Raul Cortada, 81, recently put his trimmer and shears away after working for 53 years at the Red Bird Salon and Spa just outside Coral Gables.
Cortada, who started his profession in Cuba, found his first U.S. barber job at the Red Bird Barbershop, as it was called back then. He was the first Spanish-speaking barber at the shop, on the corner of Red and Bird roads.
After five decades of cutting hair, Cortada said goodbye to his coworkers at the salon in early October to retire and spend more time with his family.
“I lived in love with my job,” he said. “I leave with sadness but happy that I gave the best years of my life to this profession.”
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Cortada, who has outlasted four owners, has seen the place change over time: the male barbershop became a unisex salon and the predominantly English-speaking clientele gradually became more ethnically mixed.
“It was a community of retired Americans; then us Cubans came in,” he said.
Cortada got into the profession because of his father, Alberto, who owned “Salon Raul,” back in the Santiago de las Vegas neighborhood in suburban Havana. Cortada would help around with the family business and grew to love the atmosphere of the barbershop.
“I’m very social, so I love talking to people,” he said.
Like many others, Cortada and his family left Cuba in 1961 to start over in South Florida. He hoped to provide a better future for his wife and children.
“I will never forget how they violated our human rights — it was a cruel system,” Cortada said. “I had to abandon my country.”
Cortada had to leave his family’s barbershop behind, and anything valuable was taken away at the airport in Cuba.
He tried to get his family back on their feet by working in a Winn-Dixie in Key West for a few months. Then, he rode a Greyhound bus to take his barber’s exam in Jacksonville.
Looking back now, Cortada said he’s pleased he took the risk back then as he sees how his three children grew up to become college-educated professionals and now gets to see his six grandchildren do the same.
“I am grateful to this country for its opportunities and freedom,” he said. “I’ve led a very happy life and I am blessed to have worked here.”
Cortada formed a long list of loyal clients over the years, including high-profile executives and professional athletes from the Miami sports teams.
“He’s very attentive to his clients. He adores them,” said Estrella Gonzalez, the new salon owner. “The vocation came within him.”
Retirement snuck up on Cortada, and he blames his bad knees for it.
“I have arthritis in my knees, and as a barber, we stand for hours at a time,” he said. “I can’t stay standing too long anymore.”
Cortada also began suffering from low blood pressure. His pressure dropped while at the salon a few weeks back, and a co-worker rushed him to the hospital. His wife, Mercedes Cortada, told him it was time to take a breather.
Some of his longtime clients have visited the salon, called him up and wished him well.
“I’ve been getting my haircut here for 30 years — always with Raul. He’s a rare kind of professional,” said John Sabina, president of Sabina Insurance Group. “He’s like family. I confide in him.”
Narciso De la Vega, a barber at the salon and one its former owners, has worked with Cortada for over 26 years and feels bittersweet to say goodbye to his mentor.
“It’s more quiet now. We are losing a character,” he said. “It’s not easy once you get used to having someone around.”