Copyright © 2018 Albuquerque Journal
Carmen’s Cuts is something of an incubator for hair salons in the International District. In recent years, the salon has had two stylists leave to start their own salons nearby.
“It’s good for them, but it’s hard for me because I have to find new clients,” said owner Carmen Baca. “But I’m happy for them.”
Her clients hail from all over Albuquerque and the metropolitan area: Bernalillo and Los Lunas, Belen and Santa Fe. And while Saturdays in the salon are busy, she said business is too slow during the week. That’s a big shift from three years ago, when she says the salon was “busy, busy, busy.”
What changed? She senses the city’s crime and economic issues have taken their toll on her Albuquerque-based clientele, many who have moved to other states. She said she sometimes thinks about closing the salon, maybe finding a job at Costco or Sam’s Club.
She said it would be a difficult end to a chapter that began 28 years ago, when Baca emigrated to the city from Chihuahua, Mexico. Her family, she said, was “looking for a better life,” and for the most part, they found that. Starting her own business 18 years ago didn’t mean going to the bank for a loan; for Carmen, it meant saving up her money for years until she could pay for her lease and equipment in cash.
Baca said her favorite haircut is long layers because it’s fast, though she noted that long layers don’t pay the bills: It’s the more expensive services like color or highlights that pay the rent. She also said there appears to be an increasing number of walk-in clients who try to negotiate her $15 haircut price down to $10 or less.
“Some people expect something for free,” she said. “That’s not how I work.”
DOMPREH INSURANCE AND FINANCIAL SERVICES
When asked how he went from living in Ghana to living in Albuquerque, Jesse Dompreh likes to joke that he was shipwrecked in the Rio Grande. In truth, Dompreh landed an internship in Illinois in 1980, stayed in the United States to work and do his graduate studies, then vacationed in New Mexico when his wife was pregnant with his first child. His wife fell in love with the state – they’ve been here more than 30 years.
“They failed to tell us New Mexico is the land of enchantment and entrapment,” said Dompreh.
But the transition to New Mexico was fraught with challenge. Dompreh’s wife was in Illinois to have the baby, Dompreh’s job offer fell through, and he didn’t want to use up the money he had saved for his child. A chance encounter at a basketball game lead to a roof over his head for a month, and Dompreh finally landed a position with the insurer State Farm. He opened his own agency in 1986.
Right from the start, Dompreh focused on serving Albuquerque’s Hispanic community in addition to its residents of other backgrounds. His first client was a Mexican immigrant, and Dompreh said both parties seemed to take comfort in the fact that they both spoke English with an accent.
“Here we were talking about tamales, and I told him that my grandmother fixed tamales back in the village,” he said. “We had a lot in common.”
As his business grew, so did his position within the community. He has served as both the president of the Albuquerque NAACP and the chairman of the Greater Albuquerque Chamber of Commerce. Dompreh said some of the same businesses that voted for him at the chamber were organizations he had to confront about discriminatory practices through his NAACP work.
Today, Dompreh said he is focused on giving back to the place that he says has given him so much. In addition to running his business, Dompreh is an associate pastor at St. Stephen’s United Methodist Church. He said one of his many interests is helping to house homeless families, in part because of his experience when he first came to New Mexico.
Uyen Nguyen’s birth certificate lists her place of birth as “international waters.” She was born in a boat as her parents. Da and Nga Nguyen, were fleeing Vietnam in 1977.
“It makes me emotional to think about it, to think about what they went through,” said the younger Nguyen, wiping away tears. “We’ve come so far since then.”
The family eventually found themselves in Albuquerque after Nguyen’s father joined the U.S. military. Today, Nguyen and her parents co-own and operate Coda Bakery, a Vietnamese deli and tofu house, which they took over from another family member in 2007.
Nguyen said that in the early days of their ownership, Coda’s customer base was almost exclusively Vietnamese, with few exceptions.
“A few people would wander into our store and immediately walk back out,” said Nguyen. “We knew we needed to make some changes.”
In 2010, the bakery moved within its building to a suite that faced Talin Market, creating more visibility for Central Avenue traffic. In 2013, Nguyen left her job as a labor and delivery nurse at the University of New Mexico Hospital to help her parents with the business, and with that came a complete re-imagining of the menu.
“I want to make sure the flavors are authentic, but also balanced for American customers,” said Nguyen. “I want them to think, ‘Hmm, this is different, but it’s good.'”
As a result, Coda now offers traditional Vietnamese dishes like banh mi sandwiches and coconut-festooned sticky rice, but also pastries laced with green chile. There’s less pork fat; there’s more color and lighter textures.
Nguyen has returned to the hospital, not as a registered nurse, but as an occasional caterer. It’s a part of the business she said she’d like to expand.