“Mami, ‘tate quieta.”
I knew I was testing the limits my mother had set for me before we walked into the nail salon. I also knew that if chancletazos were an Olympic sport my Mami would win gold. But, her hands were currently immobilized by the nail tech’s hold and her butt was firmly in that chair for the next hour or so, so what was she gonna do?
My freedom was finite and smelled of acetone, but I reveled in it, anyway.
Papi was parked outside. He stayed in the car. The only open space was in front of a fire hydrant and we had funds for Mami’s French tips, but not for a fine.
I sat there pretending to play with my McDonald’s Happy Meal toy on the windowsill, baby Jordans dangling off the plastic-covered kitchen table chairs.
Maybe it was my unruly baby hairs and the way they stuck out a little more in the neon green spotlight of No. 1 Pretty Nails’ “Open” sign, or maybe it was the impromptu 1, 2 Step the tree out front broke into under the influence of a strong autumn breeze. Whatever the cause, Papi’s attention had turned my direction and I caught his eye.
Why did Mami want me to be still? I kept swiveling around every so often, but it was only to check on her and make sure she was still there. The uncharacteristic quietud that now replaced her usual forma de ser mesmerized me.
Abuelita wasn’t there to put her hand on my back and guard me from falling over backwards like she always would on our 6 train subway rides. I could only ever sit like that—like all the other kids riding the subway with their parents or guardians—when I was con los abuelitos; Mami would one-handedly turn me back around and see to it that I was seated ass-to-plastic.
He looked at me and jokingly feigned confusion. I let out a laugh and juguete con mis pies in a way that kicked the seat a little. Ay!
Monday–Friday Mami handed out más cocotazos que cariño. When Papi had the day off, though, ella acariciaba the nape of his neck and cooed, “mi negro.” She unraveled frente de él. With him, she was so tender.
“Y yo?” I wondered. When would I ever get access to Mami’s tenderness?
There is something distinct about the experience of being a Latina, immigrant mother in the U.S. The toughness they see themselves as having to manifest in order to stay afloat.
I’ve come across tweets, Instagram posts, and even shirts declaring that our mammas ‘didn’t raise no pendeja,’ and that there’s ‘no hood like motherhood.’ They all seem to want to honor or make known our appreciation for, as Viva La Bonita puts it, “all the Mamis out there holding it down.” Somehow we all seem to collectively know that our mamis pasan las mil y una por nosotrxs; that they would endure just about anything so long as it meant they could provide us with the opportunities they never had. To give us our moment in the sun, sin pensar dos veces antes de hacer lo que haya que hacer para buscar la agua con cual regarnos.
Maybe to give your child everything you did not have growing up, and to do it as a woman of color in this country, means you do not get to be soft or vulnerable, because to be such is to be weak, and you don’t get to be weak. You have to be super strong at all costs.
Mami took a deep breath in —as if momentarily reliving the entirety of our 22-year-young mother-daughterhood— and out. “When you are a woman and you have a daughter, your perception of life changes. You become so much more attuned to the inequality and injustice of the world. Machismo and patriarchy no longer solely affect you, but your daughter, too. You feel that–as a woman–you have to teach your daughter to be strong. To be independent. To not let anyone underestimate them. And so, in order to teach that, you have to become the bad cop. You have to make some really tough decisions in the moment, that you later go on to question down the road.”
Mami revealed that she would hide herself in the bathroom to cry in private after some of the punishments she doled out because it pained her to hurt me. “I had to hide my feelings in order to be the bad cop. In order to set an example of a strong woman.”
“I would’ve still thought you were strong if you had shown some emotion sometimes,” I tell her. She clicks her tongue, “No. I think I was a warrior in my past life; I can’t be soft.”
She goes on, “I think I have too much trauma. I grew up without my mother. I never had her there when I wanted to hug her. I guess I filled that emptiness and oftentimes fear with strength and hardness.”
This was the first I’d ever heard my mother acknowledge or even speak of intergenerational trauma. Of the impact that our upbringings can have on us and on our children. Of the distinct ways in which it manifests across borders, in different but similarly patriarchal societies.
“Curioso, ¿no?” Le digo yo, “because just the other day when I told you my friend started seeing a therapist who specializes in intergenerational trauma, what did you say to me?”
She laughs. “Qué trauma ni qué trauma.”
The nail salon teaches you patience.
When you’re little y llevas trencitas, the nail salon makes you wait what feels like an eternity in your little kid frame of mind, biding time watching MTA buses go by ‘til she pulls her hands out the dryer and douses them in that definitely-bad-for-the-environment nail enamel dryer spray.
“Ya, vente mami, vamono’”
Isn’t it funny how our Mamis call us “mami,” too?
When you pull up con busca-novios y el pelo liso suelto, walking into that nail salon to get your first full set feels like a dream. Ooh, you feel grown! You feel accomplished and like you’re about to be rewarded for having followed Mami’s instructions—waiting until you’re older to get your nails done because tu no ere una de esas niñas de por ahí que se hacen las uñas desde chiquitica y se creen grandecita ya.
The nail salon teaches you to walk a little taller and speak a little louder, and maybe take a little longer getting those hoops and nameplate necklace on after you get tips for the first time.
Mami siempre tenía que ser la dura para que Papi pudiera ser el divertido. That meant more slammed doors, more resentment, and fewer hugs sent her way, and her being okay with that reality, so long as it meant I was getting disciplined right. Years later, I admire the patience she exhibited in doing so.
For so long, Mami and I were far from amiguis. Every time I’m in the salon now, though, I feel closer to her. No. 1 Pretty Nails up on 103rd shaped us closer together, just like the nail techs shaped almond nails. We send each other pictures of our fresh manis as soon as we walk out those doors and into the gray, speckled concrete sea.
It’s how we take care of ourselves in this oftentimes chaotic world. It’s how we preserve us. Even if it takes some filling in sometimes.
The patience she and I both honed at the nail salon has made its way into our relationship. Admittedly, she has always been patient. I am the one who is just now starting to exhibit patience as we discuss her past. “Ay, ya me hiciste llorar,” she says through laughs and sniffles.
“I didn’t do anything, Momma, you just never get to talk about this stuff with anyone. It’s okay, you can talk about it with me.”
¿Y Papi? Oh-oh, él sigue siendo el juguetón.
Ayling Domínguez tweets from @rhymeswithmean.