University of Minnesota

Inside the Wooten Barber Shop on Guadalupe Street are five barbers who, “like what they do and the customers they work for.”

Photo Credit: Helen Fernandez | Daily Texan Staff

When the summer finally ended and gave way to fall, James Nelson would anxiously await the new models on the lots of the local car dealers. He loved cars and every fall was the highlight of the year. 

When he was a senior in high school, he saved up $200 by working at a vegetable farm near his home in rural Minnesota and decided to buy a cool-looking 1947 Plymouth Coupe. It had five windows and it was the color of wet sand: a nice tan color, not beige. 

Nelson was born three days into 1941. He grew up on a small dairy farm in a little town called Princeton. Sometimes Nelson would drive his five younger brothers into town, if his mom allowed it. Nelson would do anything to get behind the wheel of his Plymouth. 

College wasn’t in the cards for Nelson because his family couldn’t afford it. Nelson enrolled himself in the Minneapolis vocational college where he became a certified barber at the age of 19 and was able to pay for his education at the University of Minnesota. 

***

On a sunny afternoon in Austin, Nelson sat inside his barbershop located on Guadalupe. His wrinkled fingers twisted the white hair on his chin. His gaze was fixed on the cars speeding by as he tried to recall a moment in his life that happened more than 20 years ago. 

“What I thought I was getting into was not what it was,” Nelson said. “I thought it would be more the artistic thing — more of the drawing board — but it was way more scientific, more math and engineering and stuff like that. Not as fun.” 

He recalled the time he spent at the University of Minnesota studying architecture. He worked as a barber by day and attended evening classes by night. It was the only way he could have afforded school. Nelson eventually dropped out of college and became a full-time barber. 

“I’m glad that I went this direction, and I’ve not felt like I’m in a place that I don’t want to be,” Nelson said. “I enjoy the people part of it and the creativity.” 

Before coming to Texas in the early 1980s, Nelson owned barbershops in Minneapolis. He moved to McAllen when his wife had to relocate for work. Finally, in 1989, after spending several years in Dallas, Nelson settled down in Austin. He had his eye on a small shop near the big university — it was called The Wooten Barber Shop. It was perfect because Nelson was looking for a shop in a populated area to build clientele. At the time, Nelson was working at a place called CNS Barber and Beauty, which is where he met his friend and co-worker, Don Stafford, before getting hired at Wooten in 1992.

Nelson made sure to inform his boss that he would like to own the place one day. That had been the plan all along, but the shop wasn’t for sale at the time.   

“So, he said, ‘If I ever sell it, you’ll get the first bid,’” Nelson said. 

***

Wooten had no customers on this particular February morning because of the wet roads and chilly breeze. Stafford sat comfortably on a chair, watching the Olympics on the big plasma screen. Three other barbers, Ralph Torres, Grant Gomez and Cisco Johnson, are watching it all, mesmerized by the figure skaters performing the triple lutz and quadruple toe loops. 

Stafford is the head barber at Wooten. He is a decorated Marine and has been working there for 20 years. He’s known Nelson for 21 years and describes him as a traveler: someone who takes any chance he gets to explore the world. 

“He takes up to six or seven vacations a year,” Stafford said. “He’s a timeshare guy. He really, really likes timeshares.” 

“Did he tell you he’s an artist? He paints and draws,” Stafford added, before getting up and heading to the back of the shop. 

***

“It’s a different day, you never know what you’re going to get,” said Cisco Johnson, who has been at the shop for 11 years. He jokingly said his favorite thing about being a barber was the money he made. 

“I just love working with these guys, and the atmosphere is great,” Johnson said. He recalled one moment in particular where a customer walked in early in the day and sat down in Johnson’s chair. Johnson asked the man how he was, and the man replied that he didn’t know because he was still drunk. 

As they listen to Johnson tell the story, suddenly all of the barbers begin to laugh.

Johnson got up and walked over to a picture inside a small wooden frame, hanging on the wall in front of the second barber chair. It’s a picture of the whole gang, and Johnson is sitting, with a scared look on his face, the other four barbers are surrounding him, tools in hand, ready to cut Johnson’s non-existent hair. 

Watching from across the room is Gomez, the youngest barber in the group. He’s been working here for no more than 10 years, and said Nelson is a “very honest, loyal, and passionate guy.” Nelson hired Gomez as he was easing into retirement. 

“He was looking for someone to fill in the days when he was off,” Gomez said. “I used to get my hair cut here.” 

“We lost a customer when he started working here,” Johnson interrupted. Both Gomez and Johnson chuckled. 

“The running joke here is, ‘The haircut gets you in, and the massage gets you coming back,’” Gomez said. 

All of the barbers have a great deal of pride for Wooten and their own work. 

Gomez mentioned that his favorite thing about Wooten is being able to give advice to the younger guys that walk through the doors. 

“I like to impart some parental wisdom or guidance,” Gomez said. “Honestly, I think they listen to us maybe more than they do their parents.”

Ralph Torres, the fifth and shyest barber, moved to the back of the shop. He’s known Nelson for 21 years and speaks of him with the highest regard. 

“He’s got a good relationship with all of us,” Torres said. “He’s a great boss.”

The Wooten Barber Shop is the longest running independent business on The Drag. The barbers credit this to a number of factors. 

“A lot of these kids don’t come from barber shops,” Gomez said. “They come from Super Cuts or whatever. So they come here and it’s an old school barber shop. They like the feel. They’ve got movies and sports on all day. Girls walking by the window all day. So it’s a pretty fun place to hang out. It reminds them of going to the barber shop with their granddad.”

***

In the back of the barbershop, behind the mirrors and shelves, hidden away in a little nook is a single antique Belmont vintage barber chair. There’s a sink, a small TV and a shelf for storage. This is where you will find the 73-year-old Nelson, tucked away, awaiting his next customer, scissors and blade at the ready. 

The door jingles. A customer walks in. Nelson comes out from his little nook and signals him over. A man in his mid-40s sits down. 

“So what are we doing today?” Nelson asked. “The usual?” 

“Same as usual,” replied the familiar stranger.

Omise’eke Tinsley, an associate professor in African and African Diaspora Studies, talks about Haitian American performance artist Mildred Gerestant at a colloquium in Gebauer Monday afternoon. Tinsley delved into various aspects of Gerestant’s performance work as a Drag King.

Photo Credit: Sam Ortega | Daily Texan Staff

Drawing inspiration from Carribean fiction and queer authors, Omise’eke Natasha Tinsley, associate English professor at the University of Minnesota, talked to students about sexuality and religious concepts within Haitian Vodou. She described Ezili Freda, a force that protects both the female and male genders, as well as individuals who don’t identify as either gender, while discussing her upcoming book. 

The Center for Women’s and Gender Studies sponsored the talk Monday afternoon at the Gebauer Building.

Tinsley said her unreleased book analyzes concepts of gender within historical Carribean works through the use of complex metaphors. She said she currently draws inspiration from Haitian-American contemporary performance artist MilDred Gerestant.

“Even though I hadn’t finished my first book, I was suddenly inspired to research a new second project: an analysis of 21st century Carribean fiction by queer writers,” Tinsley said. “This dream project dealt into historical novels that imagined complex genders and sexualities through the metaphor of time travel.”

Upon researching the works of queer authors, Tinsley said she discovered there was never mention of the terms queer, lesbian or transgender. Instead they talked about manifestations of these concepts and about spirituality and Afro-Caribbean religion.

“I wanted to reflect on Ezili as spirit but also on Ezili as archive,” Tinsley said. “That is I wanted to evoke the corpus of stories, memories and songs of Ezili as an expansive gathering of the history of gender and sexually variant people of African decent.”

According to Tinsley, the musical style of MilDred Gerestant has recently moved from hip-hop to Haitian Vodou. These performances draw on Hatian divinities including Ezili, in order to mediate on culturally specific imaginations of gender fluidity.

“Her performances integrate masculine and feminine variations in order to creatively embody the limits to global northern vocabularies of transgender,

suggesting an alternative in transcender,” Tinsley said. “That is an engagement with the submerged epistemology of Afro-Carribean religion.”

Tinsley said MilDred’s deceptively simple discussion of Haitian Vodou expresses in her own radiant style a submerged epistemology of gender variance that recasts dominant white opinion.

“All people have the possibility to be simultaneously man and woman, not because gender is constructed or performative but because they are surrounded by male and female spirits at the same time and may temporarily become those spirits at anytime,” Tinsley said.

African and African Diaspora Studies associate professor Lisa Thompson attended Tinsley’s talk. 

“The talk was very eye-opening for me,” Thompson said. “It’s going to be a part of her new book and it’s going to be really ground-breaking in terms of making us think about gender in new ways.”

Most people understand the tacos they eat are no more representative of Mexico than pizza is of Italy. Jeffrey Pilcher, a history professor at the University of Minnesota, explained the globalization and global history of Mexican food in a talk called “Planet Taco” on Thursday. Charles Hale, director of UT’s Teresa Lozano Long Institute of Latin American Studies, introduced Pilcher to his audience and said his talk today was a part of a larger series that will officially begin in fall 2011. “Through studying cuisine, we are able to enter into the history of a culture,” Hale said. Pilcher discussed the taco revolution that spread so rampantly because of U.S. companies such as Taco Bell, rather than because of the Mexican population. He also examined the underlying origins of the cuisine itself and its global history, which started with the indigenous people in Mexico, the Mesoamericans and the Spaniards. However, because so many cultures and outside influences have shaped Mexican cuisine from its initial formation, by focusing on the globalization of the taco, we are able to better reflect on its influence on cultures. Pilcher’s “Planet Taco” presentation began by introducing how the globalization of Mexican cuisine has become a recent phenomenon and compared an authentic Mexican taco to that of Taco Bell’s. “The spread of tacos around the world is referred to by sociologists as the process of ‘McDonaldization,’ the corporate process of the rationalization of food and kitchen labor for standardization and efficiency,” Pilcher said. Taco Bell’s founder Glen Bell is credited for initially franchising the taco but, according to Pilcher, was not credited for globalizing the taco itself. Surprisingly, the U.S. military and surfers are responsible for making the taco as popular as it is today. Pilcher said Bell institutionalized the premade taco shell, which allowed the chain to produce tacos much more quickly. UT alumna Amenity Applewhite attended the lecture and said that Mexican food from her home state of New Mexico is surprisingly different from the Tex-Mex so vastly available around UT’s campus. “They use more red and green chilies rather than jalapenos, and it’s over all spicier Mexican food,” Applewhite said. Pilcher said Mexican food takes on a local character in each place it is popular, which explains the difference in New Mexico’s take on Mexican food versus Texas’s approach. Pilcher travels throughout the world trying Mexican food in different countries and cities to acquire material for his Planet Taco presentation. However, he said, the best tacos are found in Mexico.