Working For A DreamNovember 24, 2018
Story by Jonathan Saxon
Photos by Nic Antaya
The American dream seems simple. If you work hard enough, you can achieve all the success you can set your mind to. However, with so many external factors that are out of our control, it’s never quite that simple to carve out a slice of life for oneself.
But one local businessman has a story that brings the American dream, or something close to it, to life. His name is Angel Serrano, and he has captured his version of the dream through his barbershop, La Frontera Haircuts.
Angel, 42, was born in El Salvador and immigrated to the United States at age 13 when his mother was able to bring him over in 1992. His first landing spot was Los Angeles, where he spent the latter half of his formative years. But after about 10 years in the city, the cost of living made staying in LA unfeasible, and forced Angel to start looking elsewhere for better employment opportunities.
As he and his wife, Jenni, were looking for a new place to go, Angel received word from his sister, who was living in Washington with her husband, that Indiana was a good place to come and look for better opportunities for his family. So he and Jenni — who was six months pregnant with their first daughter; the couple now has three daughters — packed up their life and moved to Jasper in 2002.
“I started looking for a job because we didn’t have any money,” Angel recalls in his shop as he attends to a client’s cut. “We just got $2,000 [at this point].”
Angel bounced around to a few different employers as he searched for the right fit before he finally settled in at MasterBrand in 2004. He worked 12-hour shifts for four years at the cabinet maker to build a life here, and probably would have stayed there until he retired. But life, as it often does, had other plans for him.
“In 2008, MasterBrand went down on their hours,” Angel said. “We saved a little money, and I decided to go to school to get my [barber’s] license.”
Angel says he has always loved the idea of cutting hair since the first time he picked up the clippers at 12 years old, but he never really considered doing it full time because the barbers he grew up around all had more than one job.
“I knew a lot of barbers that only cut hair part time,” he said. “I never thought of it as a successful profession to do.”
But all of that changed with the cutbacks at MasterBrand. During the course of getting his license, Angel worked part time at Kimball Hospitality to help makes ends meet. But soon, the Kimball job turned into a full-time gig. Angel spent about eight months working at different shops across Jasper, cutting hair in the evenings or weekends after work to satisfy his professional licensing requirements and build up his client list.
“Anybody that would call me during the week, I would cut them after work,” he said. “That’s how I ended up getting my clientele. It took me almost five years to build up my clientele.”
After Angel finished his apprenticeship requirements, he struck out on his own and started focusing more of his efforts on his barber career. He was still working at Kimball to help pay the rent for his shop space, but he started to scale back and went back to working part time until he was laid off in 2011. He got another part-time job working for Dubois Wood Products, but once again, his job was downsized. So in 2013, Angel decided to commit to cutting hair full time.
“I was thinking if I would be in the shop more time, I would get more clients,” he said. “I was looking to do this full time. [With] all my part-time work shutting down, this is how I became a full-time barber.”
Angel worked out of what he described as a “hole” in Jasper’s Southgate Shopping Center. It took some time for people to pass along the word about his hair care skills, but eventually, he started to get steady traffic coming through his shop.
“Once you give a nice haircut to someone, they tell people,” he said. “It took a little while to get busy. It’s not easy, people need to know you.”
Slowly, but surely, people learned about Angel’s talents, and business started to take off. In 2016, he moved to a better location in the Southgate Shopping Center. But soon, the number of people coming to the shop to see him became overwhelming for a single man to handle, and he reached out to Joey Ballard of Jasper, an old client, to help him meet the needs of the business.
“I asked him about going to barber school to get his license because I needed help,” Angel said. “I was having clients waiting for two hours to get a haircut. I said, ‘This is too much waiting right now.’”
“My parents got to the point where they were moving back to Texas, and I was going to go with them,” said Ballard, who moved to Jasper in 2007 to help his folks out working with timeshares. “I started talking with Angel about it. He was getting busy. He was like, ‘You have the personality for it, why don’t you get your barber’s license and come work with me?’”
So Ballard took a chance and went to barber school to see if he would like it, and he fell in love with the profession. A little over a year later, he finished school and started working for Angel in February, doing his part to “make Jasper look good,” as he calls it.
And not long after Ballard came, Angie Martin — a hair creative who needed a place she could call home, professionally speaking — took a chance and switched from a salon to Angel’s shop and has been working for Angel for about six months now.
“Angel and I started chatting as soon as I graduated from hair school,” the Huntingburg woman said. “He asked me to come work for him, and, at first, I didn’t see myself at a barbershop. But I was having a hard time at the place I was at before and I thought why not give it a shot?”
Nowadays, it seems like everyone knows Angel. He moved locations once again earlier this year, this time to Newton Street across from the El Campesino restaurant, now the Latin Cuba Restaurant.
From the moment the barbershop’s doors open in the morning, there are people walking in at a steady pace looking forward to their turn in Angel’s chair. He says his days are busy until closing time, and he credits some simple principles as the drivers of his success. Angel and the other barbers aim to give all their clients a quality haircut, something they would be proud to be seen with in the town square. They also treat their clients with respect and attend to what they want and need when they have a seat in the chair.
“I try to do a good job. The client is the one that pays for everything,” Angel said. “If you don’t have any clients, you don’t have any business. Once you treat the client right and give them the service they need, you’ll be OK.”
Angel doesn’t look at his job as work. He doesn’t wake up on Mondays frustrated about going to the shop. He says if he had it his way, he would be at his chair 24/7.
As far as the future goes, he sees himself cutting hair up until the end. He wishes he could have started cutting hair full time earlier in his life, but he is grateful to be at this point in his life, and for the journey that brought him here. He loves his shop, he loves Jasper and he loves the opportunities the town has afforded him, because he was willing to work for his stake.
For Angel, there is an American dream, and it can be realized by those who are patient and willing to put in the work to achieve it.
“If you like what you do, everything is possible,” he said. “It is a dream, but you have to work hard for it. I think anybody can do it.”
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