The Dilemma of Manuela the Manicurist

Maria Matienzo Puerto

Havana store window. Photo by Caridad

I would like to, but I’m not able to talk about anything that doesn’t relate to people’s jobs.

My friend Manuela has always painted people’s finger and toenails, or better said, she’s always “given them manicures,” so that it sounds more “American” (some people say things like this when they want to make things seem more important).

Her job can go by all possible pronunciations: “manicure,” “manicuri,” “menicuri” – whatever way the client wants to say it.  But the point is that my friend Manuela has always made a living trimming finger and toenails and cuticles and painting them with polish and enamel that either she herself purchases at the store, or that her husband who lives abroad sends her, or that she buys on the black market.

It’s the same thing with nail-polish remover, but if she buys the type they sell in official stores, the cost will be so high she won’t be able to make a profit from her business.  On the other hand, if she buys it on the black market and some inspector catches her, the loss from the fine will be even greater.

She doesn’t own a small business like one might think.  Though she’s spent years doing the same thing, she doesn’t have a rented storefront or any employees; nor does she have some franchise or a trade that’s endorsed by any cosmetic course.

She does it because it’s the only thing she knows how to do to make a living, convinced that what she studied wouldn’t allow her to feed her family.

That’s why Manuela prefers to do finger and toenails and to scrape people’s heels of dead skin and callouses.  It’s not that she makes a lot of money (always in regular pesos), it’s simply the income she can bring in, working a lot but without any pressure.

Now, with the beginning of the country’s economic restructuring, to keep her business she’ll have to make her status official and pay 250 pesos a month for the first year; after that the fee will ratchet up to 350 pesos.  [250 pesos is a little over half the average monthly official wage in Cuba]

But there’s more.  Every three months, she’ll have to shell out another 60 pesos to the State.  Oomph!!!   That’s a lot to come up with just to keep the business afloat.  But what’s worse, she has to ask what will be left for her family.

Now’s not time to make an about face.  In addition to having been out of her field of study (accounting) for too long, the economy is doing poorly now, as she continually points out.  With her nail polishing business, though, she does have a few regular clients who know that she does a good job.

The good news, according to the National Revenue Office (ONAT), is that with the 60 peso quarterly tax, she’ll have benefits that she didn’t have before: paid maternity leave, vacations, medical leave and retirement – advantages she couldn’t have dreamed of previously.

Nevertheless, she’s not letting herself be deceived, because she’s still worried about how she’ll be able to pay such high taxes, since that was the money she was counting on to support her family.

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Maria Matienzo

Maria Matienzo Puerto: I dreamed once that I was a butterfly who had come from Africa and discovered that I had been alive for thirty years. From that time on, I constructed my world while I was sleeping: I was born in a magic city like Havana; I dedicated myself to journalism; I wrote and edited books for children; I met to discuss art with wonderful people; I fell in love with a woman. Of course, there are certain points of coincidence with the reality of my waking life and it’s that I prefer the silence of reading and the pleasure of a good movie.

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One thought on “The Dilemma of Manuela the Manicurist

  • It seems to me (given the reality of this attempt to re-balance the cuban economy thru a somewhat crude official regression to de facto capitalist relations) that this woman’s situation naturally calls for her to rather join a co-operative which runs a beauty parlor: even if this entails that her job would be that of a self-employed, sub-contracting “boutique” business-within-a-business ‘owner’/operator. Being entirely on her own is simply not efficient — as you obliquely point out above.

    And besides: I’m sure she’d enjoy the “synergy” of working in an environment with other ‘beauty’ professionals like hairdressers, etc. — and her ‘bottom line’ would IMO be better than it could ever be if she were on her own, instead.

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