Creating a Class All His Own: The Triumph of High Class Barber Salon

By Diego De Jesus
Photography by Jordan Randall

Every morning is reserved for prayer at High Class Barber Salon. After praying for the customers they will serve each day, Angel “JR” Maldonado tidies his chair and pumps it to just the right level. His staff does the same, putting the finishing touches on getting ready for the day. On his mirror are stickers with the initials PSE—symbolic of his hometown and country— Ponce, Puerto Rico.

JR’s mother was a hair stylist and always cut his hair growing up. When he was 6 years old, his friends went to a barbershop to get the latest hairstyle, but his mom didn’t know how to cut quite like that. She would give him $1 every day for school, but instead of spending it, JR saved it for Friday when he and his friends visited the barbershop.

After watching barbers up close, like a local known as Keke, he decided he wanted to do it himself. Ultimately, he learned from Luis “Wiwi” Torres, one of the busiest barbers in town.

At age 13, JR started cutting his younger brother’s hair. At 18 years old, with a lot more hands-on experience, he began stylizing his friends’ hair and that was the catalyst for a career he has never left.

From the get-go, when people get here, they can feel the difference that we’re welcoming to people. We accept everybody here. We always try to welcome everybody, which is reflected in the reviews when people get the service,” JR says 

JR and his wife Enidza Santiago have made Lakeland their home and their barber shop home for so many locals.

In 2016, he started building his own barbershop in Ponce, but its grand opening was greatly delayed due to Hurricane Maria, which ended up being a life-changing event for him and his family.  JR landed in the States at the Orlando International Airport on September 13, with $133 in his pocket. A week later, on September 20, Hurricane Maria swept across the island. As it was for many Boricuas, the entropic force of nature ensued a time of uncertainty for JR.

He struggled initially but was motivated to provide for his family, who were still living on the island. JR can still recall to a tee the day his wife, Enidza Santiago, landed in the States with their children—October 3, 2017. JR had his wife sell their home to build a solid foundation for their new lives. At the airport, he asked her if she closed on the house, and she responded that they had sold everything.

While JR worked on figuring out life in the States, his brother-in-law, Mario “Titito” Santiago, eventually opened and managed the barbershop in Ponce. JR handled the rest of the load by scheduling appointments via phone or video. After a year, he sold his shop in Puerto Rico.

Meanwhile, here in Florida, JR’s brother opened up a room in his apartment in Orlando for him, Endiza and their three children. After a year of working at Fire Styles Barbershop, saving money and praying for better times, JR and his family purchased their home in Lakeland. On September 9, 2021, they opened High Class.

Nearly two years later High Class Barber Salon is a booming spot in the Dixieland area, and you can see JR is living out his dream when you walk in. JR is lively and full of energy, and treats his clients as friends, embracing them as soon as they enter.

“From the get-go, when people get here, they can feel the difference that we’re welcoming to people,” JR says. “We accept everybody here. We always try to welcome everybody, which is reflected in the reviews when people get the service.”

JR shares it’s his goal to build positive relationships with his clientele, and he wants his barbershop to be a place where friends can gather and converse about every facet of their lives, including the ups and downs. Encouragement is always the goal. 

“We’re not trying just to change the perspective of how you look, but also give you that push of motivation or therapy, if you can call it that, one way of changing your mindset to the perspective you got in life or what could you achieve in life,” JR says.  

As a testament of his pursuit for excellence, with one Google search, you’ll find 281 five-star Google reviews with nothing but compliments on the barbershop and recommendations for others to get their next haircut there. JR is sanguine about his future pursuits and has many plans to expand the business.

“I see myself being an entrepreneur having a franchise organization seeing High Class in many different cities, many different states and hopefully worldwide,” JR says. “I think with the academy that we’re trying to build the college for barbering. I think that’s gonna be a very possible achievement since we’re gonna be creating the barbers ourselves.”

By the end of July, JR will be officially promoting his upcoming vision of HC Barber Academy which will include in-depth 30-week long barber training.

The pilot course is going to launch at the end of August or the beginning of September, JR remarks, with limited availability and the opportunity of opening a second High Class. 

Twice a year, JR visits Puerto Rico to visit people who helped him along the way and to keeping touch with family and friends across the sea. And when he’s in Lakeland he’s making new friends and family and praying for those in his home country.