Beauty in Cuba – A Whole New Look

A few bottles of nail polish, a padded chair against a sink, the right license, and some business savvy have landed many Cuban women their own businesses – something that would have been hard to imagine just a few years ago.

In-home beauty salons have given many Cuban women an opportunity to participate in the new dynamism of small business here.  They allow female owners with little formal training to turn a girlhood hobby into an empowering economic venture.

Independent businesses were banned as antithetical to the spirit of the revolution in the 1960s.  They remained illegal until 1993, when the fall of the Soviet Union, Cuba’s principal benefactor, sent the country into a sharp economic downturn.  In response, the government loosened restrictions on private enterprise. Beauty salons were among the first new businesses that sprouted up.

Part of their success was due to the poor quality of state-owned salons.  “You would go to a hair salon and the hair dryer wouldn’t work, or there wouldn’t be hair dye or products,” said Isabel Rivalta, a government cultural spokeswoman. “The state had serious problems trying to guarantee everything in society.”

Rivalta said that education and healthcare are the government’s main priorities, so it is willing to allow private citizens to take over some forms of enterprise. The state will continue to operate beauty salons, she said, and as long as both state and private salons provide good service, both will continue to coexist.

The staggering scale of small business reforms has resulted in a similar gradient in the types of salons that have emerged. Alongside state salons and privately-owned beauty parlors are cooperatives, where former state beauticians privately rent former state salons as co-owners. This results in a hybrid, with larger spaces being filled with the rag tag assortment of products that modern trends necessitate and loosening borders provide.

In Havana, the population density lends itself to these many variations. In Vedado, a better-off neighborhood, the salon Peluquería Festival is a cooperative of eight beauticians formerly employed by the state who then bought the place and began renting it as co-owners.

Barbara, one of the cooperative owners, is a vivacious woman with a head full of curls radiating a foot outwards. She has been a hair stylist for 18 years, an employee of the salon for all of them. She first studied architecture but had loved beauty since a young age and switched the course of her studies, practicing cuts and styles on her family members.

Before the salon was cooperatized, there was a government administrator in charge of running the place – opening and closing the salon, filing paperwork, and distributing their salary, which was fixed. To rent from the government, she needs the same self-employment license and beauty diploma, but they are their own bosses, she says.

“If we need a light, we pay for it between all of us. If we need to do something for the shop, we do it all between all of us,” Barbara says. They pay more for having to rent from the state compared to women who have their salons in their homes, or even in rented homes.

The desire for wholesale is evident – buying things in Havana, where things are most expensive on the island, quickly racks costs up. Despite being a former state salon, many of their products come from sellers who travel abroad and bring products back, “and if they do bring them to you, they’re still expensive,” she says, but some state stores are starting to sell foreign products.

Ultimately, despite the price and hassle, they want to offer clients the best services. “Even if it costs you more, it’s better quality.” Trends travel, she says, referencing American styles such as Keratin hair treatment, ombre-toned hair dye jobs and gel nails that Cuban women want. Hair stylists open salons as much to keep the women in their communities looking stylish as to support themselves.

“We want to be moving forward; we can’t go back,” she says. “Even if we don’t have that advanced technology, we want to be at the forefront.”

Written by Caroline Kelly

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