Hugo Tandrón in his barbershop in Miami Gardens, Fla.
Univision

Editor’s note: The story was first published by Univision.

Despite his rugged looks, this is the man to whom all players on the Miami Marlins baseball team entrust their necks. The former gang member says that “his art” saved his life.

His childhood years in a modest barrio changed life for Hugo Tandrón, better known as “Juice”—a play on words based on English speakers’ mispronunciation of his name, Hugo, as “Jugo,” which is the Spanish word for “juice.”

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“When I was younger I would look at my neighbors and the kids around me that were much older,” he says. “I would look at them as role models, and they were like idols.” They weren’t a positive influence. They were quite the opposite.

“They would sell their drugs and commit their crimes, and … you know, you saw things they did, and I was fascinated seeing that, because I noticed they commanded respect from everybody, and people were afraid of them, and I would say ‘Bah!’ … I want to be like that,” he continues.

Juice carries his story around with him everywhere. He wants to make sure the ink work will keep him from forgetting everything that has happened, everything he has suffered … everything he has learned. “Everything I have means something, starting with … where I have … ‘Tupac’ on my one leg,” he says. “I have ‘N.W.A.’ on the other, and these are groups I listened to as I grew up, and they were something that meant something in my life.”

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That’s how Tandrón tells the duality of his childhood, growing up between two minority groups. He grew up around an African-American community, which influenced his musical tastes, his way of talking and even dressing. And at the same time, he was one of the few Hispanics in his barrio, and within his group of friends. On his shoulder you see a Cuban flag undulating, “even though I wasn’t born in Cuba.” For him, all of this stands for his roots. His parents emigrated from Cuba in the middle of the last century, fleeing the political scene.

Tandrón grew up in Carol City, Fla., at that time a Miami suburb that grew increasingly larger during the 1960s amid tensions resulting from the presence of public housing projects. He has tattooed all of this on his body as a way of never forgetting where he came from. “I’m proud to be from there,” he says. “It’s not the best part of town, but that’s where I grew up. It was hard growing up there because most of the people weren’t Latinos. They were Americans, African Americans.”

Tandrón grew up at the heart of a stable family, although surrounded by bad influences. “My dad was always a hard worker, and I have always admired him for that, and we were never in need of anything. But I got involved with street people and kept getting into trouble.” The zip code where he lived was probably one of the most violent in South Florida, and there was the constant contact with Hialeah, a nearby area that was traditionally Cuban.

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Within his array of tattoos, it’s hard not to stop at one of them, since it’s on his face. It’s just one word. Seven letters that, according to him, define him and summarize his life: “Blessed,” a word that, every time he sees it reflected in the mirror, reminds him of how lucky he has been that at least he’s not lying underground beneath a cross and a bouquet of dead flowers: “I am now 45 years old, and there were many times when I could have lost my life.”

There’s an episode that often haunts him and still makes his breathing pick up speed. “One of my biggest scares was a rumble we had at a discotheque,” he says. One of his aggressors pointed a short semiautomatic weapon at him at close range. He felt the cold metal of the gun’s muzzle against his forehead. Tandrón closed his eyes, trying to block out his own fear. He even heard the sound of the trigger. The end of the fight had come near … the end of everything. The trigger had jammed.

Tandrón says that it was such a surprise to him that he froze up. There was only one sound that made him react: “All I could hear was my friends yelling, ‘Run, run, run!’ … but I couldn’t move.” He finally reacted and ran. That’s why he feels “blessed.”

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Another challenge came when he was accused of armed robbery. The worst part of the experience was not just having to face justice but also seeing his father’s disappointment up close for the first time. This frustration makes him break into tears just at the thought of remembering the look on the face of the “old boy,” as he describes his father between sobs. He cannot forget the expression on that face appearing on the court’s closed-circuit screen.

Luckily, he was released from jail a few days later, thanks to the fact that a case against him could not be established because there was insufficient evidence to convict him. Nonetheless, this event marked him for life and confirmed to him once again that he was “blessed.”

The question is, how is it that a young man who grew up surrounded by violence, with a criminal record, is now the owner of two Florida barbershops, one in Miami Gardens and the other at Marlins Park? How is it that, today, professional baseball players, and other famous people, trust a young man who has a questionable reputation? In other words, they trust him enough to allow him to slide a razor along their necks. It was no easy task.

Cutting hair is something that this professional has in his blood. It’s “the art that God gave me.” It’s Tandrón’s way of expressing himself, his vocation, and that’s why he has barber shears tattooed on his face. “I always liked to trim hair and that sort of thing,” he says. “I used to steal my mom’s clippers and gave myself haircuts, because she would say to me, ‘I’m not going to cut your hair that way!’” His mom, who for many years was a hairdresser, would also say to him: “I’m not giving you that kind of haircut; that’s how all the delinquents are cutting their hair.”

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Tandrón remembers, with a timid smile on his face, the first “barbershop” he had improvised in his house, which allowed him to earn extra money. After many attempts, and rejections because of his jail record, he found a job with an appliance-chain-store group. After work he would go home, where he had set up his first barber’s chair in the laundry room, and give haircuts to his friends and to friends of his friends. At night, there would be lines of customers waiting until 2 in the morning. He says of his neighbors’ reaction, “Just imagine, eh! Me and my gold teeth, hair everywhere, and they were saying: ‘These people are up to something strange; there are people going in and out, every night.’ And they didn’t know that what I was doing was cutting hair, and I couldn’t tell them, because they would then call the inspectors.”

But the neighbors, who could not keep their suspicions to themselves, reported him to the police. On several occasions Tandrón caught plainclothes police officers by surprise going through his trash and walking around his house. By that time in his life, the young barber already had a pregnant wife, and a future awaited him.

It didn’t take long for him to move on from working in the laundry room to setting up his first barbershop. Everything came thanks to the fact that in 1993 Gary Sheffield, a player for the Marlins, landed in his barber’s chair. From then on, it all fell into place. “And that’s how we got started,” he recalls. “In ’98 they said to me, ‘Can you come over to the stadium? Bring your things.’ And I said to them, ‘Well, that’s OK,’ and I went over there, and up until now it’s been 16 … 17 years at the stadium.”

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But it’s not just baseball players who get in and out of his chair. Personalities such as Pitbull and Antonio Banderas are also some of the famous people who have availed themselves of Juice’s barber shears.

Stepping into his barbershop is like being initiated into a fraternity. Rap music fills the air. You can sense the friendship and brotherhood in the ambience. Juice defines his barbers as if they were his own family, since he prefers having a family to having just barbers. And this is how he describes his job: “We don’t just cut their hair and that’s it. We’re psychologists, we’re marriage counselors, we’re everybody’s parent, we’re everybody’s friend.”

Family is one of the aspects that stand out the most on that pictorial canvas that his body has become. He has the initials of his children and his family tattooed on his fingers. These are the same hands that serve as tools for his work, with which he earns his daily bread and with which he supports his family. These are the same hands that hover over the heads of all who sit in his chair.

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One of the largest tattoos on his body is that of his “Headz-Up” trademark. Juice realizes that, with personalities like him entering the barbershop business, a new model has been established. Nowadays, it is very common to see professional teams with their own barber. Many barbershops have ceased to be those small local businesses managed by “an elderly man,” and have become more youth-oriented shops, offering more than just a few haircut choices. This new model includes holding worldwide barbering championships among the very best. After receiving many awards, Juice is now one of the invited judges.

What began as an expression of rebellion during his youth has turned into what Juice calls “his art.” A young man who was once apparently doomed to failure is today one of the most influential barbers in the business, one of the worldwide barbering champions and the first to have an official barbershop at a major-league stadium.