BRADENTON — Milena Cervantes wept tears of frustration during her first week at Manatee Technical College. Having not yet grasped the English language, Cervantes relied heavily on an instructor in the school’s Nails Specialty program to interpret lessons for her.
“I felt frustrated,” she recalled in Spanish. “I said ‘I won’t be able to do this… I won’t be able to.'”
With time, she learned.
Cervantes, who arrived in the United States from Venezuela nearly two years ago, pushed on despite the language barrier and her self-doubt to graduate March 11 with 84 of her peers in an intimate ceremony held at MTC’s main campus. At the ceremony, the beaming Bradenton mother stood at the podium and shared words of encouragement with a large crowd.
The competition tested Cervantes’ skills in various aspects of nail care.
“Never did I think I would be in a competition,” the 36-year-old said as she sat at a table inside the college surrounded by nail supplies. “Never did I think that I would win and that I would now move onto the next level.”
Cervantes will once again have to prove her skills April 24-27 at the SkillsUSA Florida State Leadership and Skills Conference, which will be held at the Lakeland Center in Lakeland.
According to MTC’s website, its students have won more medals at SkillsUSA National Championships than any other school, technical center or college in the United States.
Cervantes, who has since enrolled in an English language class, said the ride over the last several months to this point in her life has felt like jumping off a diving board.
“It’s all so strange because I have always loved this but I couldn’t (practice) before,” she said, adding that her enrollment in MTC last fall had been her third try at attending the college. “You come from your country… and you face so many obstacles.”
Cervantes has always been interested in nails. Back in her Venezuelan hometown of Maracaibo, she taught herself techniques through YouTube tutorials and would then turn to her nieces’ hands to test what she learned.
“She has taught me how to design everything,” said Flor Quiroga, one of Cervantes’ peers who will also compete in the upcoming SkillsUSA conference. “Because she has worked more nails than I have, she has a bit more knowledge. I didn’t know anything.”
Quiroga, 31, sat across Cervantes at a long table at MTC with a cluster of bottles and other supplies between them. Both women leaned over fake nails glued onto round clothespins, testing different designs in preparation for what awaits them in Lakeland at the end of this month. Quiroga painted an ocean of multiple hues of blue across several nails, and Cervantes carefully painted a green eye on a single nail.
“What appears to be the least significant, like making a small line like this where you think anyone can do that, is a lie,” Cervantes pointed out, making a gesture with her own manicured nails. “When you grab the brush and start to make that line, you will see that it’s not that easy. The line will come out squared.”
Over at the other table, a new batch of students practiced applying acrylic nail powder dots on a laminated paper acrylic to learn how much liquid and powder to use. Cervantes and Quiroga looked over and laughed, recalling that lesson. At the time, Cervantes said they didn’t understand the importance of it.
“But that goes with everything,” she said. “Learning bit by bit.”
Janneth Alvarez, one of Cervantes’ former cosmetology instructors, described Cervantes as an outgoing student who was always eager to learn in the class she taught alongside fellow instructor Brenda Ayers.
“We encouraged her and we saw a lot of talent in her,” the 55-year-old said. “She was very persistent and very perfectionist, and very hard on herself. Even when she was taking her written tests, when she had a low score or it wasn’t high enough for her, she would be upset. She had high expectations of herself and we’ve talked about that.”
Like Cervantes, Alvarez has seen many students at MTC with language barriers.
“At first, it’s very hard for them. They get very nervous,” she said. “They are overwhelmed, but I try to let them know to be calm and to be patient and that I’m here to help them to be successful.”
Earlier that evening, Cervantes had complained to Alvarez about not knowing what she was going to design for her upcoming competition.
“If the competition allowed colored acrylic nail powder, I would die!” Cervantes said, her eyes widening dramatically.
As Alvarez watched, Cervantes stood up and walked over to a set of 10 nails she had created with swirls of red and black acrylic nail powder. Tiny silver-colored rhinestones accented each nail with small black dotting designs. Her eyes lit up.
“This, to me, is wow,” Cervantes said softly as she studied her work. “This is what I like.”
Amaris Castillo, law enforcement/island reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7051. Follow her on Twitter@AmarisCastillo.