Art & Culture Along the El Camino Real: Travel along the coastal route of the El Camino Real with writer Pedro Arroyo and curator Catherine Trujillo as they explore the rich and diverse cultural and artistic identity of San Luis Obispo County incorporating personal narratives, photography, art, infographics, and sound.
Although unique in its arts and culture, San Luis Obispo is frequently described as monochromatic in regards to the ethnic makeup of the community and the civic landscape. Yet there are diverse groups of people who are finding ways to dispel these misconceptions. Serving as gatekeepers to this overlooked cultural legacy -- which is often bypassed and underrepresented in cultural institutions such as museums, galleries, and often the regional media outlets -- many residents of color are working hard to foster meaningful cross-cultural experiences. They are exploring ways to share their cultural histories through community organizing, folk art and through nontraditional means.
African American Arts & Culture on the Central Coast
One community that is visibly underrepresented in San Luis Obispo County are African Americans who make up approximately 2.1% of the 270,000 residents living in the county. Many of the small towns in San Luis Obispo County have a vibrant African American culture with traditions that depict spiritual folk art and unique cultural practices. One such person is Angie Galloway a vendor at the Nipomo swap meet.
Galloway opened her shop in 1994, first starting as a tent vendor and eventually moving to an indoor mini-storage unit she calls "Botanica Mànvíye." In Latino and Afro Caribbean cultures, botanicas are stores selling folk medicines, herbs, incense, amulets, vials containing oils for good luck and to deflect jealousy and religious candles thought to possess healing and magical powers. Galloway is a diviner and psychic of sorts and creates her own folk art charm globes as incantations for lost love, health, or wealth. In many ways botanicas, like Galloway's are hybrids of catholic, indigenous and African healing, religious and spiritual practices. Yet her space is also a museum of African American traditions, art, and customs.
Photographer Mark Velasquez is in the shop documenting Galloway's botanica and pans close to her display case of conjure oils where she describes the purpose of her shop. "These objects in here are my spiritual tools. They do not represent religion but rather the spirit. There are many customs here, Egyptian, Wiccan; they all remind to wake up the inner spirit." Galloway says her shop is more like a cultural center. "I am like the American Indians who pass on their traditions and cultures and teach how to celebrate spiritual awakening. Not everyone has an opportunity or finds one place that has all of the different symbols and tools needed for this work. Botanica Mànvíye helps with that."
Galloway dispels a common myth about her shop that it evokes images of evil spells and voodoo dolls. "I don't believe in evil," states Galloway. "There is not one religion or a religion, but many customs, representing many peoples. My work here is to remind us to wake up the inner spirit." As she slowly moves about the shop, Galloway shares that she struggles with Multiple Sclerosis, which attacked her optic nerve leaving her virtually blind in one eye. Her medical struggles and spiritual work have led her to study for a credential in social services. Her calm and peaceful manner attracts many in the community to seek her out for advice. Lucy, one of Galloway's regular patrons arrives with her elderly parents who are both in their late 80s for a consultation. Lucy first met Galloway 15 years ago when she poked her head into the shop drawn to the wall of bumper stickers adorning the exterior walls of her stall. "I come in for readings, advice, and what candles to use for ailments and problems of the heart, that type of thing," Lucy says.
Today Lucy's father is getting a reading from Galloway. "It was his idea," Lucy comments. "He has lots of questions on his mind that he is hoping to find resolution before he dies and he is stumped about something that he thinks Angie can help him find the answers to," Lucy added.
Lucy's father was an itinerant farm worker who followed the harvests of oranges and apples throughout the Western United States, until finally settling in the Santa Maria Valley. He worked locally in the strawberry and broccoli fields for over 30 years. This work left him with a permanently hunched-over. When asked about his religious practices, he explained with Lucy's translation help, that the nature of the harvest schedule and lack of familiarity with the local community, time for religious practices was limited. He often sought guidance from traveling curanderos (Mexican spiritual and folk healers) to help him with his spiritual needs and physical illnesses. "In his mind, Angie has the same familiarity as the traditional curanderos he was accustomed to," Lucy said.
A micro-community for art and African American culture has formed around Botanica Mànvíye. Richard Hicks is a vendor who runs a stall across from Galloway, which he describes as his "automobile studio." Galloway helped him organize his tools and supplied him with a few pieces of African American art. Born in 1935 in Monterey, California, Hicks worked in the canneries as a young man. But he began a professional career in the civil service then moved to mechanics. This work led him to travel across the West and it wasn't until he got to Texas in the 1950s that he experienced segregation for the first time. "I went to the movies and unbeknownst sat in the 'whites only' section. I was told to move and move I did," he pauses, "straight out of Texas and back to California."
Hicks ended his career at Vandenberg Village just south of the swap meet, retiring and turning his mechanical skills into a hobby of sorts, restoring rare motorcycles and automobiles. A shiny, sleek and rare 1936 Rolls-Royce Phantom III automobile is tucked in the crowded studio -- artfully and expertly restored by Hicks. "Everything is for sale," he says. "I don't really advertise, mainly people just stick their head in the door."
Cut to be the best
Kut To Be The Best is the only barbershop catering to the small but active African American community on the Central Coast. The barbershop lies in an inconspicuous mini-strip mall a few blocks away from Cal Poly State University San Luis Obispo and a short walk from Greek Row. If one does not pay close attention to the shop's whereabouts, it could be easily missed. Historically, many African Americans were drawn to San Luis Obispo County region while stationed at Camp San Luis during WWII for training. At the time the base was segregated and black soldiers were housed off base just outside the city limits of San Luis Obispo. Many of the first Baptist churches were established during this period to serve the men and their families. Other young African Americans have been drawn to SLO County to attend Cal Poly to study engineering or architecture, where they played a prominent role during the 1960s Civil Rights movement on campus, leading marches and establishing needed ethnic studies courses at the university.
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Terry Lee Guilford, Jr., a young African American barber and budding entrepreneur, came to the Central Coast to practice his craft. Opening Kut To Be the Best in the summer of 2011, he saw the move as an opportunity to provide a service to African Americans that previously went unmet. "I came here from Sacramento, because no one was doing what I do," Guilford said. He specializes in razor shaves, tapers and a variety of popular hairstyles for young boys and men. The name of the shop stems from Guilford's philosophy that not everyone is cut out to be the best, but anyone can be cut to be the best. "When you look in the mirror at your hair after a haircut, that is you at your best," he says.
Said with a sense of pride, Guilford claims to be the first black-owned barbershop in the city of San Luis Obispo, a statement that has a ring of truth to it. In 1949, the San Luis Obispo chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) fought for the rights of the region's African American community, focusing on discrimination which took place in the form of "violations" in housing, real estate, and barbershops. At the time a local union forbade its barbers from servicing African American customers thus leaving no public barbershop in the city of SLO for African Americans or a black-owned establishment to service African Americans.
Tall and lanky, Guilford possesses a quiet but confident demeanor. As he cuts a young boy's hair, he begins to discuss the various role of the barbershop within the African American community while a young soon-to-be apprentice sweeps hair from the floor. "The barbershop is the church that everyone else goes to who is not going to church," he explains with a smile. The place serves as a location where people -- men in particular -- gather, socialize and inquire about the activities in the community. "It's like a community resource," he added.
Guilford also views barbering as way for young African Americans to achieve economic independence. "The barber is one of the a few people in the community who can make money," he said. "I never met a broke barber." The barbershop is recession-proof," he says. "In fact during the tough economic times, business is up," he adds. "When you get a haircut and or a shave you feel good. Who does not like to feel good?" he asks smiling.
As a young teen, Guilford wanted to cut hair and saved enough money to buy his own set of clippers. He started out by cutting hair at his local church. This led to a lifelong calling for him. He has spent time in Honolulu, Reno and eventually ended up opening a barbershop in Sacramento with his younger brothers before coming to San Luis Obispo. The San Luis Obispo is the second of what Guilford hopes to be many more shops. "I want to be the McDonald's of barbering, with franchises everywhere," he rattles off jokingly.
While Guilford manages his SLO barbershop by himself, he has taken the time to give back to the community by mentoring a few young men and establishing an informal apprenticeship program. One such apprentice is a young Puerto Rican American name Rubin Colón. Colón was born and raised in San Luis Obispo and finds the shop a cool place to hang out and relax. Colón knew a bit about cutting hair but started to apprentice with Guilford by sweeping the floors in the shop. On this warm Central Coast afternoon, Colón is giving a young Latino customer a taper fade. A taper fade is a haircut in which the length of the hair either decreases or increases, with longer hair on top that gradually tapers and fades to much shorter hair along the neck and just above the ears. A good barber will use electric clippers to provide a clean hair line and a superior look. Under Guilford's tutelage, Colón hopes to master the technique that draws so many young people to the shop. Inspired by Guilford, Colón will attend barber school in August in Sacramento. Rubin Colón's younger brother, Gabe is sweeping hair and hopes to take over his brother's chair when he departs for school in a few months.
Guilford says that he is licensed to use a straight razor and jokingly says he thinks his license is really to teach men -- both young and old -- to properly groom themselves by keeping their hair trimmed and facial hair neat. These lessons can begin at an early age. Two young African American fraternal twin boys, Calleb and Caillou await their turn at the barber's chair. Their mother, Latosha learned about Guilford's shop from her 16-year-old son. Latosha is a San Luis Obispo resident who before Terry opened his shop, would have to travel 40 minutes south to find a barber who could cut black hair. Now she only travels five minutes and the boys feel right at home at Kut To Be The Best.
Guilford summons Calleb to the chair who sits relaxed and quiet as Guilford takes a pair of clippers and begins to remove layer after layer of the young boy's slightly overgrown afro. Calleb requests a custom look from Guilford, who removes most of the hair leaving a thin but noticeable geometric layer in Calleb's hair. Latosha values Guilford's compassionate nature and understanding of her financial struggles as a single mother. "He gives me discounts," she said as Guilford summons the other twin Caillou to the barber's chair.
Top Image: Nipomo Swap Meet vendor Angie Galloway's vendor stall. Photo: Mark Velasquez.
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