Watchdog organization says state law is keeping barber from pursuing his passion

MEMPHIS, Tenn. — A watchdog organization thinks a barbershop law that was passed a few years ago is not only ruining one man's American dream, but also keeping others from reaching their potential.

The Beacon Center has filed a lawsuit against the state board of Cosmetology and Barbers Examiners on behalf of Elias Zarate, a Memphis father.

Elias Zarate started training as a barber when he was 9-years-old.

"So I've always been  drawn to the smell, the atmosphere, everything," he said.

He says his passion took him to places he never imagined, like cutting hair for the Redbirds and even the New York Yankees.

It also landed him in the Revolution barbershop in downtown Memphis.

"It was a dream, a dream. It was amazing," Zarate said, until he found out he didn't have the right license over a year ago and was fined by the state.

It turned out he wasn't eligible to work as a barber because of state law.

Instead of having to complete 1,500 hours in a registered barber school, lawmakers passed a bill in 2015 that required applicants to also have a high school diploma or GED.

"I was just uninformed and naive. I really didn't put much thought into that. I was just focused on feeding my family."

Zarate says he dropped out of school to take care of his family.

He says a lot of being a barber comes down to talent and education that is not taught in high school, such as sanitation.

"I'm stopped because of a piece of paper."

That is why The Beacon Center is filing a lawsuit against the state on his behalf.

They say it's unclear why the law was passed in the first place.

“The only other discussion that they had about it was that they were trying encourage people to stay in high school in which several lawmakers pointed out that you didn't need a diploma to run for governor, senator, or representative. So in other words, the very people who are passing the law did not
have to have high school diplomas," Braden Boucek, director of litigation at The Beacon Center, said.

Zarate thinks the law only encourages bad behavior for children who are growing up in poverty like he did.

"It definitely turns you more to the streets."

He says he hopes he can help create change for others like him, as he misses doing the job that's been a big part of his American Dream.

"I miss it every day. Every day."

A state spokesperson said they don't have a statement on the ongoing litigation or the reason behind the change.

Before the passage of the law in 2015, it required master barbers to have a 10th grade education or the equivalent.

The state website says to get a cosmetology license, only 1,500 hours in practice and theory at a school of cosmetology is required.