The Young Girls of Old Havana

Daisy Valera

HAVANA TIMES — I’ve started biting my nails. I don’t end up swallowing them like I did when I was a child, when I was dying of boredom in class.

Now I only chew on them carefully, avoid the cuticles. I’ve lived about 24 very “entertaining” years.

I think the fifth bite made me come to my senses, so I went and looked for some scissors to curb my neurotic tic.

When I was 12, I solved the problem with the bitter taste of nail polish, today I can’t. My fingers would be inconsistent with the rest of my body.

So, when in the middle of Aguiar Street in Old Havana someone asked me if I wanted to get my nails polished, I couldn’t help but to snap back with a guttural “no,” despite the piece of bread and hamburger in my mouth.

I don’t polish my nails. I have nothing to do with those colors of “café latte” or “July 26th red.”

After the immediate refusal, it struck me that the offer had been made from a height of four feet.

Five girls circled around me. One of them grabbed my arm and asked, “Would you like us to do your nails?”

“Then they put a cloth bag in my face that was filled with bottles of almost empty polish.

“Look at all the colors we have. Do you like them?” one asked.

“We’ll do yours for 1 CUC,” offered another.

During questioning, I could only notice the white dress of one of them, along with her hair cut just above her shoulders, and her body weight.

She must have been about eight years old.

I think I repeated “no, thank you” three times, with her giving me an astonished look with each rebuff.

She couldn’t believe what was happening, and nor could I.

I managed to understand her questions a few seconds later, as she went bouncing away across the cobblestones.

I’m someone who when I was eight was drawing witches and princesses; someone who used to play like I was making soup, but using only grass; someone who as a child read “Lili and the Little Fish.”

From my childhood — except maybe for a plate of lentils — all I have are pleasant memories.

That girl wasn’t asking for a handout, she had offered me a service. She was trying to work.

That brought to my mind the much-criticized images of the shoeshine boys of pre-revolutionary Cuba.

I’m sure that that same afternoon she was still searching for customers, adding up her earnings…

I didn’t learn what her name was or what she was trying to buy.

Did something exceptional happen to me or is that little girl a pioneer of child labor here on the island?

I don’t know. I just hope that in another 50 years we won’t be talking about the manicure girls of the revolution.