Maria Xiques-Lepko was always trying to make me look better. She was my barber for 15 years, starting in 1999, when she had her own salon — called Upper Cuts — in the 333 North Michigan building.
She was known to stand on Michigan Avenue in a red silk boxer’s robe to attract business. The three-chair store was a tribute to her late Cuban father, Alberto, a fan of boxing, particularly of Kid Gavilan, the early 1950s Cuban welterweight.
Ms. Xiques died Feb. 16 at Northwestern Memorial Hospital of complications from cancer. She was 56.
By 2002, she had shut down Upper Cuts and moved to Salon Doral on the ground floor of the Doral Plaza on North Michigan Avenue.
She fought cancer the past couple of years, taking up painting in part to spend more time with her mother, Julia, a painter and Spanish teacher in the Chicago Public Schools system.
Ms. Xiques provided a welcoming committee to Chicago for the first recent wave of Cubans to play for the White Sox. Former Sox pitchers Orlando “El Duque” Hernandez and Jose Contreras were customers and friends — even though El Duque uses an electric razor to keep his head shaven.
Many of Chicago’s Cuban Americans first learned of Ms. Xiques while still living in Cuba, where her uncle Americo Miranda is the manager of the popular Cuban dance-son band Los Van Van.
“Americo told me I should call his niece when I come to Chicago,” Hernandez said in a 2005 Sun-Times interview.
When they first met, Ms. Xiques cooked up a big batch of tostones (fried plantains), black beans and rice and ropa vieja (shredded flank steak in a garlic-and-tomato sauce).
Hernandez told Contreras, who told former Cub Alfonso Soriano. Word spread.
Ms. Xiques was born in Camaguey, Cuba’s third-largest city. She was 3 years old when a dozen members of her family fled Fidel Castro’s rule in July 1961. They flew to freedom on an airliner, telling authorities they were traveling to a wedding in Curaco. They took only their clothes. Though she didn’t know it at the time, Ms. Xiques was her family’s designated smuggler.
“My mom filled my doll with sand and hid her jewelry in my doll,” she said — to avoid having the authorities take the jewelry. “They were taking everything. But she knew they wouldn’t take a doll.”
After defecting, the family spent four years in Bogota before immigrating to Chicago in 1965. Her father — who died of a heart attack in 1986 — owned two pharmacies in Cuba. In Chicago, he worked in insurance sales, social work and the pharmaceutical industry.
The family did well. Ms. Xiques’ older sister Julie is a clinical psychologist in Chicago; her older brother Albert is a Chicago attorney, and younger brother John — the only member of the family born in America — is a Chicago police officer who also works security at Wrigley Field.
“I like to say if I ever go crazy, I’ll have someone to arrest me, someone to represent me in court and someone to get me well again,” Ms. Xiques once said.
She stood just 5-foot-2 but was a mile high with spunk. To open Upper Cuts in January 1997, she neeed to raise $20,000 and did. She previously worked at the now-defunct Master’s Stylist at Michigan and Ohio.
“I’m a single parent,” she said in a 1999 interview. “To make ends meet, after work I’d cut hair while I was cooking dinner in the kitchen of my [Logan Square] apartment. My neighbors must have thought, ‘What is this girl doing?’ Three or four guys would come to my house three nights a week.”
As a thank-you gesture, her regular night customers would sweep her kitchen floor. During the holidays, they’d bring a Christmas tree for her son Michael, who went on to graduate from the Chicago Academy of the Arts.
“On the day he graduated, she said, ‘He did it!’ ” school headmaster Frank Mustari said in a 1999 interview. “I said, ‘She did it!’ She continued on with her barbering so that he could excel at what he loves, which is acting.”
Until she got sick, Ms. Xiques would return to Cuba every 18 months to see family and friends. She’d faithfully pack combs and shampoos to bring along to donate to neighborhood barbershops in Camaguey and Havana.
“She touched everybody in a lot of ways with her happiness all the time,” her brother John Xiques said. “She was in contact with my mom every day. Prior to her going to dialysis treatment three times a week, Maria would be there. Maria’s husband Mark [Lepko] told us, ‘Keep an eye on your mother because your sister called her three or four times a day.’ Maria was always ready to do something for you if you needed it.”
Services have been held.