Pioneer Square, a place where the buildings are frozen in time. The morning air feels and smells of the salty Puget Sound, where you can hear the Western Gulls cry along with the horns of the passenger ferries. This is the neighborhood of Seattle where I began my career in hair 13 years ago, and today I walked into work thinking about the new stories I can tell my clients.
The barbershop where I work is on Yesler, one of the oldest streets in the city. The shop is named after the (long gone) logging mill that used to be here when the city was founded. The brick is the original layout from the late 1800s and the aesthetics are of an old cigar shop, but with the scent of organic shampoos. The brick walls are lined with preserved animal mounts that the shop owner has collected from clients and antique shops over the years. The nine barber chairs are vintage, with the oldest chair dating back to 1924, the year my grandpa was born. Mine is from 1964, the year my mom was born. It’s mint green and the most fitting for my 5-foot one-inch build.
I set up my station by cleaning my clippers and sanitizing other implements. I wonder what it was like in the 1940s when my great-uncle Manuel was opening his barbershop … or even further back, my great-grandfather on his farm in Caldwell, Texas.
It’s 10 am. My first client walks in. I welcome him on this cool spring morning.
“Have a seat. How are you and what are we doing today?” I ask as he sits, and I drape the barber cape around him.
“I’m doing good, it’s cold outside.” Clients always comment on the weather. “Just a number two on the sides and 1-inch off the top. Same as usual.”
“Ok, that sounds good,” I reply with a smile that he can’t see under my COVID mask.
“What’s been going on with you? How’s school?”
“I have been trying to keep up with all the schoolwork and do my internship at the same time. Things are good and movin’ along.”
“And you’re working here!? That’s a lot. You’re busy. Where are you interning?”
I laugh a little and shrug, “Life of a student. I’m interning with Vanishing Seattle.”
“It’s a place that lives on social media. It covers displacement throughout Seattle and there are documentaries of various neighborhoods around downtown that have dramatically changed due to gentrification—many times representing communities of color and small businesses that need some love, especially because of the pandemic. I have a lot of fun working with Cynthia. A lot of research goes into these posts and so many stories are uncovered in Seattle.”
“What platform do they post to?” he asks, slightly turning his head. I step back so he doesn’t hit his head on my Oster clippers.
“I would check them out on Instagram first, but they are on all of the social media platforms.”
“I’ll check it out. What do you do?” He looks forward and I start fading his hair again.
“Recently I got to do some research on my own family. My family name is Barron, and we were among the first Latinos to become established in Seattle after World War II. My grandparents had three Mexican restaurants dating back to the 1960s, my great-uncle Ismael opened one of the first Latino dance clubs called La Esquina Tavern and radio stations that played Mexican music. The dance club was where the Royal Room is now, in Columbia City.”
“Wow, really?” We make eye contact in the mirror; I nod my head and check out his hair profile before proceeding to put the clippers down to pick up the sheers.
“Oh, and get this, I found out that I am a 4th generation barber!”
“My great-grandfather was the barber in a small town in Texas for all of the farmers in the area while also farming himself. My great-uncle Manuel opened up The Barron Barbershop in Georgetown in the 1940s after he got out of the war.”
“Is it still there?”
“The building is, but he passed away in the early 2000s after barbering for 50 years.”
“I don’t know how he did it, but he made a big difference in the community in that shop.”
“It was a neighborhood hub of information and news for South Seattle Latinos. He named the social club portion of the shop Club Hispano Americano; it was one of the earliest Latino political activists clubs. My uncle Manuel was a part of the earliest movements working on behalf of the Latino community in education and jobs. Manuel was responsible for bringing the Service, Employment, and Redevelopment (SER) for Jobs program to the Northwest. The SER program was a League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) sponsored program that he also introduced to the community, helping a lot of citizens find jobs. His brother Roger was well known for activism in the community too. He followed along from Texas with the rest of the 13 Barron family members, including his parents, during the Tejano Movement. Manuel was the oldest and Roger was the youngest of the siblings.”
“What is the Tejano Movement?”
“Well, a Tejano is a person of Hispanic origin born in Texas. The movement was Hispanic people from Texas looking for a more prosperous future in the Pacific Northwest after the Great Depression. A lot of people went to Yakima to work. My family came to Seattle because Manuel was buying houses all over Georgetown and creating a name for himself in the community.”
“Are the houses still there?”
“Yes, but the last one in the family just sold in the spring of 2020.”
“Seems like your uncle accomplished a lot. You didn’t know any of this?”
“Not until researching for my internship. When I called my Uncle Roger, he said that Manuel formed a political protest through the G.I. Forum so Latino soldiers could be buried alongside white soldiers. The social club also advocated for ethnic studies such as creating and teaching the Proyecto Saber Program for Hispanic youth and hosting cultural events like Dia de Muertos and Fiestas Patrias. South Park in South Seattle still honors some of these celebrations. The Barron Barber Shop was also a community gathering space for different Latino families to hang out, share Mexican food, stories, bring their kids, have some drinks, dance to Mexican music.”
“That sounds like a really great place to connect.”
“It really was, especially because a lot of Hispanic people were redlined in the south end of the city. By the early 1970s, Club Social Hispano Americano morphed into a more politically active El Club Latino of Seattle alongside another group called Equal Opportunity for Spanish Speaking Americans of Seattle. These two upper working-class organizations emerged to advocate on behalf of the city’s Latinos. My uncle Manuel remained active in the Hispanic community and cut hair at the Barbershop for 50 years. My mom said his nickname was Sarge because of his army service. He had to close the shop because he got Parkinson’s and passed a few years later.”
I give my client the hand mirror and show him his fresh cut from all angles by spinning the chair so he can see himself. A lot of times people don’t know how to use the mirror to see themselves, but they usually have a lot of trust if I’ve been seeing them for a while.
“This looks great!” I take his cape off and he stands up, “Thank you for sharing your story, I will keep an eye out for the post and if I go down to Georgetown, I’ll try to look for it,” he says as I walk him up to the front of the shop to pay.
“You should totally check it out, I think an organization is going to start a preservation project that honors my uncle and his activism in the community.”
“Well, thanks for the cut, and good luck with school.” He walks towards the door and waves goodbye.
“Thanks for coming in! See you next time.” I waved back and hurried back to my station to set up for the next client. I have a full day ahead of me and as I wave to my next person, I think about how many ways I can tell this story today.
Contributor Aeon Corvidae (AY-on KOR-vi-day) is a Seattle native born at the UW Hospital but grew up in the Boulevard Park/White Center area. When this article was originally published, she worked at Millheads Barbershop in Pioneer Square, cutting hair since 2007. She has been an active musician and lead singer/songwriter since 2011. You can find her music on all streaming platforms in bands such as Wandering King, Quiiet, Girl King, and Aeon Corvidae.
At the time this article was first published (September 21, 2021), she is in the process of recording her 3rd solo release; was an undergrad at Seattle University, majoring in Arts Leadership; and had plans on opening her own music venue and art gallery space and to support Seattle artists, especially youth. Aeon is a dog mom to two, RT and Chubby Checker.
This piece was commissioned by the Seattle Department of Neighborhoods. The opinions expressed and information contained herein do not necessarily reflect the policies, plans, beliefs, conclusions, or ideas of the City of Seattle.
Historic preservation in Seattle begins with community. The Seattle Histories storytelling project highlights the places, people, and events that have shaped the history of Seattle’s communities. These stories, told by community members, emphasize experiences and narratives that may have been overlooked or misrepresented in our city.
Learn more about the City of Seattle’s Historic Preservation program and how you can get involved at seattle.gov/neighborhoods/historic-preservation.