The Politics of Owning a Nail Salon- We Must Value Immigrants

by J Fay
August, 2019

The Politics of Owning a Nail Salon

We Must Value Immigrants

By Jacqueline Carrera Fay

Grit + Polish Owner Jackie Carrera Fay with her big sister Helen in Union City, NJ about 1976.

Starting my nail and skin studio in Princeton NJ was, in many ways, a political statement that is growing more relevant, living with an American President who puts children in cages at or border and tells people who look like me to “go back” where they came from.

Grit + Polish was inspired by a New York Times expose in 2015 that described horrendous sanitation and working conditions in nail salons that exploit undocumented workers.  Most of these workers are from Asian countries, brought here under false pretenses, and forced to live and work under conditions akin to modern slavery. I had long suspected these problems, but finally saw the opportunity to take action locally by starting a nail salon that operates ethically and legally, providing fair pay to women of all backgrounds, and creating a nurturing refuge for staff and customers.

I started the business in October 2016, just before the shocking result of the Presidential election.  I expected to be working in an era of women’s empowerment, following the election of the first woman president in American history.  What actually happened has been well documented, including by my husband, Brad, who was quoted by Hillary Clinton in her book, What Happened.

While I was born in this country, my birth occurred only six weeks after my mother’s arrival in New Jersey from Havana, Cuba.  My mother made the trip in May 1971 because she had papers only for herself and three children—I was to be her fourth, and there would be no papers for me to accompany her if I were born in Cuba.  It was “now or never” for my mother, Hilda, who made enormous sacrifices as a single immigrant mother of four children in West New York, NJ.

Jackie Carrera celebrating her 10th birthday with friends in West New York, NJ.

We grew up poor and, at times, went without dinner at night, or without heat in the winter, particularly after President Reagan acted to cut off “welfare queens” who he said were cheating the system. That intolerant label was not a fair description of my mother.  She always worked, often at multiple jobs. She worked in factories, putting beauty and apparel products in packages for retail.  During the football season she helped clean up the stands after home games at Giants Stadium, hard and unpleasant work.  Her work often forced her to leave the children fending for themselves, with me in the care of my older siblings.

My mother’s hard work paid off. I finished high school, attended and graduated from college, and made it into corporate life, managing pension plans and earning a six-figure salary at a big pharma company. I am confident I paid back into our economy more than the government invested in my family when I was growing up.

Yet when I hear crowds at political rallies today yelling, “send her back” about a sitting Congresswoman, I can’t help but feel a finger pointing at me and my mother, recent immigrant women of Spanish and African heritage.

There is a cruel hypocrisy in how immigration laws are being enforced.  Brown people who look like me are rounded up at the Mexican border, children separated from adult family members, and everyone locked in cramped cages without adequate sanitation, food, and places to sleep.  Meanwhile, our leaders cast a blind eye to the rampant immigration and labor law violations by the owners of nail salons, massage parlors, hotels and resorts, and factory farms.  Undocumented workers are being victimized by these businesses operating in plain sight—including businesses owned by the President’s family and associates—because their undocumented status makes it impossible for workers to stand up for legal pay and treatment.

It is difficult to make a living operating a salon legitimately when most of my competitors do not. Recently I felt compelled to write a column “Why $25 is a Fair Price to Pay for a Manicure” because too many customers have gotten used to paying $12 or $15 for manicures—which is impossible for a salon that complies with labor and immigration laws.  The article was popular and shared widely via social media. To me, that was a sign that people sense something is wrong with how these other places operate, and that they have sensed a sadness in the woman sitting across the table in a cheap salon, as she provides them with a highly personal service.

Grit + Polish Owner Jackie Carrera Fay in front of her salon in 2018.

Nail salons deliver more than manicures and pedicures.  They also satisfy a deep human need to be cared for, listened to, groomed, and touched.  Salons should be caring places, and that can only happen if we treat salon employees fairly and with dignity.

My salon serves a wide variety of customers—all races and ethnicities, gender identities, and all political persuasions.  My staff and I are diverse as well. I deliberately located the business in Princeton’s historically black neighborhood, Witherspoon-Jackson, the most diverse in the town.

By welcoming and caring for everybody, we are sending a political message of inclusiveness that I believe changes minds and opens hearts, something that’s more important than glowing skin, healthy feet, and nice nails.

Note: This article originally appeared on The American Mom blog on August 1, under the title “The Politics of Self-Care.”

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