November 26, 2019 900 PM
MARFA — Mateo Quintana sits in his barber chair on a breezy Saturday morning in mid-November. The front door of his shop is ajar, and he gazes out the window, listening and watching the traffic along Highland Avenue. When a man walks in to ask for a haircut, Quintana turns him away.
The Marfa-native instead plans to spend this particular Saturday taking down the photos, posters and ephemera that cover most surfaces in Quintana’s Barber Shop.
At the beginning of the month, Quintana announced his retirement and gave his final haircut.
Laughing, he says, “I might as well quit while I’m ahead. I’ve been barbering for 44 years.” At 82 years old, his knees require surgery, and he can’t bear to stand for the length of a haircut anymore.
Quintana’s shop, situated in a corner of what is now Judd Foundation’s Architecture Office, tells his life story for him. Pinned into the wood paneled walls are vintage posters of various Dallas Cowboys, New York Yankees, boxers and Marfa’s finest school sports teams from the 1940s. He still has the trophy, up in the front window, for a high school baseball tournament his team took second in at Kokernot field.
He gestures to the wall covered in team photos, explaining, “Up there is the basketball team. That’s where I played with all my friends, relatives. Up there on that other picture, that’s my brother Richard. And another one where we were playing for Blackwell.”
Quintana attended the segregated school in south Marfa until eighth grade, and then started at Marfa High School as a freshman.
He says of his first day integrating into the new school: “They were laughing at us because we didn’t know which rooms to go to. ‘Look there’s those guys from Blackwell!’ But it was real fun.” He played basketball, football and baseball, noting that one year, “I was the only one who made the all star team from Marfa.”
As they continued through high school, Quintana says, “Most of the guys left town, a lot of them moved to Odessa, Midland, California, El Paso.”
In the shop, a portrait of James Dean is taped to a framed collage of newspaper clippings about the filming of Giant. Quintana himself never visited the film set, but he does remember seeing Dean once. Walking through town, he came upon the actor in the alley behind the Paisano Hotel. Dean was cracking a bullwhip around a gaggle of kids’ ankles, entertaining them as the local school children made their way home from school. Quintana says, “He was a really nice guy.”
Quintana was 18 at the time, busy planning his own departure for California. He recalls his dad handing him $50 and sending him on his way.
By the time he settled into Los Angeles, it was 1956 and Giant was heading for the silver screen. He begged a friend to see the film, offering to buy both of their tickets to the show. Quintana attended Giant’s red carpet premiere screening at the famous Grauman’s Chinese Theatre in Hollywood.
Not long after, he joined the infantry, heading to Iceland for the Cold War. “They said it was a Cold War, but it wasn’t a war.” He returned home, married, went to barber school in Odessa and had his first son, Harvey.
Barbering was an easy choice, having spent his childhood in his father’s shop on the west side of Marfa. He says of the trade, “I love it. It was everything. Meeting people, getting to learn about people, where they come from.”
The Quintanas have been cutting Marfa’s hair for longer than many can remember.
“This chair was my dad’s,” Quintana says, squeezing the red leather seat’s enamel arms and looking at the framed photos placed alongside his workspace. “My dad was a barber, my uncles were barbers.”
He describes one of the black and white photos of his dad, who has his banjo in hand, and is sitting with his jazz band, Santa Cecilia, made up of Quintana’s uncle Cruz, saxophonist Beto Galindo and his brother, Susie Cortez and Chico Cortez. They played dances all over the area, often in what is now Ballroom Marfa.
Like his own childhood, his three sons, Harvey, Javier and Jaime grew up around the barber shop, helping out where they could. But none of them picked up the family craft.
In the back of the shop, Quintana has a rosary, religious icons and cut-out newsprint about Javier. It’s a small memorial for his second-born son, who was killed in a freak hunting accident a few days after graduating high school. Within a few years, his wife also passed away.
The shop’s decorations have accumulated over the decades as Quintana made a living within the walls of his workspace. As Marfa changed, Quintana’s stayed the same.
“I met Donald Judd because my father-in-law bought my kids a pony,” he says. Judd leased the pony from Quintana when the artist and his family first moved to town, and had moved up on the hill in Sal Si Puedes. When Quintana went to Judd’s house to make the deal, he recalls a young Rainer and Flavin running through the yard, playing.
He never thought Marfa would become what it is, but he has embraced the changes. “I like the way they’re fixing it up. I like all the restaurants, the hotels; I like it.” He began cutting the hair of Marfa tourists as they came and went, even giving visiting grooms touch-ups before their wedding day.
But as his barbering career draws to a close, he observes how the change affected his work. “Marfa, well, it’s changing a little, and barbers are supposed to know everything. You hear, ‘Where’s Marfa lights?’ or ‘Where’s Cibolo Creek Ranch?’ ‘Where’s the best place to eat?’ Everything, everything.”
As for what’s next, he’s not quite sure. He’ll stay in Marfa, near his sons and grandchildren. He might get knee surgery and return to the dance floor at Planet Marfa.
From his shop window, Quintana recalls often seeing Donald Judd observing Marfa too, perched on the balcony across the street at the Marfa National Bank. Years later, Judd would acquire the building Quintana was renting from Genevieve Bassham, including his little shop.
“I said, oh golly, I guess I’m going to have to get out. But they told me, ‘You can stay as long as you want.’” The Judd family always insisted he could stay. Quintana was, in many ways, one of Marfa’s permanent installations.