From the staff

Column: Man comes to Durham with nothing, builds a life through hard work

vbridges@newsobserver.comNovember 7, 2013 

— Eddie Zuniga came to Durham with nothing but a little bag filled with big dreams.

He faced layers of adversity. He was gay. He was Hispanic. He was illegal.

But Eddie worked hard, walked miles, studied English, and graduated with honors from beauty school.

Now, 21 years later, Eddie, 44, is just another hardworking citizen living in a refurbished historic home with vegetable and rose gardens that he shares with his partner and three Yorkshire terriers – Kahlua, Scrappy and Kiara.

I met Eddie about 10 years ago, when I walked into Stage 1 Salon on Broad Street in Durham with a grown-out bad haircut.

Peace, inspiration, wisdom

I found peace in Eddie’s chair, inspiration in his passion and hope in his humble wisdom. Wisdom, no doubt, cultivated on his journey that started on a farm in Jalisco, Mexico, where his father stressed the importance of hard work as they tended to crops and cattle, pigs and horses.

Eddie was raised Catholic in a family that had 11 boys and three girls. He said he knew he was gay for as long as he can remember – and that made him different from his siblings.

A likable child, he helped his neighbors with their cattle, their farm or whatever. In return, they gave him calves, piglets, goats and chickens.

“Then I had to feed them and take care of them,” said Eddie, who had his own farm subset by 8. “Then I realized it was a good way to make money.”

Around 1986, Eddie, then 17, moved to Los Angeles and lived with five brothers in a crowded house. He worked in landscaping and in factories that sorted clothing or killed ducks. He took English classes at the community college.

A move to Durham

Eddie had just started dating his first boyfriend, when they attended a gay wedding in Los Angeles. They met a couple who had lived in Durham and suggested that Eddie and his boyfriend move there, where they could connect with a contact for a possible job at a KFC fast-food restaurant. A month later, they were on a one-way flight to Charlotte, where they then caught a Greyhound bus to Durham.

Their $200 ran out after they paid for the third night at a cheap motel. Eddie called St. Thomas More Catholic Church in Chapel Hill. The next day, Rita O’Neill of Durham, picked them up and took them to Waffle House, then to church, then to a homeless shelter in Chapel Hill.

Eddie, Rita said, reminded her of a little lost puppy dog – “you know how when a little puppy dog is lost and how their eyes just get bigger and bigger when you try to get close to them or help them,” she said.

Two months later, Eddie moved into an apartment that Rita, who Eddie started calling “Mom,” helped him find. Eddie, who split from his boyfriend after a couple of years, worked his way up to manager at KFC.

Meanwhile, he sought a second job at Foster’s Market, which he passed on his 2-mile walk from KFC to his bus stop.

Foster’s kitchen manager said it didn’t need help, but Eddie pointed out a dirty ceiling. Soon, he was cleaning the ceiling, painting the walls, washing the dishes. He made sandwiches, became the deli manager and was eventually promoted to chef.

When Eddie ran out of things to do inside, said owner Sara Foster, he would go outside. “He would tidy up the garden,” she said.

Eddie also obtained a permit to work in the United States legally, took more English classes at Durham Tech and was asked to be a hair model after visiting a salon in Brightleaf Square.

“Sure, I want to be a model,” Eddie said.

He attended styling competitions and was enchanted with the hair industry. He enrolled in Carolina Beauty College on Roxboro Road in Durham, working at Foster’s and cleaning homes and businesses to pay the tuition. Eddie liked the chemistry, but he found his passion when he started working with clients.

“I started seeing that I could make a difference and that I could help people with my work,” he said.

In 2005, Eddie bought a rambling old home and set out on a mission to restore it to its former glory.

Hair or home work

For the next five years, he was either working on hair or his home. He found wood to patch his floors and gates to decorate his yard from roadside trash piles. Friends helped and clients bartered.

“It was a combination of good relationships with friends and also willing to refurbish and take in other people’s trash,” Eddie said.

It was then that he learned that too much hard work can take a toll.

“To some people, I run myself almost to the grave, because that is when I got so sick,” he said.

Eddie spent six weeks in the hospital with pneumonia. His mother came to Durham for the first time to cook for him and to rub his back. Three years have passed, and his mom now splits her time between Los Angeles and Durham.

Despite Eddie’s triumphs, which include obtaining his U.S. citizenship in 2007, he remains humble. He is the kind of stylist who is booked two weeks out, but takes seven hours to save the hair of a client who in a deep depression left her locks in a bun for months. A stylist that helps a sick client take a dream vacation to a distant island and wants regulars to return even if they can’t pay.

“One of the things that I have learned since I have been on my own is ... that we are here for a reason,” Eddie said. “And if my reason is to give them a little bit of joy with my work, with what I do, I am grateful with that.”

Virginia Bridges is a business reporter for The News & Observer.

Bridges: 919-829-8917; Twitter: @virginiabridges

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