Virginia Castillo, owner of Nena's Hair Studio in Fruitvale, cuts her husband's hair in the shop. Credit: Amir Aziz

For Virginia Castillo, owner of Nena’s Hair Studio on International Boulevard in Fruitvale, opening her own business in 2015 was a dream come true. “Since I was nine years old, I’ve had scissors in my hands. I didn’t find them, they found me,” Castillo said in Spanish. “I haven’t gotten bored, I still love it.” 

Since she opened Nena’s Hair Studio, Castillo had been running her small shop by herself. Things got worse when the pandemic grounded daily life to a halt, and hair salons were hit hard. Under state COVID guidelines, cosmetic-based businesses were fully closed until January of last year. “I thought to myself, ‘What am I going to do because now I need to keep the shop open, but I still can’t work,” she said. 

Hair solon owner Virginia Castillo starts cutting her husband’s hair before her shop opens for the day. Credit: Amir Aziz

Then through some volunteer work that Castillo was doing in the neighborhood around food insecurity, she met an employee of The Unity Council, a nonprofit organization based in Fruitvale. The nonprofit offers a variety of services to business owners, housing tenants, and families living in Oakland, mainly in the Fruitvale area. 

“They told me to not close my business and that if I didn’t have money to pay rent, someone from their organization would help me fill out grant applications and their lawyers could help me negotiate with the property owner if I had issues,” Castillo said. 

In November, The Unity Council expanded this work by launching a program called Onward Oakland: Adelante Oakland. Castillo was made aware of this opportunity. “Now that I’m working with them, I realized I didn’t do a good job of opening my business. But now I know what to do,” she said. 

Breathing new life into lifelong dreams

La Nieta de Pancho, a retail store located at 3300 International Boulevard in Fruitvale. Credit: Amir Aziz

Onward Oakland: Adelante Oakland is a bilingual program created by The Unity Council to help small business owners with marketing, online sales, legal services, accounting, and developing a business plan. The program is open to all businesses in Oakland and translation services are available in Spanish, Vietnamese, Mam, Tagalog, and Arabic. 

So far, about 100 businesses have utilized the program and filled out the Onward Oakland: Adelante Oakland intake form asking for technical assistance. It has seen more participation among Fruitvale’s Latino businesses, as well as Black and Vietnamese business owners in the neighboring “Little Saigon” area of East Lake. Currently, Onward Oakland: Adelante Program is funded by Wells Fargo’s Open For Business grant and is set to run until the end of next year. 

Onward Oakland: Adelante Oakland is meant to be a response to COVID-19’s lasting impact on small businesses. A big focus is teaching business owners how to market themselves online and on social media. Many immigrant-owned businesses in areas like Fruitvale currently have little to no online presence. “We want to help the businesses move towards the 21st century, but we also needed to figure out how to keep them going now,” Mayra Chavez, business manager for The Unity Council, said.

Participants can learn how to use a computer and laptop, set up an email account—something Castillo learned through a training workshop—and beyond.  Participants get help setting up and managing social media accounts, or verifying their business on Yelp and other e-commerce platforms. 

Guadalupe Garcia, owner of La Nieta De Pancho, a spice shop and retail store located in Fruitvale. Garcia runs the shop with her husband Rodolfo Baron.

Other businesses, such as La Nieta de Pancho, a retail store on International Boulevard, needed help starting a business, such as applying for permits. Rodolfo Baron and his wife Guadalupe Garcia opened their store last year after working as street vendors selling a variety of goods throughout Oakland.

 At La Nieta de Pancho, they sell everything from dried chiles to candy to an assortment of spices. Baron and Garcia know how to sell and make people feel at home in their store, but their limited English skills made it difficult for them to navigate Oakland’s business application process. Thanks to what they learned from Adelante, they were able to fill out the necessary permits to formally open their business. “If I knew how to do it, I would do it by myself, but we needed the help,” Baron said. 

For Castillo, learning basic digital skills like using email and a computer has breathed life back into her lifelong dream of owning a salon. It’s a dream that’s already experienced major bumps in the road, well before the pandemic. She had always wanted to become a hairstylist and knew how to cut hair, but for many years could not apply for a cosmetology license due to her undocumented status. “I had to take jobs cleaning houses and taking care of children because I couldn’t become a hairstylist yet,” Castillo said in Spanish. 

Virginia Castillo, owner of Nena’s Hair Studio at 3451 International Boulevard, displays her certificates inside her shop. Credit: Amir Aziz

In 2014, Castillo was finally able to obtain a work permit through Obama-era immigration policies that allowed relatives of citizens to do so. “Once I obtained my license, I tried applying to salons but could not find a steady job,” Castillo said. “So I decided to open up my little salon.” 

By the time the pandemic hit in March of 2020, she had grown tired of managing everything herself with little growth in her customer base. “I was going to close my shop in February [of 2020] because I was working by myself and I was only making a little bit of money, some for me and enough to keep the shop open. My husband told me, ‘Wait a little longer, you’re going to be okay,’” she said. Through Onward Oakland, her shop is now listed online, and has an official work email. She hopes Unity Council will find a way to keep it going beyond next year.

Rodolfo Baron of La Nieta De Pancho and his wife Guadalupe Garcia are also happy with the permitting assistance they received and would now like to get help setting up a website for their store. “I want everyone to see the different kinds of spices we offer before coming into the shop,” Baron said. “I think that would help.” 

Currently, the program is set to end next year. Mayra Chavez of The Unity Council said that while Onward Oakland: Adelante Oakland might cease being a formal program, their organization will continue to offer the same digital literacy training and workshops and also expand their services. 

“Our services depend on the needs of the businesses because this pandemic is changing, and so do the needs of business owners,” Chavez said. She says she wants to continue to get more immigrant-owned businesses involved. Along with her work with the Unity Council, she helps her mother run the Mexican restaurant La Huarache Azteca, and she’s seen firsthand the benefits of having an online presence. 

“As someone who grew up seeing my parents run the business, us 2nd-generation business owners know the importance of getting a business ready for the 21st century,” Chavez said, “and that’s what we’re trying to do here.”  

La Tiendita de Pancho is at 3300 International Boulevard. Open everyday from 9 a.m- 5 p.m, or from 10 a.m-6 p.m (hours vary). Nena’s Hair Salon is at 3451 International Boulevard. Open Mon. through Sat. from 9 a.m- 6 p.m.

Ricky Rodas is a member of the 2020 graduating class of the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. Before joining The Oaklandside, he spent two years reporting on immigrant communities in the Bay Area as a reporter for the local news sites Oakland North, Mission Local, and Richmond Confidential. Rodas, who is Salvadoran American and bilingual, is on The Oaklandside team through a partnership with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms to report on under-covered issues and communities.