20 Oct, 2013 | Amalie Mersh

Culture and Urban living

With the demise of classical hairdressing salons in La Paz, a new generation steps forth to occupy their place. To understand this shift taking place within the world of hairdressing, I’ve met two different generations of peluqueros, each very different from one another.

The Gentlemen of Hairdressing

At the exact second you enter Don Juan’s peluqueria on 20 de Octubre in La Paz, the smell of alcohol is instantly noticeable. Not because this classic barber is an alcoholic—far from it— Don Juan is a very established hairdresser. Here, finishing a haircut by spraying alcohol in the freshly cut hair, is just part of the routine. Lit up by bright, fluorescent lights, the simplicity of the equipment along with the elderly, bright-spirited man who works here, give you the distinct feeling you’re not standing in a typical salon.

Don Juan’s hairdressing story starts way back in 1965, when he was just 15 years old. Still living with his family in the village of Calacoto, provincia Pacajes, he was taught the first basic steps on how to cut hair by his father. Back then it was just a pair of scissors and a comb that made his hairdressing tools. Don Juan was soon cutting, not just the hair of his siblings, but also his schoolmates and teachers.

Observing Don Juan cut the hair of the client in the tall, red chair of business I can sense that he is a man of great routine and experience. His client, who I later discover is actually his brother, is familiar with all the places where this hairdresser has worked, starting with his humble beginnings near Puente Avaroa on the Avenida Buenos Aires over 30 years ago.

As a new client takes place and gets ready to receive a haircut, Don Juan sterilizes the tools he is about to use with fire from a small, silver instrument.

After spending some time in the army, Don Juan returned to hairdressing to pick up where he left off in his career. Yet something was missing: he still lacked proper tuition. He got this opportunity when he became an assistant at Enrique Moñano’s hair salon on Avenida Buenos Aires.

Don Juan spent four years working there and perfected his skills, but it soon became clear to him that the money he made was not sufficient. So he decided to make a swift move to Miraflores where prices were higher and business more profitable.

Don Juan smiles while he explains how Enrique Ezpinoza, his second boss, easily could have been over a hundred years old when he retired. His brother looks up from his newspaper to interject. 'He was closer to 80. But yes, he was very old'. Don Juan concedes he may not have been as old as a hundred, but emphasises that he continued to cut hair right up until his very last years. 'Don Enrique [the second] was a peluquero clásico. That’s all he ever did. He never learnt any other style. Just like me. I only know classical hairdressing and I will also die that way.'

I look up at the walls in his small salon, where the calendar still shows February despite it being September. The mirror Don Juan uses for his work is not attached to the wall, but merely standing on the dresser where the many tools lie ready for use.

After over 4 years in Miraflores Don Juan moved to Sopocachi, the district where he now works. He started working for Enrique Berra, the third Enrique, at his salon. In 1982, an old friend of his turned up with a proposal. Now a senior military officer, he offered Don Juan a job in the army. He went with the coronel to Oruro where he was tasked with cutting the hair of senior military officers.


The situation was tense across the country, as Bolivia was in the middle of a military dictatorship. One day, while Don Juan was dining in a restaurant with a friend, a group of unionists and indigenous leaders came in. They shared food, drink and laughter with the group until his friend made the grave mistake of mentioning they belonged to the Comando General. The group, no doubt key figures in one of the several uprisings against the military government, responded to the news with a brutal beating. It was a close shave with death, but Don Juan survived the attack with little memory of the incident and a fractured spine and hip, which spun him out of action for two years during which he moved back with his parents. This incident made him decide to leave the army for good and instead focus solely on his hairdressing career.

Soon after Don Juan moved back his boss fell ill with triquinosis. Berra was saved, but he had to stop working after just one year, eventually dying from drinking-related problems. Shortly before his death, Don Juan offered to buy Berra’s hairdressing equipment in 1985. The dying man accepted, and Don Juan still uses the equipment today.

The many years of hairdressing have definitely given Don Juan a reputation. He has cut the hair of several famous people, including former President and Military General Hugo Banzer, as well as his right hand man General Tejerina. Other famous clients include former President Toro, former Vice President Luis Ossio as well as several ministers, ambassadors and military diplomats. It’s no coincidence Don Juan’s skills are in such high demand from military figures: he represents tradition, orderliness and pride for a bygone era.

Don Juan finishes off the haircut, as he always does, by spraying a large amount of alcohol on his client’s head. It’s almost enough to get you a little dizzy from the fumes. He then brushes off small bits of hair from the neck of the client and looks satisfied at his work.

As a peluquero clásico, Don Juan, is a member of the Hairdressing Syndicate for Classical Hairdressers of La Paz and El Alto, an organisation almost a century old. I went to find the syndicate’s Secretary General, Don Hilarión, who has a salon in Miraflores.

Like Don Juan, Don Hilarión is an elderly and talkative man. He proudly proclaims to be the intellectual author of a new policy that helps people without formal qualifications to be licensed as hairdressers. He is a strong advocate for giving less-established hairdressers a chance to start somewhere. He tells us that under Evo Morales’ administration there has been an effort to offer hairdressing certification to people who work empirically, recognising them as skilled labourers in their own right, sometimes even more so than those who have studied.

As Secretary General, he is struggling for his syndicate to join the simplified tax regime despite the tax authorities insisting on them joining the general tax regime. This makes paying taxes a difficult matter they are required to declare all earnings separately and hand in receipts for all expenses. Don Hilarión believes it would be wonderful if it could all run through a simplified tax regime, that runs on a fixed, yearly contribution. Winning this battle is no small task, but Don Hilarión is not giving up.

Commenting on modern hairdressers and ‘stylists’, as he disparagingly refers to them, he says: 'There is no such thing as an original Bolivian style. We learn it all from abroad'. Don Hilarión laughs as he explains how he once said to the face of famous stylist Raul Ruiz: 'So you’re a stylist? Show me your own creations'. Talking about the people who come fresh and proud out of the hairdressing schools, he argues that while everybody has their own style, they cannot be deemed ‘stylists’ as such, when there’s such a dearth of innovation in the country.

Don Hilarión is keen to promote himself and his fellow ‘classical’ hairdressers as specialised artists. Times ahead are challenging for the ageing and dwindling cohort of classical barbers in Bolivia, even for one as impassioned and experienced as Don Hilarión. 'I used to charge one boliviano for a haircut, but now I can’t even go to the bathroom with one boliviano.'

Cutting Edge: The Berlin Hairdressing Institute

Having gotten a glimpse into the dying world of traditional hairdressing in La Paz, I was eager to see how the new generations are getting trained .

The Berlin Hairdressing Institute started up in the town of Llallagua, Potosí, in 1980. The grand idea was to teach the students all about beauty—including styling, hair care and skin care.

From the outside you don’t really realize you’re standing outside a hairdressing institute. The entrance is barely noticeable. But after entering the hallway, there is no doubt that this is the place we are looking for. Even so, it seems a bit run down. Old Christmas decorations hang from the ceiling; cold, grey walls surround you, and at the end of the hallway a secretary sits and welcomes teachers, students, clients and visitors to the school. We look around at the mannequin heads displaying the different hairstyles to the sound of a crackling TV. The quality of the picture on the TV reminds me slightly of the good old VHS tapes popular throughout the 1990s, an era of which the whole place is reminiscent.

We are sent up to the next floor and into a room that almost blinds us with how orange it is. The room is split up in two—one side for men’s haircuts and one for women’s—both parts equally orange. Most of the equipment lying around has an interesting, pink theme going on.

We are greeted by the smiley, 30-year-old teacher Ana Luisa Morales, who is pleased to fill us in with information about the school. She tells us about how the courses work: 'The period of study is one year. The course is developed in stages—starting from making a braid to the latest fashions. At the end of the course, the students are given a national-level title, which is recognized throughout the country'.

We listen closely while she talks passionately about the school, where she herself was once a student. 'There are four centres in the institute, the most important of which is in La Ceja. At each centre, there are 25 students on each of the 3 schedules: morning, afternoon and night. There are also classes for people who want to learn about men’s haircare.'

Two years ago, Ana Morales got a job as a teacher at the school. She proudly explains that the students’ level is high, and that they come in ready and prepared to learn. I look around at the students and sure enough—they seem keen.

Out of nowhere a few students pull out a couple of tables and a few chairs and start applying nail varnish on each other’s hands. Pink is, inevitably, one of the chosen colours and I can quickly sense where the girly-girly prejudice comes from when people refer to hairdressers and styling.

Looking out of the taxi window on the way to the school, I couldn’t help but notice the many hairdressers on the way. Faced with so much competition one might think that either starting up a business within this profession or making it into one of the established salons would be rather hard. But it is not, according to Ana Morales, who sounds almost naively optimistic about the students getting work after graduating. Anyway—what do I know.

When I asked the classical hairdressers, Don Juan and Don Hilarión, about these new ‘stylists’, they criticised them for not having their own style. They felt that hairdressing schools were merely mass-producing hairdressers with no real experience.

Despite the harsh words, Ana Morales say they try to give the students at Berlin as much experience and training as possible while they’re there. They encourage them to create their own style and figure out where their strengths truly lie.

I ask to speak to one of the students and am quickly presented with a shy girl who has been getting her nails done in the same bright pink colour as many of the tools and equipment lying around on the tables.

Angelica also sees a bright future in the hairdressing business, and seems unpreoccupied at the prospect of having to find a job when she graduates.

'I like to create and do new things', she tells me.

She likes the school and says that she thinks that the teachers are very good. Whether she says this because three of her teachers are sitting around her, I will never know, but Angelica comes across as committed, so I let that pass. Despite the place at first seeming somewhat tacky, it sure seems like they get to try out a large number of things—even going as far as making clothes and shoes out of hair for no clear reason. While their creativity isn’t currently being channeled towards defining Bolivia’s hairdressing identity, it is certainly there. Traditional hairdressers may be sceptical, yet their numbers are falling and the new generation is stepping in and taking over.

Pull Quotes: 'Don Enrique [the second] was a peluquero clásico. That’s all he ever did. He never learnt any other style. Just like me. I only know classical hairdressing and I will also die that way.'



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