A few months ago I went to Cuba with members of Intercoiffure, who had arranged to do a photo shoot there with local models. It was a historic event and one that could not have taken place at any other time in the past 55 years. A barber named Gilberto Valladeres—everyone calls him Papito—works on a street in Old Havana called Barber’s Alley. In 1999, when he became self-employed, 95 percent of all barbers in Cuba worked for the state, but Papito was determined to turn those numbers around by encouraging other barbers to become independent. Today, he says, 97 people who work in Barber’s Alley are self-employed and Papito has opened a nonprofit school there where he is teaching 10 hearing-impaired girls to become hairdressers. Meanwhile, the cultural project he started in 2002 has gained the support of the City Historian’s Office and brought together barbers, hairdressers, models, artists and historians who seek to preserve the history of hairdressing in Cuba. In a gesture of goodwill, Papito offered the use of his salon and school so we could prep our models for a photo shoot on the streets of Old Havana. When President Obama visited Cuba a few weeks after we were there, he met Papito at an entrepreneurship and opportunity event where he praised him for using his success to improve conditions in his neighborhood. “I realize I’m not going to solve all of the world’s problems,” Papito told him, “but if I can solve problems in the little piece of the world where I live, it can ripple across Havana.” Papito’s latest project: a massive sculpture made entirely of scissors that will represent the power of community among fellow stylists from Cuba and the world at large. Needless to say, members of Intercoiffure wanted to be involved. Frank Gambuzza presented Papito with the scissors he used—on a Cuban model no less—at the Intercoiffure World Congress in New York City in 1996. Sonya Dove brought the scissors she’d used in beauty school in 1978, while Shirley Gordon donated the first pair of thinning shears she ever bought. I was lucky enough to spend time with Papito while we were in Havana. I’d brought a copy of American Salon with me, and he asked if I’d autograph it so he could put it in his museum, which houses an assortment of hairdressing artifacts—razors, antique scissors, vials, shaving brushes, combs and drawings by Cuban artists, each focusing on some aspect of hairdressing. On the last day of our shoot, the grandmother of one of our models told Frank that we had no idea what our coming to Havana had meant to the girls we cast as models. “You’ve changed their lives forever,” she said. “It’s like they were blind and they opened their eyes and now they can see.” That’s what will stay with me forever—that feeling of goodwill we shared with the people we met in Havana.
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