Latinas have turned to careers in beauty for generations. Salons serve as social landmarks in our communities — they’re a place to catch up with loved ones and bond over shared rituals. The women responsible for our blowouts and mani-pedis specialize in cosmetology, which centers haircare, nail care, and related beauty techniques. Their legacy set the stage for a new movement: If you’ve been on Instagram lately, you’ve probably noticed an uptick in Latina estheticians, who focus on skin-based services like facials, hair removal, microblading, and eyelash extensions. This increase could be attributed to any number of factors, but by and large, it comes down to two things: As demand for esthetic services soars, so does the population of Latinas in the US.
“It goes way beyond this current generation,” Daniela Marte, a New York state licensed esthetician and cofounder of DNA Skin NYC, tells Refinery29 Somos. Marte was raised by a single mother and grew up observing her beauty rituals. She says a lifelong interest in holistic treatments influenced her career choice, as did her family’s genetic acne. “I can still recall the times my mom would take me with her to facial services to manage her acne,” she explains. “It wasn’t until I experienced my first facial that I realized that’s what I wanted to do, and I was set on it.”
Mel Lagares, a licensed esthetician since 2020, credits her Tití with introducing her to the beauty world. But it wasn’t until 2019 — after earning her associate degree in communication — that she realized esthetics were her calling.
“I went to Puerto Rico to visit family, and my cousin and brother were talking about their passions,” she recalls. “I sat there like, ‘I’m not passionate about what I do at all.’ I went to my dad like, ‘Please don’t be mad at me, but I don’t want to go to college anymore. I want to be an esthetician.’ He said, ‘Do what you’ve gotta do if that’s what you want to do.’”
Like every sector of the beauty industry, the esthetics field has historically lacked diversity, which presents a major challenge to Latina estheticians. Lagares feels many spas and studios cater only to white skin and non-textured hair. Plus, she says most “credible” industry studies are performed on white subjects.
“We live in a world in which whiteness, or one’s proximity to whiteness, is the standard bearer of beauty,” says Johanna Fernandez, PhD, Associate History Professor at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. “You add patriarchy to the mix, and Black and brown women and girls begin to organize their lives around their appearance. That’s not to say that skincare is not important. It’s a dimension of self-care.”
Marte and Lagares have devoted their careers to reclaiming the parts of esthetics that serve them — and leaving behind ones that don’t.
“Being able to work with people of all different races and ethnicities, I feel like I have more experience than some people who have been in the industry for years and years because they don’t deal with a diverse clientele,” Lagares says.
Marte has noticed a recent uptick in women of color pursuing esthetics, which she attributes to increased awareness around the industry. “There’s been more of an emphasis on wellness, skincare, and taking care of yourself overall,” she explains. Still, she feels first-generation Latinas like her face disproportionate roadblocks: “We carry that burden of pressure from family, having to go to college and get a degree. Something like [esthetics] could be met with disapproval from family, and sometimes they’re your only support system.”
It may be viewed as unconventional, but as Lagares notes, esthetician school offers a concrete path to steady work. “You can get so much out of the work you’re doing, not only monetarily, but emotionally and mentally. Trades, especially ones involving familiar spaces like beauty, feel attainable and comfortable,” she says.
Being an esthetician comes with its fair share of obstacles. Marte notes that she and her business partner struggled to secure funding before opening their studio. They also had concerns about maintaining clients’ trust while turning a profit.
“We didn’t want to compromise our integrity, which unfortunately is sometimes prominent in this industry,” she says. “You’re sometimes being taken advantage of when the nature of business is to meet certain margins and make sales. It’s not always for the best experience or having the client’s best interests at heart.”
Lagares is focused on balancing her work at a spa with another part-time gig. “It’s pretty customary in the first three years that a lot of your time is spent building up clients and trying to get retention,” she explains. “At the moment, I work at Starbucks on the side. This industry is very up and down when it comes to traffic, especially when everything I make is based on what I’m booking.”
Even when estheticians balance multiple jobs, their work provides a unique refuge in Latine communities. Though they can’t replace a dermatologist, Lagares’ and Marte’s services offer an affordable entry point to customers who want to care for their skin, but may not have insurance. And when studios are staffed by Latinas, they create a welcoming environment for people who might otherwise shy away from self-care.
“I have clients who come in and are self-conscious, because maybe their English isn’t good and they don’t know where they can go to feel seen and valued,” Lagares says. “It’s really nice to look at somebody who’s so self-conscious about something like that and be like, ‘Listen, I grew up around this. You’re not required to fit any certain type of mold to come here, to get this service, and to enjoy yourself.’”
Dr. Fernandez agrees that representation is crucial in a beauty-related setting. “It’s an attempt on the part of marginalized women, women on the margins of this beauty industry, to carve out a space for themselves and assert their agency,” she says. "Ultimately, if you’re doing what you’re doing with a higher sense of history and consciousness, you’ll be better off in the end.”
Marte and Lagares hope Latinas continue to pursue esthetics in increasing numbers. Their advice for newcomers? “Know what you bring to the table, especially if you’re pursuing owning your own business,” says Marte. “Sometimes, we try to negate the power we have by seeking other influences, but I want my Latina sisters to know we are the influence.”