Barber Cuts Red Tape to Pursue His Dream

Elias Zarate was told he could not pursue his dream of being a barber in Tennessee because he didn’t have a high school diploma. Zarate, whose mother died when he was a child, dropped out of school as a teen to support two younger siblings. As an adult, he found his passion in barbering.

Braden Boucek, a lawyer at the Beacon Center, heard Zarate’s story and stepped in to help the aspiring barber fight a legal battle to realize his dream. Boucek and Zarate join today’s podcast to share their story of working together for two years to cut through government red tape. 

We also cover these stories:

  • Steve Bannon, a former top adviser to President Donald Trump, is one of four men charged with running an online fundraising scam based on building a border wall.
  • A federal district court judge rules against the president in his battle to hold onto his tax records.
  • A $600 million settlement is reached in Michigan over the Flint water crisis.

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Virginia Allen: Today we are so pleased to be joined by Elias Zarate, a barber from Memphis, Tennessee, and Beacon Center attorney Braden Boucek. Gentlemen, thank you so much for coming on the show today.

Elias Zarate: Thank you for having us.

Allen: Elias, I want to begin with you. Would you just take a minute to tell us a little bit of your own story? You have a really powerful story and a really powerful journey. Just give us a little bit of insight into who you are.

Zarate: Well, … I’m a orphan. I grew up in a very impoverished area in Houston. It was very difficult for us coming up, having to restart over from Florida. Moving place to place, school to school.

When we were in the city, I was about 10 years old, and we were involved in a very bad car accident. Somebody hit us from behind, knocking us out into the woods and instantly killing my mother that day. Sorry, guys. It’s a little hard, but yeah, what can I say? After that it’s always been a struggle and always going against the grain, always fighting.

Allen: Yeah. That’s an incredible struggle. As a child, you feel like you’re starting further back than other peers maybe. You’re already at this disadvantaged place having lost your mom at such a young age. So along the way, as you became an adult, you were trying to make a name for yourself. You were trying to start a career. So tell us a little bit about that journey of finding work and pursuing a job.

Zarate: Right. Like I said, it was a big struggle. So I was in high school and at the same time, while I was juggling school, I was working different jobs. I was working a couple jobs. So I wouldn’t get much sleep. I would probably get about two hours of sleep every day. So high school was a struggle.

After that, I eventually dropped out of school and took care of my younger brother and sister. I had to get them in a better home environment. I knew what it was like growing up with my grandparents and just not having the real parent love. So I just wanted to figure out a way [to] fill that void and make sure they were good and graduated high school and made sure they could do everything that I wasn’t able to do.

Allen: How old were you when you were trying to support your … two younger siblings?

Zarate: I was a teenager myself. I was about 18 years old.

Allen: Wow. And how old were they?

Zarate: My younger brother, he was about 16. My sister was about 14.

Allen: Wow. So you’re already, as a teenager, trying to step into this almost father figure role and support your younger siblings.

Zarate: Right.

Allen: Wow. Really, really challenging. So let’s fast-forward a little bit. And you tried a couple different professions. You work as an insurance agent and a construction manager, but then you stumble across being a barber and you really enjoy it. Tell us a little bit about that journey of finding that this is your passion.

Zarate: Well, see, barbering, I always did that. I did that when I was a kid. I was 9 years old when I started picking it up. My dad used to cut my hair and my grandpa used to cut my hair. So I was always infatuated by the smell of barbershop.

So when I would go into a barbershop, I loved it. So I eventually started sweeping up hair there and just watching everybody do their thing and learn as much and soak up as much as I could.

But it’s just always something that was there. I just always left it like a hobby. And after doing all these jobs and realizing that every single job that I was working wasn’t making me happy, it wasn’t what I was meant to do, I just wasn’t fulfilled.

So I started working in a barbershop and, like I said, I got one of the biggest blessings in my life. And also a lesson. I was able to work at a well-established barbershop downtown. And to me, it was a dream coming from where I’m coming from. I felt like I made it.

Allen: Yeah. You do. You arrive at this place where, [to] use your own words, you feel like you’ve made it, but shortly after landing this great job that you love, you’re told that you can no longer practice this trade that you so enjoy. Explain what happened.

Zarate: At this point, it’s like, I’m still trying to figure out how it happened so fast. One day I was good. Going to work. And then out of nowhere an inspector comes in. It almost feels like somebody called them on me. …

It was really hard after that. I was just trying to stay afloat, like I said, take care of my family, but I was just set back. I felt like I was a real criminal at that time. I’m thinking I’m going to go to jail or something, the way he came in. I just got shot down. I felt like I was doing something and then just got shot down.

Allen: So what was that situation with the inspector? What did he say to you? … What was the reason he gave for why you could no longer practice barbery?

Zarate: Well, at that moment, that’s when I found that I was sold a fraudulent license. So that’s what set me back, having that obstacle. At that time, I didn’t even know I had a fake license. I’m thinking I had the right thing. I’m trying to ask them questions: “What can I do to get right? What can I do to make this right, to get licensed?”

At that time, I wasn’t well-informed on the whole licensing. I didn’t even know you needed all this. It was more like somebody offered me that and I thought that that’s what I needed to keep my position, and I was just basically [taken] advantage [of] at that time.

Allen: What did you find out as far as when you begin asking those questions: “How can I become a legitimate barber? How do I get properly licensed?” What did you learn?

Zarate: Man, that’s when the journey began. That’s when I met Braden at a Nashville hearing.

At first, they sent this guy to give me some paperwork. I guess he was serving me. I asked him a few questions. I was like, “Where can I get help? Can I get help at this place?” He’s like, “Yeah, sure. You can go to that place. They’re going to help you out. They’re going to let you know what you need to get licensed and all that.”

But little did I know it was a hearing, and I was pretty much attacked that day. I was by myself. I had no attorney. I had no representation, no nothing. And I was really naive on what was going on at the time. So I walked into a full-blown hearing. I had all these people against me and I wasn’t aware.

Allen: So at this point, you’ve lost your job, you’re trying to support your family. And there’s all these obstacles in front of you in order to get that license. Now you’re probably, my guess is, incurring legal debts as fines, as far as not having that correct license. Tell me a little bit about what you’re thinking at this point and how are you trying to support your family.

Zarate: Man, at that point, I just felt like I was in a really tight spot. It almost felt hopeless.

I just tried to stay as strong as I could. I couldn’t show that I was breaking down in my family. I had to show them that we were still going to eat. Show them that I was still going to figure out a way to make some kind of money. So I just started selling my own belongings. Doing anything I could to come up with some kind of money.

Allen: Wow. How many kids do you have?

Zarate: I have two daughters now.

Allen: OK. Wow. Congratulations. That’s wonderful, but obviously just incredibly stressful to be in the situation of trying to provide. And one of the big reasons that they gave for why you couldn’t achieve that proper license was because you didn’t have a high school diploma, is that correct?

Zarate: Right.

Allen: So that really essentially became this giant obstacle for you to achieve this dream that you had and to provide for your family.

Zarate: Yeah. It was a big obstacle in the sense that I felt like I hadn’t been in school so long and throughout high school, I was barely passing and to make it to 12th grade was hard enough as it was for me.

Like I said, I was only getting two hours of sleep, and I was still trying to go to school and it just felt like, oh, how am I going to do this? How am I going to get myself back into school mode and get this high school thing out of the way, when I don’t do anything that has anything to do with school? As far as my talent goes, it was just something that was just already in me.

Allen: So it was in the midst of this really daunting and challenging situation that you were connected with Braden. And Braden, you’re on the line here with us today. You’re an attorney at the Beacon Center. Tell us a little bit how you learned about this whole situation, and also if you could just explain what the Beacon Center does.

Braden Boucek: Sure. The Beacon Center is a freedom-based think tank, for lack of a better word, based in Nashville, Tennessee. We do policy and we also do litigation. I myself head the litigation side of the operation.

We first stumbled into Elias and his situation entirely fortuitously. We happened to be down where his administrative hearing was occurring because we were there to witness disciplinary actions against traditional hair braiders who were being also sanctioned for unlicensed cosmetology practice, even though all they did was braid hair.

So we just were down there watching that on the day that Elias happened to be on the calendar. We observed what happened to him and, he alluded to this, but this was a full-blown disciplinary proceeding at which he was there representing himself. He thought he was there just to try and figure out what he needed to do to become properly licensed.

As an attorney and a former prosecutor for the Department of Justice, it was difficult to watch the way that the system ground him up, knowing that he didn’t have legal representation and was really just trying to make things right.

However, in the course of the proceedings, two things became apparent. No. 1, Elias wanted very badly to become a barber and he wanted to do it the right way. And No. 2 is that he had never graduated high school owing to the horrible circumstances that he just described and because of a Tennessee law that was enacted in 2015, this isn’t some very old law, he was prohibited from ever becoming a barber.

Allen: That law seems so really bizarre that in order to be licensed to be a barber, you would need a high school diploma. I guess I don’t understand how, first off, that law was passed and why the state was so bent on enforcing that.

Boucek: That’s true. And the law looks even stranger the more you know about it. So, in the first place, when it was enacted in 2015, I’ve read the legislative record, what they thought they were doing was lowering the barriers to entry and streamlining regulations for cosmetologists and barbers.

Those two professions typically and historically cut down gender lines. And of course, those no longer exist. Nowadays, those two practices are practically synonymous and what they thought they were doing was part of an overall effort to make the standard for barbery and cosmetology equate.

The law, when it was enacted in 2015, did the exact opposite. It raised the educational standards for barbers. It created an imbalance with cosmetologists and it made it harder to become a barber.

And what’s even more maddening is that in subsequent legislative sessions, when [trying to] repeal this law, everyone acknowledged that the law was basically a mistake and didn’t repeal it anyway. And what’s more, is in 2017, they repealed any kind of an educational requirement for cosmetologists altogether.

Virginia, you know what the difference between a cosmetologist and barber is, practically speaking?

Allen: It seems like there really isn’t a difference.

Boucek: There’s exactly one thing that we can identify that barbers can do that cosmetologists cannot, and that is shave the face using a straight razor. And I don’t know about you, I didn’t learn a single thing about that in my last two years of high school.

Allen: Oh, wow. So tell us a little bit about how you all got connected. That day, when you were there watching these proceedings, Braden, did you approach Elias and say “Hey, we want to take your case. We want to help you”?

Boucek: Close enough. When these proceedings were done, and they sort of had their way with Elias, he kind of said in passing, “I just want to find out what I got to do to get a barber license.” And the administrative law judge told him to talk to a department personnel outside.

So he went outside to go talk to that person. And I knew because of the law that there was nothing he could do to become a [licensed barber]. And so I went over there just to witness how the conversation unfolded and I listened to them tell him that he needed to go to barber school. He needed to pass these exams. And at some point in time, I interjected and said, “Didn’t he say that he had not graduated high school when he was talking earlier?”

And I looked at him, and he said, “Yeah, I’ve never graduated high school.” And I looked at the guy and I said, “So he can never become a barber. He shouldn’t go to barber school. Those things cost over $10,000.”

And the guy at that point in time looked at Elias and agreed and said, “Yes. You can’t become a barber, even if you graduate barber school because you never graduated high school.”

So we got each other’s contact information and we started to research the case, his situation, and familiarize ourselves with it. And originally we wanted to just work to try and repeal the law. There were two measures aimed at that in 2018 and both failed and only then were we forced to resort to litigation.

Allen: Explain a little bit of that legal battle because this was a two-year case. Why did this take so long?

Boucek: Well, it was determined resistance from very skillful opposition on the other side.

The Tennessee Attorney General’s Office represents these boards, and they handled it like they would have handled any other case. They would tell you that they don’t think it’s their job to evaluate whether or not they agree or disagree with the law. And so they litigated with a great deal of determination and that protracted things.

Allen: Wow. So recently the case came to a head, came to a close. Explain a little bit about this final push that ultimately led to the victory.

Boucek: Yes. We ended up arguing the case in late June. The judge took it under advisement, and she issued her ruling on, I think it was Aug. 5 … when the ruling came out, but she ultimately said that this law’s irrational. It doesn’t promote any public purpose.

And the judge really placed a lot of emphasis on the imbalance between cosmetologists and barbers, and just pointed out that any rationale that the government could come up with for why barbers need to graduate high school would apply equally to cosmetologists.

So she really viewed this as much a equal protection violation as anything else. You’ve got two similarly situated classes of people, barbers and cosmetologists, and they’re being treated to radically different educational standards. That didn’t make any sense.

And I’ll point out, Virginia, one other thing, we spend a lot of time talking about cosmetologists because of the obvious parallels, but it doesn’t just stop there.

Emergency medical responders in Tennessee do not need to graduate high school. They just need to be able to read, write, and speak English. Emergency medical responders can literally restart the heart of a pulseless, unbreathing patient. So you can do that without a high school degree, but you couldn’t cut hair.

On top of that, the people who write the laws are state senators, representatives, and even the governor. They don’t have a requirement that they graduate high school. So you can write these laws and enforce these laws, but the people who have to obey them, like Elias, they’re held to a different standard.

Allen: Why do you see this victory as being so critical and important for people just like Elias who have overcome incredible adversity in their life and they’re just trying to pursue their dream?

Boucek: Yeah. Laws that keep people between the American dream and their goals are not just bad policy. We need to see these things as freedom and rights issues.

And I evaluate people’s attitudes on this question, rarely have they ever thought of this as a basic fundamental natural right that every person enjoys, but when you put it to them another way and say, “Look next to your family, would you agree with me that your job and your career is among the most important things in your life? Ninety-Nine percent of people out of a hundred will agree with that statement.

So if the right to earn a living is one of the most important things in your life, why don’t we treat it that way? And we think that’s a principle that’s been vindicated here and needs to be more broadly extended.

Allen: Elias, I want to throw it back to you for a second. What a wild journey to walk through. Explain just a little bit about what this victory means to you personally, and to your family, that now you are able to pursue this dream of yours.

Zarate: It’s like the biggest barrier just got removed and not to mention, it happened right after my birthday and right before Braden’s birthday, so it was like the best birthday gifts we could have ever had.

Allen: I love that. The perfect birthday gift. So what is next for you?

Zarate: Get to work. Either get my license or either get grandfathered in, one or the other. But just get to work and fulfill my dream. Open up a couple barbershops. Like I said, create a lot of opportunity for the community.

I have a lot of younger guys that always look up to me and they’re like, “Yo, can you teach me how to cut hair? I’d love to be your apprentice.” So I got a couple teenagers that I could potentially change the course of their lives.

Especially here in Memphis, we’re still dealing with high crime and a bunch of stuff in the city. Statistics don’t lie. You can see what goes on in Memphis. And if I could help mold teenagers’ [lives] and help them search a different outlet, so be it. I’m here. I just feel like it’s a big victory. It’s life-changing.

Allen: Elias, I love where your head is at, that you’re not only thinking of yourself and your ability to provide for your own flesh and blood, but also, “How can I make an impact in the broader community?” That’s incredible and absolutely amazing. And we need more people like you in our world. So, thank you.

I just want to thank you both for joining us.

Before I let you go, Braden, would you just tell us where our listeners can find more information about the Beacon Center and follow work just like this that you all do on a continuous basis?

Boucek: The best thing that you can do is go to our website at beacontn.org. … And under our heading case listings, you can see a lot of the cases we’ve done, just like Elias Zarate, and it’s a great honor to have represented Mr. Zarate and hopefully continue to represent him as he achieves his life’s dream.

Allen: Gentlemen, thank you so much for coming on the show. Really appreciate it.

Boucek: Thank you, Virginia.

Zarate: Thank you so much.

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