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.