Here I am, flipping carelessly through my phone while a chair massages my back and an immigrant woman scrubs off the dead skin on my feet, tries to paint what remains of my barely-there-pinky-toe nail and picks at the pieces of skin I can’t stop ripping off on my nails.
I can afford this $65 luxury multiple times a month, but I don’t know if the woman painting my toes is earning minimum wage, let alone a living wage.
When I first started going to this salon, it was filled with Asian immigrants working there. I asked a young girl once where she was from and she said Vietnam. Since the woman all spoke to each other, I assume they were all Vietnamese, but I don’t know that for sure. The owner was there often. She was really nice, seemed about my age, and owned multiple salons around the city. We spoke about our businesses and bonded over being small business owners in Philadelphia. Sometimes her husband would be in the salon, and they seemed like thriving immigrant success story. They started a small business which grew into multiple locations, and sometimes I got a free mimosa with my manicure on Saturday mornings. Success for them. Success for me.
But slowly over the years, I started noticing the Asian women were doing the gel manicures, while there were Latin American immigrants at the pedicure bowls. There was a clear hierarchy in the salon. The Asian women would occasionally bark an order in Spanish – “Pies” (feet) and point to an empty pedicure bowl. It was uncomfortable to be around. But in the last year or so, I haven’t seen a single worker that isn’t Latinx, save for the owner who is there occasionally.
The girls are from all over Latin America. I know because I can speak a very terrible form of broken Spanish, and I’ve asked. There’s a few girls from Honduras, one or two from Chile, a couple from Guatemala and a mother-daughter duo from Venezuela. They’re sweet, and the second they realize I understood one thing they said in their language they talk to me in rapid Spanish that I maybe catch a word or two of before laughing and saying, “Solomente hablo un poquito Español” (I only speak a little Spanish).
The mother and daughter have been here for 10 years. The daughter is 19 and just finished high school. She has a thick accent, but speaks English fluently. They’re Venezuelan. They came here alone. They live in an apartment north of my neighborhood, and last time I spoke with them while the daughter painted my nails and the mother massaged my feet, I wanted to cry.
Should I be going here? Do they get paid consistently from the boss I bonded with over our shared struggles of running a business in a city like Philadelphia? Are they here legally? I don’t care if they aren’t, but … are they safe? Are they concerned about ICE raids?
Once on a Holiday weekend, I asked if they were closed for the Holiday. They said no. “La Jeffe solomente quiere dinero” (The Boss only wants money.) Yesterday, I overheard them talking about how some girl walked out without tipping. She didn’t tip her manicurist or her pedicurist.
Every time I go to the salon I’m having this conversation in my head:
Should I be here? How much of the $65 I spent goes to the ones who provided my service? And if I don’t go, or if we all stop going to salons like this, what happens to these women? Where will they work? Is whatever percentage they are receiving from my service bill more than they would be receiving otherwise?
And I don’t know the answer. I don’t get my nails done as often as I once did, but I do continue to go. And I continue to feel like an idiot when I answer “Sí” after someone asks me a question in broken English. And I do my best to carry on the conversation in Spanish, even going as far as using Google Translate, to at least feel like I’m not some ignorant American clueless about the situation I see very obviously in front of me. And I leave an extra big tip.
I am just not sure what else to do.
(This post brought to you by emotion post my SDCC mani/pedi. PS I picked a terrible color for my toes but there was no way I was going to ask her to stop after noticing how bad the color was 3 toes in).