jennifer bolanos, vía Raíz
REFRAMING WHAT IT MEANS TO BE MADE IN MEXICO
In many ways, this interview should have been the first. I doubt Becoming Mexican would exist as a project without Jennifer Bolanos. Jennifer is the owner of Vía Raíz, a beautiful shop in NW Portland that showcases the work of Mexican artists who are creating a bridge between traditional craftsmanship and modern design. Jennifer reached out to me over two years ago to photograph her first collection of items in preparation for the launch of the shop and the creative connection was immediate.
Over the past couple of years, Jennifer and I have had the opportunity to work on numerous photo shoots together, and get to know each other in the process. Jennifer’s pride in Mexico, her role in gathering a community of Mexicans in Portland, and the determination she brings as a businesswoman and entrepreneur who has created a thoughtful brand with a timely message, has been so incredibly inspiring to me.
Carly: To start, I don’t think I would be doing this project without you and your influence in my life. I want to say thank you for that and the role that you have played inspiring me and being an awesome woman.
Jennifer: That means a lot, thank you.
Carly: Tell me the story of where you come from. Your family’s heritage.
Jennifer: Both my parents are from Mexico, from the same small city in the state of Michoacán called Zamora. It’s a big-small city, I like to call it. Michoacán is very agricultural, so Zamora is a city where a lot of the farmers come and sell their goods. Although my parents were both from the same city, they didn’t know each other until they were in the U.S. They came separately, my dad came here to help his family. He came from a very low-income household. He had a junior high school education. My mom came here because she felt trapped in this small-town life where she was. At the time it was the late ‘70s and she loved American rock bands and she wanted that rock-glam lifestyle. She came here legally on a visa and my dad came here illegally.
Carly: Where did they go when they arrived?
Jennifer: They both arrived in LA first and made their way up to San Francisco where they met through mutual friends. In the late ‘70s, they lived in the Tenderloin area of San Francisco where there were bars and disco clubs. My parents were the type that would go out every weekend and hit the dance floor.
Then I came along and, at the time, they were not married. My mom grew up in a household where sex was never talked about, it was a ‘sin’ and she told my dad that they had to get married, there was no way they could ever go back to Mexico and have a child out of wedlock. So they were married at city hall and went back to Mexico to do the religious wedding. I was born in San Francisco and by elementary school we moved to the Vallejo, which is North Bay. In the early ‘80s, there were a lot of the new model construction homes. For my parents, seeing those homes was like a dream compared with the small condos they were looking at in San Francisco. They decided they would rather move into the suburbs, but have the 3-bedroom house, that American dream of owning a home. They moved to Vallejo and that’s where I was raised.
Carly: What were your parents doing at the time?
Jennifer: My parents were both very entrepreneurial. My dad was a contractor, he did flooring. My mom had a cleaning company, but for the most part she was a stay-at-home mom for a lot of the time. It wasn’t until my sister and I were a little older that she started cleaning houses in order to bring in additional income. My mom was extremely resourceful and has a lot of ingenuity. The income that she would bring in paid for trips, dance classes. She was very smart about managing money and made it go much further than most of us could.
Carly: Did you speak Spanish in your house?
Jennifer: Yes. Spanish was the first language that I learned and, of course, once I got into preschool I started learning English. I don’t remember the difficulty of learning English, it’s just too far back in my childhood to remember. But my mom always forced us to speak Spanish in the house. Funny, I speak Spanish to my parents and my sister speaks Spanish to our parents, but we don’t speak Spanish to each other. It’s the weirdest thing for us to speak Spanish to each other. It feels so odd.
Carly: I wonder why that is!
Jennifer: There are family videos of when we were little and we were speaking Spanish to each other. I think it changed when we both started going to school. You’re in school more than you’re at home and I think English felt more natural.
Carly: Did you visit Mexico often when you were growing up?
Jennifer: Yes, when I was little it was once a year. We would go down for the holidays and stay there for a month. At that time, and particularly when I was little, we had no relatives in the U.S.
Carly: Was that hard for your parents?
Jennifer: I think so. I think it was harder for my mom than my dad. I think my dad, when he came here, he came for his mom and his sisters, to help them out financially because his father died at a really young age. For him, he was already a little more separated. My mom is the youngest of all her siblings. I think being a mom here in the U.S. and being completely by herself at a time when motherhood wasn’t talked about like it is now. Parenting and the struggles of parenting wasn’t talked about like it is now. She went through postpartum depression. Her being here was very tough, particularly once there were kids and a family. Right after I was born, my grandmother actually came and stayed for a while to be with my mom. My mom always wished that my grandmother could have stayed, but she couldn’t leave my grandfather.
So, we’d go back to Mexico once a year during the holiday season and that happened all the way through high school. After college, it became less frequent. The last time I saw my family was about 6 years ago. But I’m going back in January and I’ll finally get a chance to see them. But that means also meeting cousins, nieces, or nephews that were really little or not even born yet. A lot of new family to meet.
Carly: Wow, that’s incredible. So you’d go down there and stay a month. What was that like for you?
Jennifer: I loved it. As a little girl, I didn’t think a lot of living two lives, the American life and being Mexican. So when I’d go down there it was pure joy to be around family. At that age, being around family was always a delight because we didn’t have that in the U.S. Yeah, my parents had friends, but it’s not the same as seeing your grandmother and being around your aunts and your cousins. My family is big, they’re very close. All the cousins always get together and are each other’s best friends.
As I got older, I started feeling that sense of ‘where do I belong?’ I’m too American to be Mexican, but also a little too Mexican to be American.
Carly: Did they ever treat you like the ‘American’ cousin?
Jennifer: No. I was able to fully speak and communicate with them, which a lot of times isn’t the case in this country, the way people are raised for the sake of assimilation. In my household, there was never any shame around who we are and where we come from. That was always fully embraced. I would go down to Mexico and I didn’t feel like a complete foreigner.
Carly: So there were never people looking at you as ‘other’, it was just something you felt internally?
Jennifer: Yeah. When it first hit me, I think I was in college. I go to Mexico and it takes me a few days to adjust. That’s my American side. When I go down there, particularly to visit family, it’s constant knocking on the door. Every minute someone is coming by to have coffee or to invite you somewhere. It can be a little intense when you’re so used to living such an isolated life, as we do in so many ways here in the U.S. where we schedule two weeks out to see each other. So, when I get there it takes a few days to adjust and feel acquainted after a while of not seeing and being around them. Then when I come back to the U.S., I feel so alone. I can’t quite find myself for the first month when I’m here, I feel like there’s a huge part of me that’s missing. It’s this weird thing where I wonder where I feel like I fit in or belong the most. As much as there’s that question of where do I fit in, I can honestly say that I feel more Mexican than I feel Mexican-American, whatever that may mean to people. It’s weird.
Carly: I’d like to know more about that. Do you feel more Mexican because you’ve spent time there and had those direct experiences there?
Jennifer: I think it’s partly that, I think another part is that I didn’t grow up in a Mexican immigrant community or neighborhood. I was born in San Francisco and lived close to Golden Gate Park. The majority of the people in that neighborhood tend to be Chinese. My parents had Mexican friends and we would spend time with them for birthday parties, quinceañeras, and all that. But still, it wasn’t a huge influence or part of my life. For me, when thinking about my culture and where I come from, those memories are of me in Mexico and not being Mexican in the U.S.
Carly: That’s interesting, that stage of in-betweeness that people can feel when they are raised in a community that strongly identifies with a culture other than the one they live in. For you, it was either fully American or fully Mexican.
Jennifer: Yes. Having met people that grew up in southern California within strong Chicano communities, there is a very different way that you relate to your culture. If you were born and raised in that particular community, being Mexican-American has a completely different meaning for what that looks like and what that means.
Carly: I just started reading Octavia Paz’s The Labyrinth of Solitude, on the recommendation of Johnny Leach, he talks a lot of his impressions of LA and the people of Mexican heritage that project a ‘Mexicaness’. That awkwardness of trying to embrace something, but also define it for themselves in that time and that place. That tension of trying to assimilate, but then wanting to be different.
Jennifer: Regardless of whether you were born in Mexico or here, if you have Mexican heritage, there is a huge sense of pride of having Mexican heritage. When I’m around people that grew up as Chicanos or grew up in those communities, I wonder if I missed out on something. In the sense of belonging to the Mexican-American community.
I mean, I am Mexican-American, but that’s where the question mark of do I belong to that community. That’s the weird grey area for me.
When I was in the Bay Area, much older and out of college and working, some of my best friends I met through a Latino professional organization. A lot of people that were in it were born and raised in the U.S., but some had also immigrated here. The closest relationships I built was with those who were actually not born here, but those who had immigrated. That’s very telling to me in terms of who I feel at home with or who I relate to.
Carly: It raises all these questions that you often can’t answer.
Jennifer: Yeah, the biggest question is why. I was born in this country, so why do I feel more at home with people who weren’t and who immigrated here. I feel like so much of it goes back to growing up with Mexican culture in my household that my parents provided, but still almost been in a silo and not raised in the Mexican-American community.
Carly: And what brought you up to Portland?
Jennifer: I swore up and down that I'd never leave California. I was a California girl born and raised. But my then boyfriend, now husband, is a fifth-generation Portlander. He was in the tech scene and he was done with it. He wanted to move back home, knowing that home provided a much more relaxed lifestyle. Less rush, less pressure, better opportunities to get ahead and have a life. At the time, we had moved in together and for two years he kept saying we should move to Portland. I was like "no way!"
I had friends in school, but it was never a deep bond. But as an adult, I found the people that I saw myself in. I was able to build a deep bond with them and also was able to relate to them culturally. That was very important for me and critical for me wanting to stay. And, of course, my parents were there as well.
But with work it was completely different, I felt completely lost. I felt like there was no way out of what I was doing. I was working at Sephora for six years doing operations and merchandising for their flagship store. It got to the point where I was completely burnt out and I decided that I couldn't do it anymore. It felt right to start fresh and start new somewhere else. So we decided we'd move. We got married, went on our honeymoon, went back to the Bay Area to pick up our car, then drove up to Oregon. Neither of us had jobs or an apartment. I had to start all over again with my personal life, but for my professional life, this city has definitely allowed me to flourish and grow, which I would have never been able to afford to do had I stayed in the Bay Area.
Carly: How specifically has Portland done that?
Jennifer: From the moment that I arrived, I sought out different people and groups. No one has ever turned me down for a coffee meeting. I did a lot of exploring when I first moved to figure out what my next career move was going to be, but people were always really generous with their time and their connections, which in San Francisco never happened. Once I got to the point of realizing that what I was chasing after wasn't the right fit for me, that's when I decided to start my own business. Being in Portland, there is so much support for entrepreneurs and small businesses. There is an entrepreneurial spirit in this city and you can't help but be bit by that bug. That made it much easier to decide to jump into owning my own business and becoming an entrepreneur.
Carly: How did you come up with the idea for Vía Raíz?
Jennifer: The seed had always been there, the idea of bringing over Mexican craft to the U.S. My parents are from the state of Michoacán and it's the only state in all of Mexico where this particular way of doing crafts works. When the Spanish arrived in Michoacán, they decided to give each town a specific craft so there wasn't as much competition among the towns which are back to back. Each town has their own craft, whether that's making guitars, copper work, lacquer work, things like that. Whenever I went to visit my family in Mexico, we made always made a trip through the small towns and visited artisan workshops. That's a very fond memory from my childhood.
Growing up in the Bay Area where there's a huge Latino community, I couldn't understand why we weren't seeing more of that art and craft represented. That thought was always with me and stayed in my mind. Jump forward to 2013 and my husband and I were on our honeymoon, half was in Mexico City and it was my first time in Mexico City and I noticed all the modern design and pieces that were being made in Mexico. I wondered why shops in LA and San Francisco didn't carry these pieces. For me, that was such a spark, particularly because so many of these designers were using traditional methods of production, traditional materials, and collaborating with artisans to make the pieces.
That pride in being made in Mexico was really motivating for me and inspiring.
For many years Mexico has looked to Europe or the U.S. for inspiration. Everything from coffee brands, chocolate brands, cinema, fashion, all of that, the trends have been inspired and taken from the U.S. and Europe. For the first time, I started noticing inspiration from what was in Mexico and what can be produced in Mexico, and giving value to the crafts that are made in Mexico and giving value to the artisans. There is still a lot of work to be done on that level, but at least it's starting to happen.
When we got back from our honeymoon, I came back really inspired by what I had seen, I continued to research the movement and who the designers were, making mental notes of what I was learning. As I continued my career hunt, the designers work just kept on coming back to me.
I started talking to my husband about trying to bring some pieces over and he was totally supportive. Everything has fallen into place and happened organically, with regards to Vía Raíz. In 2016, a friend told me about the holiday pop-up that the City of Portland hosts. I had started to focus completely on the business in April 2016 and in June 2016 I applied and was accepted to the program. It went from working on the business plan, pie in the sky idea, nothing solid to all of a sudden needing to contact all the designers and crossing my fingers that no one would turn me down. At the time, I had no social media and didn't have a website, I didn't have anything except the concept that I shared with them in written word. In September I started ordering all the inventory for the pop up to come in on time. If it weren't for that pop up, I don't think the idea would have manifested itself in a physical form for another year or two.
With regard to my company, I think that was very necessary because I would have procrastinated, I would have just over analyzed every single little bit. I just would have waited too long to make everything so perfect that it may never have happened. When you're working on something for too long and nothing manifests from it, you can give up sometimes. I'm so grateful for that opportunity, otherwise I don't think I'd be where I am now.
Carly: That's incredible. And now it's grown into a full business with a storefront. Can you describe that journey?
Jennifer: In 2016, two days after Trump was elected to office, the holiday pop-up launched. It was located a block away from Pioneer Square where all the rallies and protests were happening. For two weeks straight, downtown was completely covered with marches and protests, streets were blocked. There was an air of loss of hope, despair, sadness, fear. That holiday season was rough, but at the same time, I realized the importance of what my business meant.
Yes, if you look at it from the superficial level, it's home goods, beautiful pieces. But I think that if you can see it from a broader perspective, the idea that I started with was reframing the idea of what it means to be made in Mexico, which then equals what it means to be Mexican. In our political landscape right now, that has a lot of meaning. It's about changing people's perspective when it comes to Mexico, to Mexicans. It's broadening their knowledge of what that means.
I'm glad I didn't see it as heavy of a burden as I realize it is now, in terms of what kind of impact I can have with this business. I think that would have been really daunting. But now I'm at a point where people understand the concept and I understand much more fully what I want to say through it and the power that it has. I think so much of what we're seeing right now stems from a place of ignorance and I don't mean that in a negative way, but simply the lack of knowledge. It has to do with being so isolated from other cultures, not having relationships with people from other cultures or other races, that allows for some of those judgments and stereotypes to take place and take root. I think with something like my shop, it helps to open people’s eyes to what else something can be. To question some of their thoughts and stereotypes.
Carly: And you don’t shy away from the political aspects. Some people would hesitate, but I almost see it as part of your brand to be political and discuss issues around race.
Jennifer: It’s interesting because I would never consider myself to be someone who is political or politically active. I did my job and would vote, but I think we are now in a situation where how can you not be political? I can understand how, for some, it’s a little more difficult to be open about it, but my thought is that, as a business, you’re part of the community. If you don’t stand up for something, for your community, then there is something missing in your business. If it’s all just for selling stuff and making profit, that’s fine.
Especially as a small business, we’re so embedded in our communities that I feel like we have the responsibility to be a voice in the community.
For me, it got to the point where it was too hard to ignore what was going on. Even as small of a platform as I have through social media, it’s still a much bigger reach than I have as me, as Jennifer Bolanos. It was just too hard to ignore that through my business, through Vía Raíz I could have a bigger voice. Not necessarily to use it to influence people, but just to raise awareness. If nothing else, to not let people forget what’s happening. Certainly, one of the biggest core issues for me is immigration. That’s a story that is so relatable to me because both my parents came here as immigrants and they gave so much to this country, which at the same time took so much away. That’s just so important for me to speak out about.
Carly: You never said specifically that you wanted to hire me because of my Mexican heritage, but I wonder if we’d be working together if I didn’t. You pull in so many people that have a connection to Mexico, it’s incredible. I feel like you’re creating a community that I didn’t know was there.
Jennifer: Yes, it’s all on purpose. Coming to Portland from San Francisco, I really missed that sense of community, a Latino community, wondering where is everyone? It becomes even smaller when you think about Latinos in the creative industry. For me, with the business, it’s always my hope to work with as many Latinos, and if they’re Mexican that’s even better because it’s a connection to Vía Raíz and what it stands for.
I want to build that community and highlight the incredible people that are here doing some amazing work. It’s changing that conversation.
We’re doing this, we’re Mexican. There’s an incredible baker, an incredible artisanal coffee roaster, there’s a candle maker, just highlighting the incredible people that are doing amazing things that, guess what, happen to be Mexican or Latino or Latina.
Carly: That’s one of the reason why I decided to do this project, because I feel like it’s the extension that I needed to be able to talk more about political issues. Also how to do you not speak up when you’re seeing kids being taken away from their family at the border and knowing the irreparable trauma that can cause. I look at all the incredible people I’ve come to know that are first-, second-, third-generation Mexicans. Look at what we’ve done, what we’ve become. Who could the people waiting at the border be? What are we changing, what are we altering with these policies at the border right now?
Jennifer: Exactly. Immigrants bring so much to this country that gives very little back to them. That’s unfortunately a conversation that isn’t had because immigrants often live in the underbelly of this country. Their stories are not heard, their faces are not seen.
People can’t build empathy with something they don’t know and something they don’t see.
When a certain story is told about who these people are, that’s the story they are going to believe. Just thinking about my parents as an example. My dad came from a very low-income family, he barely finished junior high and yet he came to this country with nothing, he started doing odd jobs, like being a bus boy, and learned how to lay carpet, he went from that to owning his own business being a contractor. I grew up in a middle class family in the ‘80s. For an immigrant family, that’s a huge leap. From my dad coming here in the late ‘70s to being a middle class family in the mid ‘80s. I was fortunate that my parents were able to afford for me to go to dance classes, swim lessons, they gave me trips to travel to different countries around the world, I was the first to go to college. Those are all incredible things to achieve as an immigrant in this country. Not only during that time, but just with their situation of how they came to this country and in such a short time period. And unfortunately due to certain situations that immigrants find themselves in, that’s not always the story that they’re going to be able to live out. But the opportunity, at least for the next generation, is. I read somewhere, I can’t remember who said this, but it said “Our parents come here for the first generation to go to college. And for the next generation to have an amazing career. And the next generation after that to be the CEO of a company.” It’s that. That in itself is the dream that they’re after when they come to this country. It’s not for them, it’s for their family, for their children. They want their children to have a better life than they could ever have in their own countries. I can tell you, not even having been born and raised in Mexico, there is no reason why anyone would leave the country they were born in, the country where their family is, where their entire life is, if it wasn’t for such a deep dark situation that they’re in, that there’s zero hope that they could do anything for their life and for their family if they stay there.
Carly: Where do you see the brand going? What’s next for Vía Raíz?
Jennifer: I was part of a female accelerator program for businesses, basically a year-long incubator, where the biggest focus was helping women figure out how they are going to scale and grow their business. I gave it a lot of thought because I couldn’t really wrap my head around what would be next after having a brick and mortar store. That was my dream for so long, just to have a shop. But having a shop just isn’t enough to make enough profit to bring in an actual income for a household. I started digging into the idea that I’m very happy with the idea of having a shop, being present in the space and being able to be one-on-one with the customers. My ultimate dream would be to have a space that would house the shop, would house a Mexican cafe and potentially even have a badass cantina in it as well. So that it becomes a space that people can have an immersive experience of Mexican culture.
Carly: It sounds fantastic.
Jennifer: You’re actually seeing a lot of high-end retailers doing that concept. For one, it’s a play on building community and, two, it allows for people to linger longer. People these days aren’t going to a shop just to shop. They want something more, they want an experience. I think by introducing these other elements, you’re creating a space that provides that.
Carly: I’d love to see it, I hope you’re successful with it. I know you will be.
Jennifer: Thank you!