A thousand miles from Sinaloa, Mexico, this sunny stretch of Garfield Avenue storefronts, with its Spanish-language window signs and down-home Mexican eateries, makes Ofelia Almeraz feel at home.
The Sinaloa native, who goes by Alexia, is the owner and chief stylist at Alexia’s Nails and Spa in South Gate. The sign outside the entrance advertises, in bright pink letters, Nails Sinaloa-Style.
And what exactly is the Sinaloa style of ladies' nails? Almeraz looks up from her work table, file in hand, and twists her bright red mouth in a thoughtful expression. The nails, she concludes, are a reflection of the woman.
"Sinaloan women stand out in the sense that nearly every one of us loves to dress up," she says. "A Sinaloan woman mops the floor in heels." Her comment elicits a knowing titter from her trio of young assistants working at the other benches; about half of her customers are women from Sinaloa.
See the process behind Almeraz's famous Chapo nails in this photo essay
Almeraz is a fair model of the style she describes, her nails and makeup as impeccable as a bride’s on her wedding day. She was born in Sinaloa, a rough-and-tumble state in Mexico’s Pacific Northwest, famous (or infamous, if you like) for being the cradle of the larger-than-life outlaws of the modern-day Mexican drug trade — a kind of Mexican Sicily, or Medellín. Its most famous native son is Joaquín "El Chapo" Guzmán, boss of the powerful drug cartel that bears the state’s name.
The Sinaloa style of anything — music, clothing, architecture, you name it — tends toward the elaborate and luxurious. Like a gold Bentley, a pet cheetah or a new villa in the style of an Italian palazzo, the Sinaloa style is inextricable from the macho men of renown in the mountains and cities of Sinaloa, and their ostentatious displays of wealth and power. But how does that translate to a woman’s fingernails?
The trademark look comes from a pricey brand of cut glass imported from Austria, the Swarovski crystal. Almeraz and her team of stylists seal the crystal to the nails in bright, colorful patterns. It sparkles like a gem in the light. "The Sinaloa style refers to all the handmade drawings,” she said, “the patterns, the lettering. We consider it an art form."
A plastic mannequin's hand in the salon's display case shows one design based on the religious icons common to Sinaloa — San Judas Tadeo, the Virgen of Guadalupe and Jesús Malverde, Sinaloa’s “narco-saint” of the poor and of outlaws. The faces of the saints are printed on tiny stickers and set on the nails in a pattern of vibrant colors and intricate hand drawings. It is delicate, time-consuming work — the average nail session can last up to two hours and costs anywhere from $38 to $240, depending on the amount of crystal and artwork involved.
Sinaloa nails are not always purely aesthetic; they can be topical as well. Almeraz has one long-standing design, for example, based on the wildly popular narco-TV show El Señor de Los Cielos, based on the life of a real Sinaloan drug-trafficker. So it was only natural that sooner or later, El Chapo himself would appear in a design.
In January, the Mexican armed forces recaptured El Chapo after a deadly shootout in Sinaloa. It is the third time the authorities have taken the kingpin into custody — he managed to escape the other two times. Most recently, in July 2015, he slipped away through a tunnel his cartel associates had burrowed beneath the floor in his cell.
Even before his cinematic prison breaks, El Chapo was already a narco-celebrity. His Sinaloa cartel is the world’s largest supplier of illegal drugs to the United States. A few years back, Forbes magazine had him ranked on its annual list of the world’s richest men (he's since been removed); the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration had him designated its “Public Enemy No. 1." He may be the first drug-trafficker to ever grant an interview to Rolling Stone.
El Chapo’s Houdini-like knack for breaking out of Mexican prisons made Alexia Almeraz as skeptical as anyone about Mexico’s ability to hold onto him this time. As she watched the news of his capture at home with her husband, the idea struck her. “I told him, ‘I’m going to start doing nails with El Chapo on them. We’ll enclose him in a fingernail, then you’ll see he won’t escape again.’”
Just as she had done with the saints, Almeraz placed an order to a local printer for photographic images of El Chapo plucked from the 24-hour news cycle: El Chapo in his blue silk shirt from the Rolling Stone profile, El Chapo in a grimy sleeveless T-shirt at the time of his arrest. In 24 years painting women’s nails Almeraz has grown ever so sensitive to a good love story. She added to the design an image of Mexican actress Kate del Castillo, the object of El Chapo’s affection, who met in secret with him in Sinaloa last October to discuss making his life into a movie. Mexican authorities say her visit led them straight to El Chapo.
Castillo, best known in Latin America for her star turn in the hit TV series La Reina del Sur, in which she plays a female cartel boss, is an outspoken critic of the Mexican government's war on drugs. Soon after El Chapo's arrest, the Attorney General’s Office released a series of text messages from the cartel boss to the actress, to suggest he was infatuated with her.
The "Chapo Nails," as Almeraz calls them, commemorate the story of El Chapo and Del Castillo in stickers smaller than a fingernail. She encases the stickers beneath a layer of gel and a layer of acrylic. “That’s why I say he’s not going anywhere,” she says. On other fingernails she hand-paints in tiny, script letters the choicest excerpts from text messages between the druglord and the actress. “The one I like best is when he says, ‘I will take care of you more than I do my own eyes.’ And she answers him, ‘No one has ever taken care of me.’ Well, she says more than that, but on a fingernail, you can only fit so much.”
For a little extra, Almeraz will enhance the design with gilded copper miniatures, which she seals to the nail surface — the miniatures include a gold pistol, gold handcuffs and a gold marijuana leaf.
The fortunes of Alexia’s Nails and El Chapo have moved in opposite directions since his most recent arrest. Mexican authorities keep El Chapo shuttling from prison to prison, to prevent him from hatching any escape plan, while his lawyers fight the government's attempt to extradite him to the United States. On the outside, his reign of power is under threat from rival cartels, who are believed to be behind the Aug. 15 kidnapping of his son Jesús Alfredo from a restaurant in Puerto Vallarta.
Meanwhile, Despierta America (Wake Up America), the morning program on the Univision network, filmed a segment from the salon on the Chapo nails. Photos of the nails, in turn, went viral in Mexico, the news media ran with the story, and reader comments tended to be critical. “To me, good or bad, the point is that they were talking about it,” Almeraz says.
Being from Sinaloa, she says, the stigma attached to El Chapo doesn’t affect her in the same way. “I obviously don’t agree with the bad things El Chapo did, but in Sinaloa he is also known as someone who sticks up for the people," she says. "My thing is my work. For me, working with an image of El Chapo is like working with one of SpongeBob — I’ve got no problem with it. If a customer comes to me and asks me to put on a saint, I’ll put on the saint.”
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She estimates that four to five women come to the salon in a given week to request the Chapo nails. Their husbands or boyfriends usually put them up to it — and pay the bill. The men, Almeraz says, like their ladies to look like buchonas, a Sinaloan slang word defined by Urban Dictionary as “a strikingly good-looking woman who tends to be the girlfriend/love interest of a gangster.”
Her Chapo nails, Almeraz believes, have started a trend in L.A. nail salons with a predominantly Latin clientele — she maintains she was the first and that she has many imitators. Almeraz heard from the mother of a friend that El Chapo is liable to repay her one day for all the publicity. “So if one day you see one of our salons in Hollywood," she says, "you’ll know El Chapo paid us a visit."