Originally published in The Nation
(You Have Nothing to Lose But Your Locks… and a Community to Win)
In one Havana neighborhood, they’re doing exactly that.
December 27 is celebrated in Cuba as the Day of the Barber and Hairdresser. The initiative was inaugurated by the prerevolutionary Cuban government in 1946, in honor of the barber, poet, and historian Juan Evangelista Valdés Veitía. In recent times, a local community project in the historic district of Old Havana known as Artecorte has sought to revive this holiday—and dignify the trade of hairdressing—with acts of public theater, hairstyle shows, and art festivals.
Beginning in 2010, Artecorte, together with the City Historian’s Office, renovated a small stretch of Calle Aguiar, baptizing it “Hairdressers’ Alley.” They restored the facades of the old colonial-style buildings and repaved the sidewalks of the languishing street. At the entrance to Hairdressers’ Alley there is a sculpture of a gigantic pair of scissors made of black steel by artist Alberto Matamoros. The inscription beneath it reads, “A Tribute to the Barbers and Hairdressers of the World.”
The project has been driven by local resident and legendary hairdresser Gilberto Valladares Reina (Papito), who sees hairdressing as an art and hairdressers as central to organizing communities and bringing about change in their societies. Papito hopes to connect with barbers and hairdressers around the world by requesting that they send a pair of their old hairdressing scissors to Artecorte, which will then attach them to the scissors monument, along with their names.
Papito’s hair salon, which also functions as a Barbershop Museum, is on the second floor of a walk-up building at the start of the street. It is filled with original paintings on the theme of hairdressing and antique collectors’ items of old cash registers, barber chairs, shaving brushes, and hairdressing equipment from the past century. A decade ago, this salon was the only business on what was a very poor street. Today, in this small stretch of only about 100 meters, there are 23 locally run small businesses such as outdoor cafés and restaurants that employ more than 100 people. The proceeds from these businesses are put back into the community, which includes a free bartending school and free hairdressing school on Calle Aguiar, in addition to a range of other activities in the broader Santo Ángel barrio. The walls and streets are filled with paintings, sculptures, and murals, as well as history placards showing old pictures of the street and the neighborhood from the 19th century.
Papito started the community school of hairdressing in 2010 to teach a trade to local kids, but now young people come from across the city to take his classes. The school is on the second floor of one of the colonial buildings that line the street. Papito, a light-skinned Cuban with a shaved head in his late 40s, stands before a group of some 20 students all attired in black. He makes notes on a whiteboard, cleaning it with a cloth and some shampoo, as he philosophizes, entertains, and imparts history while bantering with the students, who seem to hang on his every word.
Part of the course involves learning the basic skills of the trade, but Papito wants to equip his students with much more than technical training. He emphasizes that hairdressing is not just about cutting people’s hair. “We are artists, we are creators, we inspire,” he tells the students, encouraging them to look for inspiration in films, videos, magazines, television, from people walking by in the street. “One of the best fonts of inspiration is found in nature,” he says. “Shape, color, and the rhythms and movement of waves in the sea have inspired painters, poets, composers, and stylists.”
History is also fodder for inspiration. Pointing to the posters behind him—signature haircuts and barbershop classics from the 1940s—Papito tells his students to research hairstyles from earlier epochs with an eye to reinventing them. He says inspiration also frequently comes from street styles and nightspots. Papito wants to communicate to the students that the stylist is an artist who engages with society and works for social change. This is different from the profession in other parts of the world, where hairdressing is seen as a moneymaking business. “In Cuba,” says Papito, “hairdressers have the power to do something good for society.”
The students attending the school are from a range of backgrounds—white and mixed-race, but few black Cubans. One wonders if there is much awareness of the ways in which black hairstyles have long been seen as an art form and as a political statement. In the 1940s, African Americans expressed their identity through the conk hairstyle, and in the 1960s, Afro-Cubans wore natural Afros in solidarity with the Black Power movement in the United States.
Just a few houses up from the hairdressing school is a bartending school upstairs in the Bar Cabaña, where a visiting American bartender addresses a roomful of young Cubans dressed in red T-shirts with the logo of the French-Cuban company Havana Club, which funds the classes. He offers anecdotes and cultural explanations about such things as the home cocktail bar often found in American living rooms. Over a nine-month period, the students are trained in bartending skills; upon graduating, they will get a job in Cuba’s expanding tourism industry. One of the prerequisites for acceptance into the course is English-language skills. The students are also taught about the history of cocktails in Cuba, so that they can entertain patrons with this information.
Both the bartending and hairdressing schools are affiliated with the Artecorte project, and the students are encouraged to volunteer in community programs in the Santo Ángel barrio. The students organize activities such as painting, sports, and clown shows for neighborhood children, and they facilitate a weekly dance party with a live DJ for older Cubans at the Nueva Vida senior center, one street over. They also collect donations of clothes, soap, and shampoo for the seniors, and cut their hair.
When we arrive at the dance party, a 90-year-old woman with her white hair tied in two buns has the microphone and is belting out the lyrics to “Que Manera de Quererte,” by the Puerto Rican salsero Gilberto Santa Rosa. She dances in step to the music coming from the DJ and sings with great emotion: “Where can I get wet if not in your laughter? Where can I drink you if not in your mouth?” An elderly man in a tank top and cap swivels his hips next to her, and a black woman in a red headscarf spins around and waves her arms in the air. A few others get up, shaking their hips as they dance with some of the students. The other seated seniors whoop loudly, clap, and dance in their seats. “In what way can I love you?” they all chime in on the chorus. “In what way?”
Papito was born in 1969 in Santo Ángel. At the age of 18, he started working as a hairdresser in one of the state-run salons in the working-class neighborhood of Jesús María. Until 1993, when private businesses were legalized, almost all hairdressers and barbers were government employees. Papito opened his own private salon in 1999, where he has been working ever since. In the same year, he founded Artecorte.
The Cuban government authorized self-employment partly in response to the high unemployment that beset Cuba after the collapse of its main benefactor, the Soviet Union. Licenses were permitted for a range of trades, and in 1995 small family restaurants, known as paladares, were legalized. By 1996, there were more than 200,000 small businesses in Cuba, and with additional reforms introduced by Raúl Castro in 2010, that number has reached about 535,000.
Overall, the government’s approach toward small businesses has been incoherent. It has recognized the contributions made by these businesses to the national economy and in alleviating poverty in the face of reduced state services, but the government is also concerned about this sector’s political role, which it fears may eventually pose a threat. At times, the government has withdrawn licenses in certain trades and reintroduced restrictive legislation. Small businesses are vulnerable to crackdowns, and have often found themselves attacked by the media.
For some North American observers, the Cuban small-business sector represents the repressed spirit of entrepreneurialism that will liberate Cubans from the shackles of a state-managed economy. When then–US President Barack Obama visited Cuba in March 2016, he met with a group of Cuban entrepreneurs, including Papito. According to Papito, Obama told the assembled group that entrepreneurial youth in the United States face no limitations, and can make $100 million just by working out of their garage. Hearing Obama, however, Papito felt that such a system would not work in Cuba, where there is less of an individual drive to become a millionaire when so many cannot make ends meet, as well as a strong sense of solidarity with friends and neighbors who help one another out. “Culturally, we are different from the US and other parts of the world where everything is based in consumerism and individualism,” he said. “Cubans are socialized differently.”
Rather than joining a political opposition, many small-business owners like Papito have become informal leaders of their communities. Popular Power is the official system of local representation that was put in place after the revolution to reflect the concerns of the local barrios at the municipal and provincial levels. Papito’s father was a Popular Power delegate of the Santo Ángel barrio, and on one of the doors of Hairdressers’ Alley, a notice announces an upcoming assembly for the nomination of Popular Power delegates. But in recent times, people have come to have less faith in this system due to the lack of government resources. Hence the rise of informal leaders like Papito, who can address local infrastructure problems with his own funds or by soliciting donations from local residents and businesses. “By being an informal leader, I can do a lot more,” Papito says. “Things are not so politicized.”
Papito has started a national network of hairdressers that has 150 members in smaller towns and provinces across the country. Part of his mission has always been to share knowledge of the trade with people outside Havana. One video shows a younger Papito with short, bleached-blond hair visiting some members of the network in the central provincial town of Santa Clara. A woman explains her attraction to the profession. “You have many dreams inside you, and this gives you a way to express them,” she says. On December 27, 2007, 300 hairdressers from across the country occupied the Plaza Vieja in Old Havana in order to mark the Day of the Barber and Hairdresser. This corte simultáneo, or “simultaneous haircut,” was an act of theater that showed hairdressers rescuing the artistic values of the trade.
The Artecorte project has parallels with other urban-revitalization projects in former industrial or working-class neighborhoods around the world. As with these other projects, there are concerns here that the regeneration is contributing to a gentrification that could eventually force out the original residents, who are most vulnerable. Indeed, the presence of groups like Havana Club may signal moves toward shaping revitalization in the interests of the tourism industry and corporations. Yet unlike these other cases, Artecorte is directed by local residents, with barrio solidarity as their primary goal. “There is a crisis of values in our world today,” says Papito. “We cannot solve poverty only with money. We also need a sense of commonality.”