Title

The Beautiful Side of Civic Service in El Monte

Event.png
For survivors of domestic abuse, a simple haircut, facial or manicure can help renovate them and get them back on their feet. Photo courtesy of Professional Institute of Beauty.

The cheerful hum of female chatter punctuated by whirring hair dryers is the first sound to reach your ears when entering the Professional Institute of Beauty. Surrounded by dark wood vanity stations and sunny mirrors, students dressed in red uniforms are busy painting nails, lathering shampoo, and snipping away at wet hair with astounding confidence. The room itself is a tribute to the feminine senses: the cherry-scented shampoo, the bottles of rose nail polish lining the counters -- even the hairdressing mannequin heads, typically creepy in any other setting, seem to lend an air of glamour and composure to the room.

On paper, the Professional Institute of Beauty, or PIB for short, is a salon and school that trains its students in all areas of cosmetology, including hair cutting, coloring, manicures, pedicures, and makeup application. Situated in El Monte between a plus-size dress store and La Casa Barata, in a strip of open air shops known as the "Valley Mall," PIB could easily be dismissed as a typical beauty school offering cheap haircuts at the customer's own risk. But for many members of the community, PIB is more than just a pretty face.

"It helps our students to have better skills ... But at the same time, the students can learn a lot of beautiful things from helping other people," says Maria Aguila Quinonez, owner and director of PIB.

More than working with mannequins, students at The Professional Institute of Beauty learn to work with real people from all walks of life. Photo by Irene Hsu.
More than working with mannequins, students at The Professional Institute of Beauty learn to work with real people from all walks of life. Photo by Irene Hsu.

Indeed, PIB has devoted much of its time, energy, and beauty secrets to helping various members of the El Monte community. In 2011, PIB collaborated with the El Monte Police Department to help the residents of Walden House, a residential facility that assists female parolees transition to life outside prison. For this program, Quinonez organized a spa day, offering manicures, pedicures, and hair styling for over 50 women, free of charge. PIB also provides free haircuts to homeless war veterans at Whittier Narrows Regional Park every year, and regularly applies its makeover skills with the patrons of a nearby retirement home. Most recently, PIB collaborated with the Nativity Church for its Back to School Event, giving free haircuts to students before they begin the new school year.

"This is a school in the community that helps the community," says Tatiana Baca, a second-year student with impeccable eyebrows and coordinating deep blonde hairdo, from behind a manicure station. While describing her favorite charity events, Baca's enthusiasm shines through her expertly applied makeup. "For the Wheelchair Wash at Belvedere Park in East L.A. [in July 2013], we gave free haircuts to the physically disabled. You can see the difference in their faces, their faces light up." She points out how hard it is to get haircut for the wheelchair-bound, describing the lack of available access and transport to get what many of us take for granted.

Baca then describes a heartwarming tradition at the local retirement home. "They do a 'Prom Night' each year. They get dressed up and we do their hair and makeup. Then they dance and take pictures. I remember giving this woman a makeover. When we were done, she was looking in the mirror like she couldn't believe it and crying. She kept saying 'Oh my God, I love it!'"

PIB students give war veterans free haircuts at one of many community events they participate in. Photo courtesy of Professional Institute of Beauty.
PIB students give war veterans free haircuts at one of many community events they participate in. Photo courtesy of Professional Institute of Beauty.

Another PIB tradition is an annual spa day organized by local state representatives to help victims of domestic violence. During what she calls a Day of Pampering, Quinonez rallies her students and instructors to provide haircuts, highlights, manicures, pedicures, and makeovers for these survivors. The event takes place between September and October in honor of Domestic Violence Awareness Month, and is also a part of San Gabriel Valley's Annual Domestic Victim Collection Drive, which takes collections of clothing and supplies for women and children who are victims of domestic violence.

So how does a makeover help a victim of domestic abuse and rebuild her life? Both Quinonez and her students agree that the makeovers provide a therapeutic effect for abuse victims.

"I tell them 'today is just about you,'" explains Baca. "Sometimes people tell you their whole life stories, about the abuse against them and their children, and how helpless they feel. Even if it's sad and upsetting, they just want someone to listen and talk to. These women, who have been physically and emotionally abused, some of them don't want to get up in the mornings and do anything. Even if it's only for a few hours, everyone should feel beautiful."

Quinonez, as she tells story after story of women who were forced to sell drugs, whose children were taken away by Child Services, whose drug-addled police records kept them from getting back on their feet, puts it like this:

"I do it by giving them attention and love. By listening. When I see them walk in, they look shy. They feel insecure. I cannot believe what makeup and a haircut can do for a woman like that. Once they see themselves, they say, 'you know Ms. Quinonez, I feel like a lady now, I know my value, I feel I can do anything.' And I tell them 'look in the mirror, not just how pretty you look in the mirror, but what you have in your heart. Think of the many things you can do for yourself.'"

Beauticians in-training learn that listening to their client and knowing how to guide them to the resources they need is an important part of their profession. Photo by Irene Hsu.
Beauticians in-training learn that listening to their client and knowing how to guide them to the resources they need is an important part of their profession. Photo by Irene Hsu.

An immigrant who came to the U.S. from Tijuana, Mexico at the age of 15, Quinonez is a well-coiffed example of the many things that can be achieved through hard work, education and a helping hand.

Survival was not easy for Quinonez when she first moved to the States in 1965. Although already a beautician in Mexico, Quinonez had to work as a maid in Los Angeles, sleeping on the street during particularly rough times.

However, Quinonez's path changed course when patience and good fortune led her to work for the daughter of a doctor in Beverly Hills.

"I worked as a maid for a lady who ended up sending me to a private school in Beverly Hills, she dressed me all nice ... my son laughs about it now because I come from a very poor family and then I got sent to a rich school. She even gave me money to send to my father in Mexico."

Story continues below

With a prestigious high school education behind her, Quinonez set out to live her dream. She earned her cosmetology certification at the famed Marinellos School of Beauty , and then enrolled at Citrus College to get her instructor's license. Quinonez remembers two lessons of note while fulfilling her requirements at Citrus: "We learned how to get help for victims of domestic abuse. And I took a class in drug counseling at UCLA. They were helpful for what we do now."

In 2000, Ms. Quinonez bought the Professional Institute of Beauty and took on the role of director. Her son, Willie Quinonez became the school administrator with Olivia Jimenez as supervisor. Cleverly combining her beauty know-how with a desire to provide hands-on help to the community at large, Quinonez turned PIB into a successful business and school with an active volunteer program, even earning Rep. Judy Chu's DiverCities Businesswoman of the Year Award in 2012.

Although PIB is a business, both a school and a salon that offers beauty services on a regular basis, Quinonez insists that "we have to give without thinking of getting anything back in return." Instead, she offers free services at any time to every woman that attends the Day of Pampering. Quinonez also leaves her office door open to visitors that need a confidante, happy to give career advice and encouragement as needed: "It just means a lot as a woman to do this for another woman. It's such a great experience to give them attention and love, I don't care who they are. I tell them 'you are like a diamond, you have to shine.'"

We are dedicated to providing you with articles like this one. Show your support with a tax-deductible contribution to KCET. After all, public media is meant for the public. It belongs to all of us.

Keep Reading