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A little piece of history will be lost when the oldest barber in downtown San Antonio, and perhaps in the entire city, retires later this year at age 90. Willie Cedillo has seen an endless stream of folks in need of haircuts – and with stories to tell – come through his door over the years.
Cedillo has seen the city itself evolve and triple in size. Yet it’s clear that he is not quite ready to say farewell, and neither are the patrons of Willie’s Barber Shop.
“I’ve been downtown since 1943,” said Cedillo, his smile warm and inviting. “I’ve seen San Antonio change a lot. When I got here they didn’t have half a million people. In those days they called it ‘Old San Antonio,’ because it had a lot of old buildings.”
He referenced some of the oldest buildings still standing, such as the Tower Life Building and the Robert E. Lee Hotel, where he once worked.
Cedillo’s mother is from the Rio Grande Valley area, and his father immigrated from Mexico when he was 11 years old. “He only paid five cents to get across. He just drove straight over,” Cedillo said.
Cedillo was born in the South Texas town of Hobson and grew up in nearby Falls City on a farm with his parents and three siblings. After his mother died in 1939, his father sold the farm.
“My dad said, ‘You’d better take advantage of this money because once it’s gone, it’s gone forever,’” Cedillo recalled. “He said, ‘Do you want to be a shoemaker, a repairman, mechanic, or a barber?’”
Cedillo, who had already been working as a mechanic, knew that life wasn’t for him. “When I’d get home at 7 p.m., I’d be full of grease and sand, and would have to take a bath, not a shower because there were no showers,” he said.
At the time, Cedillo’s cousin, Bartolo Molina, was a barber.
“He was a barber until the age of 90, just like me,” Cedillo laughed. Cedillo saw how successful his cousin was and decided that he too would become a barber. He moved to San Antonio and went to the Louise Barber College, which was located next to San Fernando Cathedral, in a building that is long gone.
His first job out of school was at Casa Blanca Barber Shop on Dolorosa Street, where he quit after being wrongly accused of stealing $2. After that he worked for Tony’s Barber Shop, where he stayed for 22 years. Finally, he started his own business with two other barbers called Triangle Barber Shop.
“We had more business than any other Spanish barber shop. We had so many people. I’m tired, I’m tired,” he said, remembering his heyday. “My record for haircuts was 55 in one day, and that’s a lot, but I was 19 years old.”
Cedillo enjoyed reminiscing about those bygone and carefree days. Evidently women weren’t immune to his charms.
“I used to be a sharp man. I used to wear a tie and suit every day, a two-piece,” he said. “The ladies liked me. I treated them nice. I used to take them to the dance halls and all that.”
Indeed, Cedillo has been married eight times and raised 14 children. His philosophy on matrimony?
“If you fight with her … are you going to spend all your life like that? Get another [wife]. All my wives were younger. I’m exactly 40 years older than my current wife. The best one of all is the one I have now.”
Cedillo said that in those days, there was a judge in New Braunfels who would marry you any time of the day or night. Marriage, as well as divorce, seemed a much easier process.
When asked what his secret to romance is, he said, “I treat them nice and just make them happy by joking. They love it. And of course I love it, too!”
Although you’re more likely to find Cedillo in a colorful shirt than a suit these days, he still hasn’t lost his panache. His eyes twinkle when he speaks, and his grin is infectious. It’s no wonder he’s been in business all these years. He’s the kind of barber you could listen to for hours on end while sitting in his chair. What’s even more surprising, is he doesn’t have an ounce of cynicism in his bones.
He’s hard-pressed to recall any past history of racism, especially when it pertains to him, although he does remember when “the San Antonio Police Department had the right to pick you up [if you were an illegal immigrant], and take you to the immigration office. They’d give them $25 for each one. I had two friends of mine who were policemen, and they saw three guys walking by. I finished up the haircut and they picked them up.”
The three Triangle barbers eventually relocated to the Robert E. Lee Hotel, which is just around the block from his current location on North Main near Travis Street. They were again uprooted, Cedillo thinks sometime in the early 1960s, when the owner’s son wanted to start a dinner club instead. That’s when Cedillo took over the space he’s at now, which used to be the warehouse for a print shop. He remembers paying a mere $100 in monthly rent.
In fact, Cedillo remembers in vivid detail a time in San Antonio’s history that most of us have forgotten or didn’t even know existed. He talked about the gasoline wars that would drop the price of gas from 11 cents to a dime. He remembers when he first started driving, back when he was 12 in 1927, and had a Model A Ford convertible. He refers to buildings and places around town that no longer exist – such as the factory near the Alameda Theatre that made the once popular aftershave Bay Rum.
“It was famous in those days;” he said. “Alcoholics would drink it.”
He even recalls a time before global warming or at least before global warming was a hot-button issue. “In those days it was cold. We didn’t have any sprays. The ozone was virgin, so it got cold, freezing. The temperature would drop to zero,” he said.
When asked if he made the right choice in becoming a barber, Cedillo didn’t hesitate. “Oh, yes, I love my job because I talk to the people. Here comes one and another one, all day long. If you want to know the news or something, go to a barber. He’s got a lot of things he can tell you,” he said.
The good news is Cedillo will be handing over the clippers to his 19-year-old grandson, Ernest Morado. “He’s going to be the barber. He likes it,” Cedillo said. “Now the new style is the faded thing. I don’t have the equipment or practice. They come to me, but I say I don’t do it. We do natural cuts.”
One of his regulars, Ernesto Cuellar, can attest to that. He’s been coming to Cedillo for his haircuts since his father took him and his three brothers to the shop when he was only 8 years old. Back then, the cuts cost just 50 cents each.
“He’s the best in town,” Cuellar said. “I get an education when he talks to his customers, and the prices are still low.”
Unfortunately, Cedillo has only a few regulars who still come by for a cut.
“I have only three regulars left from the ones that started with me in 1943. They’re all dead,” he said.
“My doctor told me the other day that I was doing good,” Cedillo said. “‘You’re gonna last another 10 years.’ Then I’ll be 100.”
There’s no doubt Cedillo will enjoy many more years – and perhaps even a few more wives.