Episode 45: My Forever American Dream with Leysa

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About Immigrant Heritage Month on Hair Love Radio:

If you know anything about Hair Love Radio, you know how much we love leaning into the power of storytelling. We truly believe that stories change the world.

Everyone has a unique story that is completely their own, and that’s why this month we are so thrilled and honored to be celebrating Immigrant Heritage Month. We are celebrating on the podcast by interviewing some of the most inspiring, empowering, and beautiful souls in our industry.

These are women who are making waves, shaking things up, and have overcome so much - and are opening up on a whole new level on the podcast. We are so excited for you to listen to these stories, to help us honor their amazing journeys, and to let them fill up your hearts with love and gratitude.

This is Leysa

Leysa Carrillo is a first-generation immigrant from Cuba. She is a vibrant hair colorist based in Las Vegas, Nevada with over nine years of experience. She is a nationally recognized industry leader for her hair color transformations on textured hair and continues to pave the way with her artistic flair and creative techniques.

With viral content featured on popular publications such as the INSIDER, Leysa has curated a strong social media presence and strives to use her platform to fuse creativity with technique and inspire others through engaging education.

We are honored to have her as a member of the Hair Love Tribe.

Some quick facts about Leysa Carrillo:

-Leysa is 38 years old.

-She is originally from Cuba.

-She immigrated to the United States at 22.

-She lives in Las Vegas, Nevada.

-Before diving into hairstyling, she traveled internationally as a dancer.

-She speaks English and Spanish, and understands Portuguese and Italian.

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The very beginning: Cuba

“Imagine growing up with no options.”

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Leysa is from a small fishing and beach town in Cuba called Varadero, about 2.5 hours away from the capital, Havana.

To sum it up, Leysa says there were no options where she was raised. From what to eat, to where to go to school, Leysa remembers how the government controlled basically everything about life in Cuba. However, she remembers having a very happy childhood.

“When you do not know any better, you can not compare.”

She and her community did not have the internet, so it was virtually impossible to get a peek into what life was like for people outside of the country. There were two TV channels - sports and news. She remembers being naive because of this, and looking back she describes it as a place that is stuck in time.

Despite all of this, because of being naive, Leysa said she did have a very happy childhood. She went to the beach a lot. Her community was very tight-knit.

Leysa says she remembers watching Lion King for the first time when she was 13, and being so elated that she did jumping jacks around the house. Watching a Disney movie for the first time was, in her words, “the best thing ever”.

Leysa’s first family home in Varadero, Cuba.

Leysa’s first family home in Varadero, Cuba.

Even today, Cubans can not travel out of the country. It is near impossible to acquire a travel visa and hop on a plane. As a Cuban citizen, even if you want to go visit family, Leysa says there is a mountain of paperwork to go through and money you have to pay to leave. Leysa says that very few people have enough money and resources to do that, so it’s basically impossible.

“There is nothing impossible for Leysa.”

In Cuba education is free, but Leysa said in order to achieve what you want, your options for schooling are extremely limited and there is a LOT of competition. Leysa said she had to fight very hard for what she needed and what she felt like she deserved.

Leysa wanted to be a dancer from a young age. The competition was steep. She had to audition for one of 20 spots at the country’s dance program. She was 7 years old when she left her home in Varadero to go to a nearby charter school to train to become a ballet dancer.

Charter schools in Cuba are not like charter schools in the United States. Leysa said there was no privacy at these schools, three people slept in one bed, you would eat rice every day, and there was no A/C.

As she got older, her dreams crashed down when she was told she was not going to be a ballet dancer. She put her ballet shoes and tutu on the shelf and decided to pursue contemporary dance instead.

Once Leysa graduated contemporary dance school, she was living in Havana, auditioning for different shows. She remembers how Havana only wanted Havanan locals in their shows, which made it hard for her to get her foot in the door. The government wanted Leysa to return back to her hometown. They would not give her a Havana identification card.

Google images: National Ballet School of Cuba

Google images: National Ballet School of Cuba

That is when she auditioned for the best show in Cuba and got the job - they loved her. Despite the government’s regulations, she stayed in Havana and worked on the show, staying at friends’ and a boyfriend’s house since she couldn’t legally lease an apartment there.

Her career brought her to Japan, at which point she saved up enough money to pay for her own place in Havana. Her father worked for the government and managed to get a letter from her hometown to allow her to live legally in Havana.

Leysa said she was so hungry to succeed and be the best that she did everything she could to stay on the show. She learned every routine and position. Because of her hard work, the show brought her to 17 different countries. And that is when her journey to the United States began.

Bailando en Las Vegas

The show was invited to perform in Vegas for Siegfried and Roy. Despite some friction from the Cuban government, Leysa was one of the first of 60 Cubans to visited the U.S. in over 50 years.

The Cuban government told Leysa’s troupe that if they went to perform in the United States, they would not have their normal lives when they returned home and their families would be in danger.

She lived in a hotel in Vegas for two years and performed for Siegfried and Roy. In 2004, at the end of the two years, she and her troupe decided that they had to stay in the U.S. She was 22 years old.

At that point, she and her team applied for political asylum, which meant she couldn’t see or talk to her family for five years. Before everything was finalized, her dad said, “Leysa, follow your dreams.”

Headline: “Cuban troupe in mass defection”

She didn’t know if she would see her family again. After five years and missing her family, Leysa became an American citizen. She also managed to be able to travel safely back to Cuba and visit her family.

Leysa said the decision to stay in the United States was the hardest thing, but she knew it was the best way she could help her family back in Cuba.

She emotionally recounted the first time she came back to visit Cuba. She treated her parents to their very first hotel stay, got them room service, and paid for them to get massages. She said it was their first time ordering off of a menu, and she had to order for them. It was a heartbreaking, emotional, amazing experience.

Her mother now lives in Las Vegas near Leysa, and she has some cousins who live in Florida. Her father still lives in Cuba. Whenever the time comes to return back to the U.S. after visiting, it always makes her very sad to leave her family behind and guilty to return to her new home in the U.S.

Photo courtesy of Leysa Carrillo.

Photo courtesy of Leysa Carrillo.

Siegfried and Roy: Havana Night Club courtesy of Getty Images

Siegfried and Roy: Havana Night Club courtesy of Getty Images

Returning to Cuba

Leysa says it’s hard to not feel guilty about getting nice things for herself and living what she calls an “American life” knowing how her family and community are living back in Cuba.

She said it is so hard to only visit for short periods every year. Her father is showing the early symptoms of Alzheimer’s, so next year she is planning to spend a month in Cuba with him.

Her neighbors in Cuba take very good care of her father, and she is so overwhelmed with gratitude for her Cuban community.

When she goes to visit, she tries to do something helpful every time like bringing money, supplies for the orphanage down the street, or giving her neighbors haircuts.  

She remembers last time she was there, she gave 14 haircuts to the neighbors who take care of her aging father. She remembers not even have a spray bottle, but she had some water in a bucket and found a meaningful way to give back to her community. They loved it.

“This is the best country”

Leysa loves living in the United States. She loves how many opportunities and freedom there is. She is so grateful for being able to share her story. Her past and where she is now has given her a beautiful perspective, and so much gratitude. When you live through not having running water or much to eat, it makes you really appreciate the simple things.

 
Leysa with her father in Cuba, next to a tree that was planted in the 1890’s

Leysa with her father in Cuba, next to a tree that was planted in the 1890’s

If you are struggling with your outlook on life or are having a hard time feeling grateful for what you have, Leysa recommends going to a country in poverty for three days. It will completely change your perspective.

Just a few of Leysa’s amazing textured creations.

Just a few of Leysa’s amazing textured creations.

The Upward Spiral into Hair

About three years ago, Leysa’s career as a hairstylist took a turn. She realized that she had become one of those people that would say “no” to people who had a lot of hair, or had textured hair that she didn’t feel comfortable working with because she didn’t understand it.

She remembers on her 25th birthday, she walked into three different salons. She got a similar response from each one:

“Oh no, we can’t help you. We don’t do that kind of hair.”

She remembers promising herself that once she graduated beauty school that she didn’t want anyone else to feel that way.

But three years ago, she found herself in a place where she hadn’t received enough education to feel comfortable doing textured hair. She was working in one of the best salons in Las Vegas - which meant there weren’t many clients with curly hair. Leysa has a beautiful afro, and once she started attracting clients with texture, she knew something needed to change.

At that point, she started really diving into learning how to work with natural hear and began pioneering the textured hair education movement.

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“You have the same two hands that I have, and I think we can do the same job… the only thing you need to do textured hair is to have two hands and have the knowledge.”

-Leysa Carrillo

Leysa wants everyone to feel the same when they walk into the salon, which starts with stylists having the education and resources to feel comfortable working with textured hair.

She has been working on her education platform, Forever Curls, since then, and has been perfecting her education. She is looking forward to bring this education to all stylists.

Join the Textured Hair Movement

Curly, natural hair is beautiful. But Leysa says that a lot of her curly-haired clients are very sensitive and emotional about it because they got bullied when they were younger about their locks.

Leysa has experienced the same phenomenon, memorably while getting a passport photo taken where the photographer laughed at her and asked her to “smash” her hair down so it would conform to a passport photo template. She has been told in the past that her hair is not “professional-looking” enough for certain jobs. She understands that so many other people go through this outrageous, heartbreaking treatment every day.

Leysa says she needs every hairstylist’s help to join the curly haired education movement.

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We are on Team Leysa

We are so honored that Leysa was able to share her powerful story with us, and we are so looking forward to support her more as Forever Curls expands and spreads their amazing mission. We love Leysa SO MUCH and are so lucky to have her in this country and in the Hair Love Tribe!

If you want to learn more about Leysa, here are some links to check out:

Leysa’s Instagram

Leysa’s website

Leysa’s Forever Curls workshops



Interview led by Elizabeth Faye.

Show notes and article written by Emily Fisher.


Elizabeth Manuele