Photo of Wendy Florencio

It can almost be said that hairstyling is in Wendy Florencio’s DNA. In fact, the Curl Stylist Panelist says that her trajectory in life has been largely steered by her genetic, familial, and cultural influences.

Florencio is first-generation Dominican-American. This is reflected in how she looks, how she cooks, and the self-confidence that she endeavors to impart to her clients as the owner of Flo Cuts Hair Lounge in Columbia, South Carolina.

Photo of Wendy Florencio
Photo by Jay Hardman

Early influences

“I was 6 years old when my mother enrolled in cosmetology school in New York City,” she says. “Though she never took her test or worked as a stylist, I remember finding her book and becoming obsessed with learning how to cut hair and how to style it. [But] hairstyling is a hands-on craft. By 9 years old, I was convinced I could read that book a million times and I would never learn how to do it. I gave up on that dream.”

She went to college for graphic design and worked in that field for a number of years, but it simply didn’t fulfill her creative ambitions. She continued looking for something that truly called to her and fit her skills. And while she ultimately found her way, that path was not a straight or easy one.

“Fast-forward to 2013, a series of unfortunate events left me homeless with four children and no ideas,” she says. “I had to relocate to South Carolina for a more affordable cost of living and was hired by Sherrill’s University of Barbering and Cosmetology in Columbia. I was calling potential students and telling them about this awesome career opportunity where they could be their own boss and make their own schedule. [That’s] exactly what I needed.”

Florencio realized that she was telling other people about the career that she’d been searching for all along — the dream that she’d abandoned as a child because she didn’t understand how she could get the hands-on training, the very thing her employer now offered.

“Initially, I just needed a solution to my single parenting problem, but soon I fell in love with every aspect of [it],” she says. “I wanted to learn what was being taught. I didn’t have any lofty goals, I just wanted to learn. As a curly girl myself, I knew what was missing in the market. I knew what type of service I wanted to get.”

Once Florencio acknowledged her ambition, she needed to figure out a way to pursue it.

“The school is owned by Mrs. Wanda Short,” Florencio says. “She [offered me a scholarship], and I jumped headfirst into it.”

The loved tapping back into that fascination with hair that she’d had as a child. However, she quickly realized that the lessons available in a general course weren’t applicable to people with hair like hers.

“I asked my instructor many questions about cutting curls and defining curls and was quickly told that this would be an area I would have to pursue after licensing, because she couldn’t help me,” Florencio says. “After becoming licensed, I attended the DevaCurl Academy. I came back home and was booked within a week. Women were searching for what I was offering — and it’s been a wrap ever since.”

Nearly 30 years after finding that cosmetology book, she was finally following in her mother’s footsteps — and she planned to follow through, for both of them. “My mother is very proud and very happy that I have found my place in the professional world,” she says.

Photo of Wendy Florencio
Photo by Johnny McCoy

Embracing her roots

Another thing her mother is happy about? The fact that Florencio managed to embrace her own curly, natural hair in the course of her professional development journey.

“My mother is a European Latina. She was the epitome of beauty to me [growing up], but her hair was very fine and very straight,” Florencio says. “I hated everything about my hair because no matter what I tried, it wouldn’t lay like my mother’s hair. At 13, she finally allowed me to get my first relaxer. I was in heaven. My hair was finally straight, but I soon found out that I could never get the same results as with that first relaxer.”

She continued to chase that perfectly sleek look for years, with process after process. And it was a journey that she embarked on solely motivated by her own self-doubts.

“My mother was against me relaxing my hair,” Florencio explains. “She didn’t like her own hair because it couldn’t hold a style. She would tell me I had great hair because I could wear it however I liked.”

Just before New Year’s Eve in 2003, Florencio got tired of all the relaxers and decided to try a new tactic: chopping off her long locks. What remained sprang to life in all of its natural, curly glory. After seven years of chasing straight hair, the results were not at all what she expected.

“I was surprised to find that everyone loved my hair!” she says. “I would get compliments all the time from strangers. That really helped me embrace myself fully.”

It would be a turning point that changed everything for Florencio, and led to her influencing countless others on their own hair positivity and self-love journeys.

“I love being Dominican. It is probably my favorite part of myself,” she says. “Unfortunately, due to colonialism and slavery, my culture is full of ‘colorism’ and hate for our Afro descendant history. … Hair is straightened to the point where you would never know there were curls and coils in the DNA. There is pride in how straight you can get your hair because that shows how close you are to white. Choosing to wear my hair in its natural state has been a sort of rebellion against the system. I have been called names, told I look dirty, told my hair is nice — but I would look more professional or polished if it was straight.”

This only inspired her to go deeper and share her journey of curly hair discovery with a very supportive audience online. “I had started blogging about natural hair,” Florencio says. “I was making my own products and sharing recipes for deep conditioners I was mixing up in my kitchen. [That’s how I knew, once I reached cosmetology school], that if I was going to focus on an area of hair care, it would be natural hair and curls/coils.”

Photo of Wendy Florencio
Photo by Johnny McCoy

Passing it on

Today, Florencio strives to share everything she’s learned with others — especially her own children.

“Finally coming to the place where I embraced my DNA and everything that comes with it has to be one of the most liberating things that I have ever done for myself, and one of the most self-esteem-building things I have done for my children,” she says. “They are proud Afro-Caribbeans, and I am so thankful they didn’t have to go through the trauma of self-hate and self-rejection [that I did].”

Not only that, but there’s a chance that her story might come full-circle. After falling in love with hair thanks to her own mother’s background in cosmetology, Florencio now sees that spark in her own daughter. “One of my children is THE greatest curl specialist the world will ever know!” Florencio attests. “Stay on the lookout for Viki. She understands the science, has an eye for style, and enjoys playing in hair.”

Of course, Florencio also applies her background every day in the hair studio.

“I bring this revolutionary mindset to my practice as a curl artist,” she says. “I want everyone to see beauty in who they really are, to embrace every aspect of their unique makeup, and to be confident in the knowledge I share with them about their hair. It truly is a spiritual experience for my clients and myself.”

Yet, Florencio is also realistic. She knows that self-esteem is not something you can discover with one visit to a salon — no matter how amazing your stylist is or how empowering it is to finally learn about your curls. Fully embracing your natural hair can be a long-term process.

“My number one piece of advice to my clients is to love what come out of their follicles. To speak positively about their hair. There is no way you can love on yourself if your self-talk is negative and hateful,” she says. But it’s not an easy journey, because many of her clients arrive at her door as a last resort. And, she says: “If I can’t help them, they believe they are helpless and go back to relaxers or determine that wigs and extensions are their only options.”

“I see them about every four months and am always as amazed as them at the transformation that takes place,” she says. “There is a lot of crying and releasing that happens in my studio. A lot of rebirth. And I am so blessed to be able to be a sort of doula for them. I do not take their trust lightly. My clients sometimes need help in seeing themselves as fully beautiful — curls, coils, kinks, and all.”

When asked how she knows that she’s really getting through to them, she says: “When my clients say they feel free, that is the best feeling for me. They feel empowered and in control, and that is what it’s all about.”

WENDY’S SOFRITO RECIPE

“One of my favorite things about my culture is our delicious food,” Florencio says. “The base of most of our dishes is sofrito — a Caribbean and Latin American seasoning originating in Spain. Every household has their own recipe, mine being passed down from my great-grandmothers. It can be used to season beans, meats, stews, soups, yellow rice, pretty much anything.”

Photo of sofrito

1 green bell pepper, seeded and chopped
1 red bell pepper, seeded and chopped
1 jalapeno, seeded and chopped
2 ajíes gustoso peppers, tops removed
2 red onions, cut into large chunks 
3-4 medium heads garlic, peeled
2-3 sticks of celery, chopped
1 bunch of cilantro, stems and leaves
1 bunch of recao, stems and leaves
2 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons of Dominican ground oregano
Salt to taste
Black pepper to taste

Blend and store in a glass container. Keep refrigerated. Use to marinate meats, season stewed dishes, and add flavor to yellow rice or soups.

Note: Ajíes gustoso peppers (also known as ají dulce, ajicito, or ají cachucha) and recao (also known as sawtooth coriander, serrated coriander, shado beni, bhandhania, coulante, and fit weed) won’t likely be available at your local grocery store. Instead, look for these in markets that sell Puerto Rican and West Indian food.

Photo of sofrito