Stylist Mixes Business with Community

By Rebecca Ungarino and Jared Swedler

HAVANA – A steep, winding staircase in a narrow building on Calle Aguiar in Old Havana leads to a hair salon, its lemon-colored walls adorned with portraits of naked bodies and far-out hairstyles, all donated by friends of the salon’s owner.

The art, sketched, painted and water-colored, is hung above stylists’ bright red and orange decades-old restored chairs, glass shelves cluttered with tools of the trade and ornate rotary telephones for show.

Artecorte, one of Cuba’s first privately owned hair salons, dates from 1999, when it was one of few businesses registered as a private venture rather than a state-owned-and-operated shop. That was near the end of what is known as the “Special Period,” when the Soviet Union, as it went into decline, dramatically cut aid to Cuba.

Gilberto Valladares, known to all as "Papito," is a staple in his community in Old Havana. Photo by Angelique Courtiver.
Gilberto Valladares, known as Papito, is hoping that a lust for wealth will not erode Cubans’ sense of community. Photo by Angelique Couvertier

Now, as Cuba’s private sector grows because of economic reforms under President Raul Castro, Artecorte’s founder, Gilberto Valladares, partners with established and new private businesses to maintain the Cuban culture he has always known.

To read our full coverage of Cuba in 2016, click here. 

Valladares, 46, said he believes close community ties, conserving authentic Cuban culture and encouraging social responsibility in an emerging commercial landscape, are essential to running a lucrative business there.

“The most important thing is to give other people the opportunities that life gave to me,” said Valladares through a translator. He disliked school as a young student – “I gave my teachers many headaches” – but found inspiration in cutting hair and one teacher who recognized his passion.

To this end, Valladares opened a hair-styling school on the same street as his salon, with unpaid volunteers as its teachers. Patrons receive haircuts for free from students learning the trade.

One of the latest initiatives of this combination of private businesses and social responsibility is an advertising campaign in partnership with Havana Club, a state-owned rum company, called “Tu Decides” – “You decide” – to encourage teenagers to delay the age at which they start drinking alcohol and to deter women from drinking alcohol while pregnant.

Tools of the trade clutter shelves inside Artecorte, one of Cuba's first private hair salons. Photo by Jessica Nieberg.
Tools of the trade clutter shelves inside Artecorte, one of Cuba’s first private hair salons. Photo by Jessica Nieberg

Valladares, known to all as Papito, opened his salon 17 years ago, the first private business on the block. Today, his neighbors are chic paladares – privately owned restaurants, a fast-growing segment of private business in Cuba.

“At that moment, 95 percent were state-run, and 5 percent were private,” he said of hair salons. Valladares noted that today many more are privately owned.

Social responsibility has been a theme commonly enforced upon the Cuban people through the socialist revolution, observed Ted Henken, an associate professor of sociology and Latin American studies at Baruch College, but many Cubans may not have the luxury of worrying about preserving such authenticity in their country.

Cubans “are conscious and want to preserve” that sense of culture, said Henken, an expert on the Cuban economy, in an interview in New York, “but the overriding theme is much more to open up the economy, to give people more freedom, more access to goods and services, imports and exports,” adding, “Cubans don’t have old American cars because they are some sort of authentic part of Cuban culture. They have them because they are all they have.”

Valladares, standing in his salon wearing a dark green shirt, spoke quickly, with fast, broad gestures, when explaining why he feels so passionately about his work.

All the eclectic artwork hanging in the hair salon has been donated by friends of Valladares. Photo by Jessica Nieberg.
The eclectic artwork in the salon has been donated by friends of its owner. Photo by Jessica Nieberg

“The benefit on the economic and social sides needs to be equal,” he said. “I want it to be contagious. One person on the micro scale can affect the macro.”

Valladares has been cutting hair since he was 16. As a private business owner, he was legally allowed to hire employees in 2008 and was authorized in 2009 by the government to engage in nonprofit activities and open his school. He now employs a street cleaner who sweeps the cobblestone outside of the shop; another employee who waters plants near the entrance and four guards who take turns watching the building at night.

Walking along the streets surrounding Artecorte, Valladares stopped to speak with construction workers, small business owners (cuentapropistas), and people who recognize him. He likes to bring young people to the nearby center for the elderly, Casa de Abuelos, so Cuba’s older generation can get a chance to interact with adolescents. He lingers while young students play dominos with the residents. It seems everyone in the area knows Papito.

The vintage chairs in Artecorte have all been restored over the last 17 years. Photo by Vanessa Santana.
The vintage chairs in Artecorte have been restored over the last 17 years. Photo by Vanessa Santana

Though students in training at his school may not have the chance to begin cutting hair full time after they graduate, Valladares uses a wide network of local businesses with which he has formed relationships to help them find other jobs.

One of Valladares’s fears, he said, is that as the number of private businesses grows and the government cautiously and slowly shifts away from a traditional socialist system, the lust of wealth will erode the close sense of community that Cubans cultivated after the 1959 revolution.

Yet he also expresses confidence.

“The secret of Cuban society is our capacity to defend our culture. We have been very creative in this way,” he said, asserting his belief that a stronger community begins with the individual. “Society has to be rebuilt from the bottom.”