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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

A fresh start for the school year in Loíza

The barbers and stylists donate their time and experience to up to 100 children each year. (Photo by Alejandra M. Jover Tovar)

Dozens of children have their hair cut or braided before the new semester

By Alejandra M. Jover Tovar

Special to The STAR

Most of the kids were timid in front of the camera, but they looked happy: in a few moments, skilled fingers were making intricate braids to protect their hair and reflect their African heritage, the pride of Loíza, on Puerto Rico’s northern coast east of San Juan.

Early in the morning, little girls waited their turn for their braids and “piojitos” (little colorful rings placed in their new hairdos.) The girls were encouraged to pick their favorite colors, and, after posing with their new hairstyles, they went and picked up a new backpack to start their new school year.

Loíza’s school semester starts on Wednesday, so the parents took time out of their Sunday to take their children to get their hair done. The girls looked forward to going back to school looking fresh and pretty. Most boys decided to get the latest fadeouts or shave their heads clean.

Letty Vázquez, a worker for the municipality who braided the girls’ hairs, kept encouraging every little one sitting on her chair while she parted, braided and detangled each strand. The kids left smiling broadly.

Yuneily Vázquez, a five-year-old girl, is ready to start kindergarten on Wednesday and picked up pink and silver “piojitos” for her hair. Then, she chose a pink Totto backpack, a gift from the municipality for each child.

“She was very willing, very quiet and even chose the hair ornaments that she liked the most,” Letty said.

All the decorations for the braids were courtesy of Miledys Magic, a business from Loíza that has also collaborated in previous years.

Nitchelis Rodríguez, who will begin in Head Start at four years old, demanded a headful of braids, making the women laugh.

“She loves having her hair braided,” her grandmother said.

“I don’t cry while I’m being braided,” said Jesueilyz Nichole Pizzaro, a four-year-old starting kindergarten.

“My favorite color is pink, and I’m going to take all the butterflies,” she said while taking handfuls of accessories, all donated to the municipality by local hair shops.

On the other side of the Center for Integrated Services in Loíza, a group of boys played and laughed as they waited their turn with the barbers. However, when approached by the STAR, they turned shy.

Eloy Cruz Matos, 11 years old, got a short haircut from Ralph Plaza Canales, of Ralph’s Barbershop. He’s been at all of the event’s editions, only interrupted last year by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I have to be grateful for everything the town’s done for me, so I give back every year,” Plaza Canales said, running an electric razor through Eloys’ hair.

In another chair, Enrique Rivera, of Jaime’s Hair Styling Salon in Medianía Alta, told the STAR, “this is, for me, a passion project, and I like to give back to the community and love what I do.”

Loíza Mayor Julia Nazario Fuentes said this was the fourth edition of “Groomed for School.”

“In it, barbers, stylists and the girls who braid hair come and gift us their time and expertise,” Nazario Fuentes said. “Normally, we fix the hair of 80 to 100 kids so they can get a fresh start for school.”

The styling fair continued until 1: p.m. Then the party moved to the area near the bridge over the Herrera River, where the community gathered to dance bomba, a traditional Puerto Rican dance with African roots, and enjoy music and food, and a COVID vaccination fair. The Herrera River divides the municipalities of Río Grande and Loíza and flows into the Atlantic Ocean.

“It makes us very happy,” added Nazario Fuentes. “They take home a new backpack and spend a good time here, and then they move to the bridge, where we have the fifth edition of ‘The Beginning,’ to remind them that summer has ended and the school year is starting. The littlest ones can enjoy a bouncy house, sweets, and hotdogs, and later in the day, the bigger ones can listen to bomba music and later in the evening to reggaetón, which is what they like,” the mayor added.

“What makes me happy and grateful is that, despite it all, we’ve been able to keep up the tradition for five years and the kids are happy that they’re ending their summer together,” Nazario Fuentes said.

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