When I was a child, I loved nothing more than watching Mami apply her makeup in the bathroom every morning before heading off to work—the most glamorous civil servant in Havana, Cuba—and then again every Friday and Saturday night to go out with my tall, dark, and handsome Papi. It could’ve been a simple movie date, but they made such a beautiful, charismatic couple, always dressed to kill, that to me they were movie stars. Especially Mami, whose blood-red lips, finger- and toenails, her bare creamy shoulders redolent of Chanel N°5, and ever-present stilettos made her seem as nonchalant in her beauty as Cary Grant was in a tux.
Perched on the cool toilet seat in a cotton tank and underwear, with Mami’s silken black heels dangling from my bare feet, I’d observe this larger-than-life creature (who was in reality all of 5’2”) transform from really pretty everyday Mami to break-out- the-Champagne tropical Hollywood bombshell Mami. Caramel sunlight poured in through the windows, illuminating her green eyes. I was mesmerized. It was positively magical, as if she’d just performed some mysterious, impressive trick, like pulling a white bunny out of a black top hat. Mira lo que puedo hacer. Look what I can do. Once she’d put the finishing touches on her lipstick and donned her dress, I’d surrender the shoes, into which she’d slide her slender feet. She’d step back from the mirror to better take her whole self. She was a vision, we both agreed. I’d stand up on the toilet and tearfully burst into applause.
“Never leave the house without lipstick,” she’d say. “You never know what the day will bring.”
It was unusual in those days—the early ’60s—for married women of means to have “real” jobs besides full-time housewife and mother. Mami’s girlfriends even offered to pay her salary if she’d quit working so she could play canasta with them all day. She never took them up on it because she enjoyed working. Why settle for being a domestic goddess when you could be a goddess-goddess? And one with a masters in social work, to boot.
One day Fidel Castro’s guerrillas appeared at our house and seized it, along with my father’s medical clinic and the family’s bank accounts. Suddenly, we became indigent refugees living hand-to-mouth in America, eating boiled eggs and pasta with butter because they were cheap and nutritious. Mami wore the same outfit to every job interview she had—pearls, a sleeveless black sheath dress, and black high heels—plus perfect hair and makeup, por supuesto. A Latina goddess never allows distress to mess with her style. Mami got work. Papi got work. Washington, D.C., became our adopted home.
Some 40 years later, Mami still gets up every morning, turns into a movie star in her bathroom, and goes to work as Senior Advisor on Special Populations for the National Institute on Drug Abuse at the National Institutes of Health. She doesn’t need to, she wants to. Me, I became a journalist and author. My boyfriend says I’m the only writer he knows who works from home and puts on red lipstick every morning even if the rest of me is in a cotton tank, underwear, and bare feet. I’d feel naked without it. After all, you never know what the day will bring—inside or out.
Gigi Anders is Mamiverse’s Beauty Editor and the author of Jubana! (Rayo/HarperCollins, 2005) and Little Pink Raincoat (Rayo/HarperCollins, 2007).