McALLEN — El Grito Barber Derby, a (potentially) annual event, is one part passion, one part pride and several parts pachanga.
The competition, held at Famoso Fuego on North 23rd Sunday, is essentially a seven-hour gladiatorial cage match between barbers, who try to out-cut one another in a variety of categories, snipping and shaving away on the heads’ of volunteer models, who are lined up sitting in barber chairs on the dance floor of a nightclub.
The whole affair is divided into timed rounds that last less than an hour and are devoted to various categories. There’s a student competition. One for partners, who cut simultaneously. There’s Best Beard. Exotic. Fade and Beard.
The barbers take an unshorn model — often another barber — and do their best to shave, sculpt and dye their model’s hair into a winning creation.
Most of the people on the floor are men or boys, though some women compete and model.
A typical round begins with the emcee cracking some jokes and amping up the crowd.
Alarms sound. Lights flash. Fog machines belch out fog.
The barbers stand anxiously by their models in their chairs.
“Three! Two! One!” the emcee says. “Let’s get ready to rumbleee! Dale!”
The lights dim, except for the ring lights on stands illuminating models’ heads. Music blares. The barbers immediately begin grooming their subjects, combing and clipping.
There’s a table full of trophies in a gallery above the arena. The barbers pay it no mind, focusing on the task at hand.
For many, the competition was an opportunity to advertise and network. It particularly appealed to younger barbers as a chance to cut their chops in a sporting-like way.
One of those younger barbers was Rene Hernandez, 17, self-styled — jokingly — “Guerito Hermoso,” a Nixon High School student from Laredo.
Hernandez was late for the student division, so he decided to compete with the big dogs. He was, self-admittedly, out of his league, but he didn’t look it.
Hernandez is slim and energetic. He wore a dress shirt and slacks, glasses, with his brown hair brushed back in a neat mane. He has a habit of dancing while he cuts — sort of a crouch and wiggle.
The son of a hairdresser, Hernandez says he loves what he does, and that much is evident. A good haircut, he says, is something to be envied.
“It’s the same thing as a girl,” he says. “It makes us look good, it makes us feel good. It makes us feel confident.”
One of Hernandez’s friends — also a barber student — served as his model. Hernandez shaved and styled his friend, buzzing a pattern onto one side of his head that looked like an eye and combing the top into a sharp ridge. Half of the hair he colored blue, and half red.
“A todo maquina!” The emcee yelled. The barbers put down their clippers, and Hernandez’s newly styled friend was marched outside with about seven other models, away from the crowd and the barbers.
Judges — some of them renowned, celebrity hairstylists — examined the models, who stood stone-faced. They would pull back an ear with the eraser of a pencil to look at the cut, hold up a thumb to see if the hairline was even.
It was very serious business conducted in hushed tones.
Hernandez did not place. Despite that, he was chipper, joking with his friends for most of the afternoon. He says he’ll win next time.
“At the end of the day, we’re family,” he said. “They give us tips. Even from the big guys, I ask how they do it and they let me know. It’s all love at the end of the day.”
The derby was certainly a familial affair, with children and parents buzzing around everywhere. In addition to being a competition, the event served as a graduation ceremony for a local barber school and a belated Mexican Independence Day celebration.
The crowd was predictably eclectic.
Barbers, models and judges typically dressed flashy. A good haircut, as several of them pointed out, is about taking pride in your appearance, and these folks evidently did.
Some wore graphic tees or sequined shirts, often keeping their sunglasses on in the dark. Others had on uniforms from their barbershops, or opted for a costume: a commercial painter’s splattered white, military fatigues, the occasional folklorico outfit.
One woman painted faces at a table by the competition floor, and the people in the room slowly turned into characters out of some kind of carnival, faces peeking from the gloom painted into skulls or adorned with glittering swirls, faces that were topped by heads of hair dyed and groomed into frohawks and fades.
One man walked around with a ball python draped around his neck. Another side attraction was a brief bulldog judging competition, and there were several canines in attendance.
Polly, a French bulldog-looking pup, was hurriedly rushed away from the floor when she indecorously popped a squat during the exotic cut round. Lycan — a great beast of a creature with a generally calm demeanor — took to barking after he won some award.
“Tranquilo, Lycan!” the emcee admonished.
Barbers, models and judges were joined by a good deal of the graduates’ and barbers’ families, who typically dressed more casually and watched from the sidelines, frequently next to coolers of beer they were gradually (sometimes rapidly) depleting.
Spectators filmed and cheered.
The attendees were primarily from South Texas and northern Mexico, although the judges came from places like Colombia, Spain and Los Angeles.
Seven hours of hair-cutting — even well done, competitive hair-cutting — can get repetitive.
The booming reggaeton music and ceaseless snipping was occasionally punctuated by live freestyle rapping, Mexican ballads and sometimes off-color humor.
At one point the emcee asked whether McAllen was in the house, which was greeted with lackluster enthusiasm. Edinburg suffered the same fate.
“Puro p- – – – – RGV!” someone shouted
The emcee grinned. “Reynosa, Rio Bravo! Ta-ta-ta-Tamaulipasss!” he roared with the staccato of a machine gun, accompanied by audio of a rifle being fired. The crowd went wild.
One spectator in the crowd was Lucy Guerra, whose son, Justin competed in three divisions.
An 18-year-old PSJA ISD graduate, Justin finished third in his class and turned down a full-ride scholarship to the University of Texas on a physical therapy tract in favor of being a barber.
Lucy keeps a photo on her phone of the top-10 graduate photo the district had printed and plastered onto a billboard. Justin’s right there toward the center.
Justin, who competed in boots and an Ariat shirt, bought some cheap clippers while attending high school during the pandemic because he thought haircuts were too expensive and figured he could cut his own hair cheaper.
One day a friend asked for a haircut. It went poorly.
“So I told him, come back in two weeks,” Justin said. “And every two weeks in quarantine, he just kept coming back. I didn’t tell nobody I was cutting hair, because I didn’t want to be known as the high school barber that f- – – s people up.”
He continued to butcher that friend’s hair every two weeks. One more friend managed to get himself added to the rotation. They both wore hats for months, Justin says.
Gradually, aided by Youtube, the cuts started coming out better. Justin liked doing it, and he decided to ditch physical therapy.
Teachers and administrators weren’t pleased with that decision, he says, but he stuck to it and is now formally learning about the trade while still cutting hair at home.
“There’s just something about it,” he said. “The experience you get with the person. As you keep cutting their hair, you get closer and closer with the person. Sometimes they trust you a lot.”
That trust was on display Sunday. Strangers would sometimes sit in the chairs as models for barbers they didn’t know. One woman, half her face painted into a skeletal smile, was totally silent and emotionless while she had her hair cut, until the DJ played Vicente Fernandez’s “Volver volver.”
When the song came on, the woman’s lips began moving, singing inaudibly to everyone but her barber.
Silver-toothed Mike Jimenez, proprietor of Mike’s Barber Shop in Edinburg, was the event’s organizer and is a competitive barber.
Jimenez, clearly popular, darted around the venue, greeted by everyone. He seemed most proud of the judges he’d managed to attract to the event.
Will there be a derby next year? Maybe, Mike says.
As for the passion and the pride and the fellowship his competitors talked about, Jimenez almost treats those things as after thoughts.
Those things are, he says, what a haircut is all about. They’re to be expected.
“When you get a haircut, you feel good,” he said. “You feel cleaner. You feel different. We take care of people so they can feel better.”
To see more, view Monitor photojournalist Delcia Lopez’s full photo gallery here: