by Alex V. Cruz
Dominican barbershops are entertaining. Merengue, bachata, dembow, and reggaeton blast from speakers too big for small spaces. Barbers take sips of their Presidentes and hide the bottles from the prying eyes of cops outside. Skin fades, low fades, and curly hair is swept away by less popular barbers. Place a bar there with some Barcelo and Brugal, and you’ll have the hottest spot on the block.
I walk in looking homeless with month-old hair, knowing I’m ‘bout to walk out looking like I belong in Aventura (did I just date myself?). “Tu tiene apoimen?” I nod. Not having an appointment is for the blanquitos gentrifying our neighborhoods, the ones stuck with barbers still establishing their reputation. The ones that shave too much from the top and leave your face burning and irritated. Ojala lo jodan to!
There’s nothing more terrifying for a Dominican than looking for a new barber. My barber is skilled. So, I sit in the waiting area, next to the Dominican flag, and wait for him to finish con el tipo whose hair he’s cutting—slowly and meticulously shaving and shaping the guy’s hairline and taking a step back to admire his work. I don’t know what the guy looked like when he walked in, but I’m sure he looks ten times better now.
“Lo de siempre?” says my barber when it’s my turn, and I gesture in agreement as I take a seat, still warm from dude. As the reserved, tight-lipped kind of client, I often keep to myself. Hands to my side so they don’t look like a bulge under the cape. My arms off the armrest so they’re not continually brushing against the barber’s crotch. I’m not on the phone like the others or inspecting the barber’s work in the mirror. Most of the time, my eyes are closed, and my mind drifts elsewhere to numb the misogynistic lyrics of dembow and reggaeton. Usually, the experience of being there is painless. But not today.
A man stands in the waiting area on his phone. My mind doesn’t perceive him as a threat; he looks harmless enough, almost as though he’s invisible. He approaches my barber, glaring at his phone like he discovered the meaning of life. “Look at this shit,” he blurts, “Bad Bunny is mad gay.” My barber defends Bad Bunny’s masculinity—if he wishes to continue playing his music and not have his masculinity questioned, he has to—dismissing queerness as a publicity stunt. Un show. El tipo se sienta, but he has succeeded at spiking my heart rate.
These spaces, where Dominican men gather, are not for us, the ones they call maricones. We’re the butt of the joke. We’re not welcome and, in some cases, are in danger physically and emotionally. I don’t have the liberty of standing up to homophobia—not many of us do. I run the risk of coming across a barbershop patron expecting to amuse himself at my expense, and emboldened by the pack mentality of toxic masculinity, attack me. Standing up to homophobia is a privilege few can afford—it’s necessary to choose your battles carefully.
My barber isn’t aware of my sexual identity. He doesn’t ask. But from time to time, to make conversation, he’ll ask if I’m married or if I have a girlfriend. I answer truthfully because I don’t—and I won’t. “Te rebajo a la barba?” asks my barber as I try to relax. It’s not the first time I’ve witnessed homophobia. Queer men aren’t the only targets. Toxic masculinity runs rampant in these spaces, and not a single woman who walks past the front glass window escapes being judged on their “fuckability.” The other barbers and patrons laugh it off, adding their own misogynistic and pedophilic anecdotes. Racism, too, is commonly accepted in these spaces. At times, going to the barbershop feels more like getting teeth pulled at the dentist; all I have to do is find a way to cope and survive the approximate hour I’ll be in that chair.
Y el tipo regresa, holding the phone up to my barber’s face, “Mira como se partió,” he clamors at such a display of femininity. Satisfied with his finding, he sits back down. This nobody suddenly feels better about himself. “Se le salien la pluma,” he chuckles at his perceived discovery of the moment Benito drops his guard displaying his true gay colors—pleased with himself. Because as invisible as he is, as pathetic as his life might be, at least he’s not gay. He’ll forever feel superior to any maricón that crosses his path—no matter if they’re doctors, lawyers, professors, or simply hard-working men and women. In this case, he feels superior to a supposed “gay” person, to a record-breaking mega artist.
Homophobia is socially acceptable in Dominican barbershops, so much so that Mr. Invisible doesn’t fathom that his comments are offensive. For him, this space is safe for discriminatory remarks of any sort, where like-minded individuals surround him. To him, everyone in the barbershop is not only straight, they’re also disgusted by homosexual behavior—eso maldito pajaro.
As people in my community call it, I’m masculine presenting, meaning I have the presumed privilege of concealing my sexuality. Maybe “masculine,” in my case, is a learned behavior shaped by the considerable times I was dubbed “mujercita” growing up. Los “invisible boys” carefully examined my every move, waiting for that moment de descuido to get a good laugh while establishing their superiority. Presumed makes it seem like passing as straight isn’t an actual privilege; still, masculine presenting signifies the lack of assumptions being made about your life. Not being masculine can often mean peril for someone simply existing in specific spaces or walking in the wrong neighborhood.
I remain silent, allowing their ignorance to slide off my skin as we all do. Doing anything else would mean renouncing my barber. “Ahí va el maricón,” I imagine they’d say as they see me walk past the front glass. My barber sprays some rubbing alcohol onto tissue paper and taps my hairline. Peeved and distressed, I barely feel the sting on my freshly shaped hairline. I leave the barbershop looking dapper—a fresh cut to boost my self-esteem and a dash of homophobia to humble me.
Alex V. Cruz is a Paterson-born, Dominican-raised speculative fiction writer. He writes Dominican Magical Realism and Urban Fantasy. Alex graduated Magna Cum Laude from Columbia University with a degree in Creative Writing and Hispanic Studies. He is a recent graduate of Clarion West and a member of Tin House’s 2021 Young Adult Workshops. His publications include: “Matrifagia: Los diablitos de Doña Juana,” published by SmokeLong en Español, and “Marisol and the Gallina Dichosa” forthcoming in Quislaona: A Dominican Fantasy Anthology. Discover the writings of Alex V. Cruz on Instagram and Twitter @Avcruzwriter.