Painting Nails in Bolivia: A Job but Not a Living

Bolivia - Nails

Dots, stripes, red, white and black, my nails are looking wonderful. Claudia (not her real name) is unrecognisably chatty. Photo: La Publica.

This post by Mabel Franco was originally published in La Pública and is reproduced here through our collaboration agreement. 

We will call her Claudia. It is not her real name, but she wishes to remain anonymous to protect her job. It is not the greatest job, but it is the only job she has found, one month ago, and it is so unstable that she can't afford to arouse her boss's suspicions.

Claudia is in her 20's. She is the mother of two little girls and has a husband who works in a photocopy shop.

“What he earns isn't enough, so I help out.”

She studied hairdressing at an institute, but found work in a nail salon, painting designs onto nails.

In a mid-sized shop, in the Sopocachi area (central west of La Paz, Bolivia), with large windows to the street, she along with three other girls are seated behind little tables, waiting for customers who desire to have exquisite nails.

It is Tuesday afternoon, so there isn't much going on. Only one of the manicurists is busy. Claudia and the others are taking a nap, resting half on the tables.

A customer arrives and the women quickly sit up.

Claudia hardly says a word. It is difficult to get her to talk, even more so when it is about her work. As the chosen design is very detailed — each nail with a different design — there is time to overcome her resistance.

“I work part time, but there are other girls who work all day. I do afternoons.”

From 14:00 to 21:00, she then says.

As it is almost 17:00, one of the girls goes out to buy something to eat: some empanadas for 1.50 Bolivianos (US$.22 cents). They all put in.

So seven hours is part time.

How much do you earn?

That depends. The boss pays us a percentage of what each customer pays, and the amount each customer pays also depends on the design.

Claudia avoided the question of what the percentage was.

“I take home 800 Bolivanos (US$116.29) if it's a slow month, and up to 1200 (US$174.43) Bolivianos if it's busy,” she revealed in a low voice.

I have to believe her, even though Marcia, another lady who works in central La Paz painting nails, comments that is not always the case.

There is no signed contract with the Department of Labour. Only a private agreement that doesn't include bonuses. Claudia is not sure if the owner of the store will give her something extra at the end of the year.

“If only.”

Nail after nail, the conversation becomes more animated. Not knowing how, Claudia ended up talking about her mother's town, Caquiaviri.

“I know it,” I tell her. “There is a beautiful church there.”

She seems surprised, and for the first time she looks me in the eye and smiles.

“I have travelled a lot around the Altiplano region,” I say. “I have heard some beautiful stories, and also some terrifying ones.”

Claudia livens up and recalls the fear she felt with her little sister walking though a town at night with no electricity, but with many stories of apparitions and even UFOs.

Dots, stripes, red, white and black, my nails are looking wonderful. Claudia is unrecognisably chatty.

“This government is ruining us with their double bonuses,” she complains.


Everything has gone up. The sellers at the market say: they have money, let them pay. I tell them that we don't all get a double bonus, but they don't care. If there's a march against it or something like that, I'll take part.

Done. The final layer of clear varnish has been applied. While I blow on my nails to dry them off, Claudia fills out a docket detailing the job. Fifteen Bolivianos (US$2.18), some of which will go to her.

Marcia, a perfectionist

Marcia is a dynamic woman.

“Those who don't know me think that I'm a troublemaker, but I'm not.”

She describes herself as someone who could pass for the owner of a shop where a dozen girls paint nails.

The salon is set amongst a group of offices in a building with few windows, it smells so strongly of chemicals “sometimes I go home with a headache or feel almost drugged,” explains the mother in her 30s, whose only son, a young university student, still needs her help.

In the shop there is only one man behind a table. He is not there to paint nails, however, he is there to note down what gets done by the owner's staff.

The owner has another hairstyling and nail salon on the next floor.

Claudia mentioned some boys were keen to become manicurists, something that interested us.

Marcia, looking at the young boy, said out loud: “You know how to stamp nails [a method of painting nails], right?”

“Of course not,” said the boy, embarrassed.

His colleague explained: “He's worried people will think he's gay.”

Marcia says she has worked in the profession for so many years that she is now independent.

That means she pays the owner rent as well as buying her own nail polish, and, in return, can work at the salon independently, charging her own rates.

Theres no bonus or holidays or health insurance. She lives each day at the mercy of God.

How much do you earn?

Not enough, is her reply.

“So I don't only paint here, I work out of other places too and I also do hairstyling, which I studied.”

You should call Marcia an artist. A flower, chosen from plenty of designs, begins to cast a shadow, growing a stem and leaves. All on the miniscule canvas of a nail.

“Competition is the problem,” she complains.

There are many places like this and every day there are more girls that know how to paint. There are university students that come for a couple of hours. Some girls are so pretty that the owners choose them straight out.

Regarding pay, Marcia explains that the owner pays the new girls 35% commission, while long-serving staff pay 50%.

“No one can live on this alone.”

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