Barbershop Pilgrimage: A Colombian Election Day Ritual

The rooster sings once, twice. A ray of light crosses the window. It's early—so early that even Niqui, the old criollo dog has acknowledged that...

The rooster sings once, twice. A ray of light crosses the window. It's early—so early that even Niqui, the old criollo dog has acknowledged that the day has begun.

Bertulfo is a swarthy man, with brown eyes and a wide smile full of white, straight teeth that never suffered the rough hand of an orthodontist. "A family trait," he says. His wife, Edilia, lays in bed, her body and the sheets still retain the warmth.

Bertulfo stands. A bucket full of water thrown onto his face and body. After a cup of coffee he fetches la percha, as the inhabitants of the small towns in the coffee region of Colombia call to their favorite outfit—saved only to attend important events like weddings, first communions, baptisms, and to meet important visitors.

It's a Sunday. An important day, one that deserves the elegant white shirt Edilia, ironed him the night before.

From the wide corridors of his house and the yard where Bertulfo cultivates his orchids, nothing can be heard of his town, Belén de Umbria in the region of Caldas. Outside there's hustle and bochinche. It's Election Day.

Fourty years ago, Election Day was a difficult day. Followers of the Conservative and Liberal Party cast their votes, harangued for their candidates, and the partisan bickering that left many widows broken and many children orphaned. Almost 200,000 people were killed across the country in these struggles between political parties—political parties that now matter little. Bertulfo, now an older man, follows the same ritual practiced by his father before going to vote. He wears his best suit and goes for a clean shave in the barbershop.

Like Bertulfo and his father, many people of his town and other towns of the region will go to the closest barbershop—to the heart of political discussion. After the foam and the gentle swipe of the blade over the face, a chat with the barber explodes about the condition of the country, and the bad politicians. Cases are made for why their candidate is a berraco, the toughest guy of them all, the one who will succeed.

Going to the barber shop and wearing la percha to go to the polls is not merely an act of vanity, but a form of worship through a rite of civic engagement. It's also a political statement. Though there may be poverty or strife, men here head to the polls with a clean face and their finest clothes to exercise their highest duty as citizens.

Image (cc) flickr user cliff1066

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