An entrepreneur uplifts an entire neighborhood
with creativity and joy.
As much as I enjoy Cuba’s great music and rum, on a recent trip to the island, I was surprised to find that my most memorable experience was visiting a barbershop! Not only has Papito the barber created a shop that is a feast for the eyes, but also his mission goes beyond giving great haircuts – he gives back to his community in creative ways that uplift the entire neighborhood.
In Papito’s shop, the traditional barber pole swirling in red, white and blue is almost lost amidst the vast collection of original works of art. Paintings, in many sizes and styles and all with a hairdressing theme, cover most every inch of the walls from the lovely mosaic tile floors to the high vaulted ceilings, where massive crystal chandeliers light each of the three rooms. The eight or nine barber chairs are unique antiques worthy of a museum, ranging from a narrow colonial chair in wood and cast iron to a wide-armed stuffed 1950’s model covered in red and white vinyl that I was tempted to try out.
While many of the buildings in Old Havana are in critical need of repair, in fact, nearly falling down, the narrow brick street where Papito lives and works has been brought back to life by his leadership in a restoration project financed through his profits and fundraising skill. In Cuba’s gradual evolution from a centralized state-owned economy to a limited experiment in free enterprise, the ownership of houses is passing from the government to the residents and most of the new businesses are operating out of private homes. On Papito’s street examples include a boutique in the home of the dress designer, an art gallery in the painter’s home, a restaurant and a computer store. On the freshly painted stucco walls along this lively street, occasional works of art are embedded in the plaster. My favorite is an oil painting of a large piece of bread topped with a tiny barber chair where a man is looking at himself in a hand mirror. The inscription reads, “Man cannot live by bread alone.”
Papito’s touch is evident throughout the community. Across the street is a barber school where he trains young people and instills a pride in the trade that was transformational for him as a youth. In a community center for seniors just down the street, Papito’s team painted the walls and hung artwork to brighten the rooms. Once a month the seniors get free haircuts.
At the end of the block is a playground that Papito built on an empty lot. With the help of students from the university, the playground equipment is designed to resemble the tools of the trade – the seesaws look like scissor blades and the slide, an open razor! Through these many projects, Papito has demonstrated that privately owned small businesses can use their creativity and financial resources to serve the needs of the young and old and build a caring community.
During my half dozen trips to Cuba, I have come to see that the country is well positioned to develop a new economy that combines the innovation and creativity of capitalism with the foundational principle of socialism - concern for the well-being of all. With new social entrepreneurs like Papito leading the way, Cuba could well provide the world with a new economic model so crucially needed – a caring economy where businesses can be profitable, while serving the needs of their community with originality and joy.
Judy last traveled to Cuba in January 2014. Through her former international sister restaurant project at White Dog Cafe, she traveled to Cuba four times during the nineties and an additional trip to speak at a conference in Havana on sustainability and social enterprise in 1998. She continues her interest in observing Cuba’s evolving economy and hopes for an end to the immoral US embargo that has crippled this tiny country for 54 years.