Barber offers hope in Peruvian barrios devastated by virus

FRANKLIN BRICEÑO

LIMA, Peru (AP) — Once a week, barber Josué Yacahuanca makes his way up the dusty hills of Peru's capital, heading into its poorest neighborhoods carrying a treasured golden briefcase that holds his life's passion — five clipper blades, 20 combs, four scissors and a bottle with alcohol.

Yacahuanca seeks out clients devastated by a coronavirus lockdown that has gone on for nearly 100 days in an attempt to stem the wave of new infections. He does it for free.

“I want them to look in the mirror and see a bit of hope,” said Yacahuanca, who though just 21 years old is a veteran barber, having started cutting hair at age 13.

With ease, he moves between clients who want a clean, classic cut to those who ask for modern styles. Most recently he set up shop at the “December 24″ neighborhood, where almost everybody has lost their jobs because of the pandemic, forcing many to work as street vendors.

Yacahuanca had a rocky start in life himself. Abandoned by his mother, he was raised by his godmother, Gloria Alvarez. Despite obstacles, he discovered a business savvy at a young age. He hustled at odd jobs, selling sweets, cleaning houses, working in outdoor markets and at a bus station.

“My life was hard,” he said, working under a shade tree with a bird's eye view of the neighborhood populated by single mothers and their children who wear torn cloths and lack running water at home.

“I look at them and I see myself,” he said.

Peru has been one of Latin America's hardest hit by recession brought on by the virus outbreak. Its gross domestic product has already shrunk 12% this year, a rate outpacing the United States, Brazil, Mexico and Argentina, according to the World Bank.

Every day, the toll mounts in Peru, where officials reported Thursday a total of 7,400 deaths and more than 244,000 people falling ill.

Like thousands of businesses across Peru, Yacahuanca's barbershop — called D Barrio Shop — closed its doors March 16 under lockdown orders. Since then, he watched his personal finances be pulverized. But he brushed it off, deciding to help others with the skills he has.

Greeting each client, Yacahuanca drapes them with a white cape emblazoned with a giant portrait of his favorite salsa singer, Héctor Lavoe, bringing it memories of the music he always had playing in his shop.

“I'm a fan of his music," Yacahuanca said. “He sings about the realities of life — sadness and joy.”

Peru has roughly 150,000 barbers, and Yacahuanca and a few others are offering their services to those most in need at no charge.

Setting out on foot or hailing a motorcycle taxi once a week, he ventures into neighborhoods in need, including some where hunger has started to take hold among some residents.

On each trip, he follows a routine, setting out an old wooden chair as his makeshift barber chair and offering up his services. Most people ask twice when they don't believe the cut is free.

“I tell them, sure," he said. "It's from my heart.”

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