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The Cuban Connection

Expat celebs head to Upper Cuts for a little Havana away from home.



Cuban pitching legend Orlando "El Duque" Hernandez uses an electric razor to keep his head shaven, but that doesn't prevent his paying a visit to Maria Xiques's downtown barbershop whenever he comes to Chicago. A trip to Upper Cuts, on the third floor of 333 N. Michigan, is practically mandatory for Cuban VIPs visiting Chicago: other notable pilgrims to the three-chair shop include Barbarito Torres and Juan De Marcos from the Buena Vista Social Club band and Pedro Calvo, a longtime vocalist for the Cuban dance band Los Van Van and now a solo performer.

The Cuban community in America is tightly knit, and word gets around among musicians and athletes on the road about Xiques's haircutting and hospitality. Hernandez, whose dramatic defection from Cuba on a small sailboat made headlines in 1997, was steered to Upper Cuts by Xiques's uncle, Americo Miranda, who happens to be the manager of Los Van Van. "Americo told me I should call his niece whenever I come to Chicago," says Hernandez in Spanish. "Jose Contreras comes when the Yankees are in Chicago. Alfonso Soriano comes. My translator tells other players about Maria." His eyes range over the curios and boxing memorabilia that line the shelves of the shop, then come to rest on a carved wooden figurine of a shoeshine man smoking a big cigar. "I shined shoes in Havana to save money to buy my boat to come to America," he says.

"The first time we met I cooked Orlando Cuban food," Xiques says. "Tostones [fried plantains], black beans and rice, and ropa vieja [shredded flank steak in a garlic and tomato sauce]." Xiques looks across the room at Hernandez, who's now spinning around in a barber chair while talking on a cell phone. "But he really likes chicken because he eats a lot of protein. We talk on the phone and keep in touch."

Xiques opened Upper Cuts in January 1997, after more than a decade of working as a stylist at other Michigan Avenue salons. One of her regulars tipped her off about the vacant space in the 1928 art deco skyscraper. The proprietors of the building, he told her, were so intent on attracting a barber as a tenant they were prepared to help underwrite the necessary renovations.

"As I was driving up Wacker, I looked up at the round window," Xiques says. "I fell in love with that window. It's one of the biggest windows in the building." To scrape together the $20,000 she needed to secure the space, Xiques put in extra hours cutting hair in the kitchen of her Logan Square apartment. She named the shop Upper Cuts in memory of her father, Alberto, who loved the 1950s Cuban welterweight Kid Gavilan. When business was slow in the early days, Xiques used to put on a red silk boxer's robe and do publicity work out on the sidewalk. Today she keeps a pair of binoculars next to her porthole window; she says she uses them to keep abreast of the hairstyles in the street.

Born in Camaguey, Cuba's third-largest city, Xiques was three years old when a dozen members of her family fled the country in July 1961. Unlike Hernandez, the Xiques clan didn't have to brave the open seas; instead they flew to freedom on an airliner, having convinced authorities that they were traveling to a wedding in Curacao. "We went out with whatever we were able to take," says Xiques's mother, Julia. "We only took our suitcases. Only the clothes and no money." Although she didn't know it at the time, Xiques was the party's designated smuggler. "My mom filled my doll with sand and hid her jewelry in my doll," she says. "They were taking everything, but she knew they wouldn't take a doll. They almost didn't let my father out because they were holding professional people. He was the last one to get on the plane."

Prior to the revolution, the Xiques family was well-to-do. In addition to owning two pharmacies, says Maria, Alberto had friends in high places. "When Batista was president of Cuba he called my father because in 1942 they opened a clinic for ladies to have babies. He wanted my father to be director. My father told Batista, 'No, I don't want to become involved in politics.' Batista asked him to do it for just one year. So the day they opened, Batista came for my father and you know who came with him? Me. It is a good memory."

Following their defection, the family spent four years in Bogota before immigrating to Chicago in 1965. In Chicago, Alberto held a variety of jobs--in the pharmaceutical business, insurance sales, social work--before succumbing to a heart attack in 1986. Julia found work in the accounting department of Marshall Field's and later became a Spanish teacher in the Chicago Public Schools. Maria's older sister, Julie, is a child psychologist in Chicago; her older brother, Albert, is an attorney, and her younger brother, John (the only member of the family born in America), is a Chicago policeman. "I like to say if I ever go crazy I'll have someone to arrest me, someone to represent me in court, and someone to get me well again," Xiques says.

According to her mother, Xiques "always wanted to be a hairdresser. When she didn't have too many customers, she cut hair in my house. Don't tell her this, but sometimes I got mad because I was the last one to get my hair done when she did her clients' hair."

Though she clearly enjoys the visits from her countrymen, the majority of Xiques's customers are downtown professionals; she estimates that more than half are doctors or attorneys. "After working on Michigan Avenue for almost 20 years, I wouldn't go into a neighborhood," she says. "I like it here."

Every 18 months or so Xiques makes a return visit to Cuba to catch up with family and friends. When she goes she takes a supply of combs and shampoos to donate to neighborhood barbershops in Camaguey and Havana. "They have a supply problem with those items in Cuba," she says. "But someday that's going to change, sooner rather than later I think."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Jon Randolph.

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