a career path. She was going to style hair. That announcement did not go over well with her mother, who considered it a poor choice for a woman at the time.

  Reflecting back to that critical moment in her life, Daniela says: “I always believed in fairy tales. But my mother thought I was just a dreamer.”

  In fact, Daniela had inherited her mother’s work ethic and determination, which proved crucial to her future.

  “Succeeding,” she says, “became a personal challenge for me.”

  Daniela enrolled in the country’s vocational school system, which is free. There, in addition to hair styling, she learned the other disciplines of her future profession - hair removal, manicures and makeup. While in school, she worked as a domestic and babysitter to earn income.

  Once Daniela earned her diploma, she began working in salons in the Carrasco area, developing a clientele. From the beginning, she had her eye on Galeria Roma but knew it would take time to get there.

  Meanwhile, when she was 27 and the only one of her siblings still living at home, her mother was diagnosed with terminal throat cancer. Daniela kept the house. She lives there today with her husband, Gonzalo Lopez, whom she married the year after her mother died, and their 12-year-old daughter, Gulieta.

  Finally, in 2013, 20 years after she began, it all came together. Her friend, Caroline Hernandez, helped her with a business plan. Her recently widowed sister, Silvia Cepeda, who had inherited some cash, provided the loan. And many of her loyal customers agreed to follow her to Galeria Roma, where DANIELABORBA was born.

Business Owner

  As she finishes her story, which she’s telling publicly for the first time, Daniela appears startled by her achievement, as if she never considered it before.

  I ask her how many of her friends from childhood own their own business or are successful in other endeavors.

  “I’m the only one who escaped,” she says.

And, then, a telling comment.

  “I’m still friends with many of them. They are all proud of me.”

  Along the way, there have been plenty of challenges. Initially, she had several employees, but that turned into a complicated burden.   She now works solo. Her daughter has health issues that require costly medicines, adding financial pressure. And leasing space in Carrasco is costly: She pays $1,000 monthly for her one-chair studio, a princely fee here. The rising cost of shampoos, conditioners and other supplies also is an issue as all of them are imported.

  On the plus side, Daniela has additional space above hers, which she has leased the past eight years to a hair removal specialist, Victoria Hernandez. Her customers have remained loyal. And her reputation as an excellent stylist with a lively personality - as well as the tasty coffee she serves - sends new ones through her door every day. She stays busy.

  I ask about her clientele. That evokes a big laugh. Daniela explains that Carrasco is Montevideo’s toniest suburb so more than half her customers are non-working women married to wealthy men. They could never relate to her previous world.

  “But for me it doesn’t matter who they are. I treat all my customers the same,” she says, a testament to her humble past.

  In the coming weeks, as the holidays approach, Daniela will work every day. The extra income is always welcome. When business slows in the new year, she’ll take some time off. She loves to travel. Over the years, she’s visited Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay – destinations that once would have been unimaginable, even for this for this fairy tale believer. Her next trip will be to Mexico City, where her brother, Nelson Cepeda, lives.

  I ask about her daughter.  She beams and shows me a video on her phone of Gulieta dressed in an indigenous Uruguayan costume performing in a parade with a dance troupe.

  “She tells me she would like to open a day spa in the future,” says Daniela. “She’s my clone.”

  What was seemingly impossible for the mother is certainly possible for her daughter, as often is the case when one generation sacrifices for the next.

  We talk about that for a moment, which raises memories of her mother. Sadly, she did not live to see her daughter succeed.

  Finally, as we prepare to say our goodbyes, Daniela says: “You know, I am a fortunate woman. My life has not been easy. And many things have happened to me. But my life today is much, much better than when I was young. So, I am very thankful for what I have.”

Editor’s note: Third in a series from a reporting trip to Uruguay Oct. 8-12, 2023

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