My first memories of my abuela are her fingernails. In my 21 years on earth, her uñas have dealt in warm colors exclusively — painted in dark pinks and corals for warmer months and shimmering ruby reds during bitter Michigan winters. She’s never without a perfectly-filed, brightly-hued, DIY manicure, and dios sabe que she’d never shell out money for someone else to paint her nails. I have yet to see a single crack or chip make its way onto those vibrant, almond-shaped garras. Knowing her, that day will never come.
My abuela is the only woman I know whose nails are always impeccable. Subconsciously inspired by her, I decided to start caring for mine last summer. As a person of mixed heritage, with a Michigan-native mom and Argentine-born, Michigan-raised dad, my uñas have become the aspect of my appearance that I most directly associate with my Latinidad. Maintaining them helps me feel closer to it.
Growing up pale-skinned and blue-eyed in a predominantly Caucasian city, I seldom paid attention to my ancestry as a child. For all intents and purposes, I, myself, am white, as are my siblings. We were not raised in a bilingual household, and we always blended seamlessly into whatever social situations our local community threw our way. My paternal grandparents lived just 25 minutes down the road, having emigrated from Argentine wine country in the 1960s and bringing my dad with them. We stopped by their house every Sunday night for dinner, during which my brother, sister and I ate plain pasta instead of the homemade empanadas my abuela spent all day preparing.
I don’t fit the mold of how Americans expect a Latina to look, nor was I raised the way others might expect a Latina to grow up. I will never experience the hardships that come with being a woman of color, of being a Latinx immigrant in the United States. But when I came to college, the time and place tailor-made for self-discovery, I realized that my appearance, upbringing and privilege can’t erase one crucial fact: Latinidad is in my blood. No matter how I look or where I live, I deserve to be connected with my Argentine roots.
This past July, when I scheduled a manicure appointment at Sundays Studio in New York City, I did so on a whim. I only wanted to do something nice for myself, and Sundays’ meditation-infused mani seemed fitting, especially because I hadn’t gotten my nails done in at least two years. After spending an absurdly relaxing hour having them meticulously shaped, painted and dried, I loved the way I felt with a set of 10 glossy nails.
From that weekend onward, every fleeting glance at my nails sent my mind to my abuela. When I drummed my fingers on my desk, I saw hers tapping rhythmically against the kitchen counter. The strength and shine of the polish embodied the elegance I’ve always seen in her. Those ruby-red fingertips are the ones that taught me to sew with a needle and thread, that sat me down on the sofa, three shoelaces in hand, to show me how to braid. My abuela is my strongest role model of the Latina woman, and I quickly realized that my nails were a gateway to tapping into my love for her, to create what I viewed as an outward-facing connection with my heritage.
As my manicure began to fade, I devoted myself to growing out, filing and painting my nails, experimenting with different shapes and colors. I continue to maintain them to this day, and I love every moment of it. The ritual of filing and painting has given me something much more valuable. It’s a means of connecting my choices of self-presentation to those of my abuela, the first Latina woman in my life. Even if it’s not what she intended when she first devoted attention to her nails, she’s created a tradition, and it’s one that I’m carrying on. That makes me feel more Latina than speaking Spanish ever could.