Culture

A New Incubator Is Opening Up In Chicago’s ‘La Villita’ And Will Embrace The Neighborhood’s Mexican Heritage

At 10 years old, Anayasin Vazquez, now 60, moved to Little Village, affectionately called La Villita, with her family. The predominantly Mexican neighborhood is only 15 minutes Southwest of the Loop in Chicago, but entering its non-physical borders can feel like a passport is required. Billboard advertisements change from English to Spanish, the skin and hair color of people darkens and the image of La Virgen de Guadalupe can be seen on nearly every block.

Anayasin Vazquez’s memories of her childhood in La Villita are of bustling businesses, like La Chiquita grocery store.

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Vasquez recalls families eating at La Justicia, sweet smells emanating from El Nopal bakery and grocery trips to La Chiquita.

“That was a time when I saw Little Village thriving,” she recalls. She moved out of the area at 18 years old, and 20 years passed before she moved back. When she did, the neighborhood had changed.

But, over time, Vasquez saw changes to the community she loves, some of which are positive.

Credit: Google Maps

“Buildings deteriorated, businesses were leaving and it no longer had the vibrancy I remembered,” says Vazquez. “People were negatively affected by these changes. It led to crime. And that’s why I’m excited about Xquina. Because maybe it can help us get back to what Little Village was.”

Vazquez is referring to Xquina Cafe.

Credit: Google Maps

The recently announced hybrid coffee shop and entrepreneurial incubator, expected to fill the empty storefront located at 3534 W. 26th St., in Spring 2019. Jaime di Paulo, former executive director of the local chamber of commerce, now President & CEO of the Illinois Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, spearheaded the project and describes it as a learning center with cultural relevance. In late July, the Mayor’s office announced it was the recipient of a $250,000 Neighborhood Opportunity Grant. Another $350,000 is needed to fully fund the project.

The two-story, 6,000-square-foot building, is described as an eyesore by locals. It sits along the main corridor of the neighborhood’s shopping district, which to date, has lacked any businesses of this kind. The facility, partially owned by the chamber, will be designed as a hub for ideas and business meetings. Expect free wi-fi, classes for entrepreneurs, co-working spaces and private offices. 

Di Paulo was aided in his bid by Juan Saldana, associate director of the chamber’s Small Business Development Center. The two brokered a deal with Carlos Halwaji, its initial purchaser, for 25 percent ownership of the building. Halwaji is a chiropractor who has practiced in Little Village for the last 20 years. 

The facility shares tech incubator DNA, but will incorporate the neighborhood’s Mexican identity.

Credit: DesignBridgeLtd

Classes will be offered in both English and Spanish; and the coffee operator and second anchor tenant will be carefully scrutinized by select members of the chamber, in order to ensure a shared vision of empowering the people in the area.

“Gentrification is a real issue,” says di Paulo. “We want to be very selective of the vendors we use. New amenities to a community is sometimes confused as gentrification. This isn’t that. We are building something for the people of Little Village.” 

It’s not the first time a local organization purchased and built out a physical space in order to better the lives, and preserve the culture, of people in the district. Universidad Popular is a non-profit which provides support services to Latinos. Founded in 1972, the organization offers an array of classes and resources ranging from health and wellness topics, to digital literacy. 

Originally located in Lakeview, the organization bounced from Humboldt Park to Pilsen, due to rising rent. In an effort to combat gentrification, the organization purchased a 12,000 square foot banquet hall in Little Village. The renovation costs, estimated at upwards of $1M, almost kept the organization from moving forward with their plans. However, with the help of its working class neighborhood—plumbers, carpenters, housekeepers and electricians—they managed to transform the dilapidated building into a vital part of the community that continues to thrive. 

Xquina is the younger sibling to this concept. It’s a place primarily designed for the 33 percent of residents under the age of 35.

“Most people have to leave the neighborhood if they need a quiet place to work or study,” says di Paulo. “We don’t want that, so we’re working to fit the needs and demands of the people. There’s currently nothing like this in Little Village.“

A feasibility study done by the chamber, showed 90 percent of people deemed this initiative important and critical to the area. Especially the free internet. A common asset in the Loop and Northside, but a scarce resource in the neighborhood says Vazquez.

With a clear need and desire for this concept, it can appear as if support was garnered overnight. However, the process began five years ago when di Paulo started his position, and inherited a $50,000 deficit.

Over time, he turned the business around and earned the trust of the people by funneling resources into the neighborhood. Such as the establishment of a small business development center last fall. With that addition to the neighborhood, came Salgado. 

The two walked the streets, knocked on doors and got to know residents. Their grassroots efforts led to their small business center being one of the most successful on record. Money allocated for businesses in Little Village reached more than $1M in less than a year. 

When the times come, a vendor RFP will be posted where a committee of four to five members from the area will be formed to select the two anchor tenants. 

“Hopefully someone from the neighborhood steps up,” says Salgado when asked about the ideal candidate.

This optimism and investment in the community drives the concept. Salgado and di Paulo both speak of this project as a way to combat gentrification and minimize brain drain happening among young people who feel their needs are not being met. 

“The idea is, we don’t have all the answers,” says Salgado. “We’re looking to the community to help us. We want to bring in the right people who can help create jobs. We want to be a catalyst for growth.”

And judging by the support for Xquina Cafe, it’s clear Salgado is not the only hopeful one.

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Nopales Are Now Being Used To Make High-End Vegan Leather Goods Thanks To Two Mexican Designers

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Nopales Are Now Being Used To Make High-End Vegan Leather Goods Thanks To Two Mexican Designers

Desserto / Facebook

If you’ve always thought nopales were the answer to the world’s problems, prepare to be validated. Two entrepreneurs from Guadalajara and Aguascalientes have just debuted a luxury, organic vegan leather entirely made from nopales. The material is made to last over ten years in your car, purse, or wallet. While creators Adrián López Velarde and Marte Cázarez have named their innovation Desserto, the people have already started calling it Cactus Leather. 

The material itself is made without phthalates, toxic chemicals or PVC. Also, because nopales grow without much water, the material is far more sustainable than animal leather options, which require water to grow all the plants that feed an animal throughout his or her life, plus water for the animal themself. Desserto made its debut last month at the International Leather Fair Lineapelle in Milan. López Velarde told Fashion United that, “the enthusiasm for our Desserto sustainable materials at Lineapelle was overwhelming.”

The duo’s inspiration for innovation was seeing the density of environmental pollution their respective industries were producing.

Credit: desserto.pelle / Instagram

If you’ve ever worked in retail, you already know what they’re talking about. López Velarde and Cázarez saw a need to reduce the environmental pollution they both bore witness to. They were so dedicated to creating a sustainable option, they left their jobs and started Adriano Di Marti, the company that created Desserto. They’re not done innovating just yet. Desserto is Adriano Di Marti’s first product, and it won’t be the last. They plan to continue researching and developing new products that can revolutionize the leather industry for the better.

They chose the nopal, in part, because it’s a symbol of Mexican identity.

Credit: @desserto.pelle / Instagram

 López Velarde told Fashion United, “The idea of using this raw material was conceived because this plant does not need any water to grow, and there is plenty of it throughout the Mexican Republic. Also, symbolically, it represents all of us Mexicans and everybody knows it. Besides, to be able to incorporate this material into various industries, it is essential to count on a stable, abundant supply of raw material.” They spent two years researching and developing a product that met all the technical requirements to be used in the automotive and fashion industries.

The International Leather Fair Lineapelle created significant buzz for the brand. After sampling all the alternative leathers at the fair, a presenter announced that they felt Desserto was the “most appropriate for use in luxury brands thanks to its flexibility, softness, touch and color.”

The company is already producing handbags and is working with big brands in other industries.

Credit: desserto.pelle / Instagram

López Velarde teased some “very interesting projects” in the works with “high profile companies in neighboring countries,” according to Fashion United. Will the new Tesla boast nopal leather? Will the Birkin bag finally leave alligators alone and use the luxuries, organic, sustainable Desserto leather instead? We dream.

Companies can reduce the water consumption of their products by 20 percent when using Desserto instead.

Credit: desserto.pelle / Instagram

López Velarde cited some shocking statistics in the interview, saying the fashion industry uses as much water as it would take to fill 32 million Olympic-sized swimming pools. According to López Velarde, the fashion industry is projected to increase its solid waste by 60 percent by 2030. Their nopal vegan leather will remain durable for a minimum of 10 years, and afterward, will biodegrade. It’s made from organic materials, after all. 

López Velarde and Marte Cazáre were born the same day and year in México, because of destiny.

Credit: desserto.pelle / Instagram

In an interview with Heraldo de Mexico, the 20-somethings recalled how they met as students in Taiwan. The two were studying international business when the met. They immediately clicked and discovered that they were, not only two Mexicanos sharing culture in Taiwan, but that they also shared the same exact birthday.

Their advice to other jóvenes with “crazy” ideas: Go for it.

Credit: desserto.pelle / Instagram

People told them they were crazy. They told reporter Adriana Luna that their youth has been an asset, because they had nothing to lose when they embarked on this dream, and everything to gain. They hope to see Desserto used to create armchairs, luxury couches, car seats, and in the fashion industry. 

If you’re in the area, you can visit their brick and mortar shop to learn more about the leather, or buy a bag for yourself.

READ: A Guadalajara-Based Scientist Discovered Nopal Juice Can Create Plastic And Our Eco-Friendly Latina Moms Are About To Lose It

This Latina Used Her Business Savvy to Launch An App That Helps Undocumented Students Find Financial Aid

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This Latina Used Her Business Savvy to Launch An App That Helps Undocumented Students Find Financial Aid

In senior year of high school, Sarahi Espinoza Salamanca was told by her school’s guidance counselor that her dream of attending a four-year college was not in the cards for her. Salamanca, who had just found out that she was undocumented, had worked up the courage to tell her counselor about her immigration status. Instead of the support she was looking for, she was instead met with a discouraging response. “…She said to me, ‘People like you don’t go to college,’” Salamanca recently told Remezcla. Salamanca, needless to say, was devastated. 

Unfortunately, due to Salamanca’s status as an undocumented immigrant, she wasn’t eligible for federal financial aid. And because Salamanca was one of 11 children, she didn’t have the financial means to pay for college out-of-pocket. According to Salamanca, the conversation with her guidance counselor broke her “into a million pieces”. “This was the moment where I lost all hopes of being the first in my family to go to college”. But in the end, Salamanca had the last laugh. 

Years later, Salamanca used this experience to inspire her to create “Dreamers Roadmap”–a free mobile app that helps undocumented students find financial aid for college. 

While Salamanca was unable to take the traditional educational route that many entrepreneurs take, she instead used her grit and business-savvy to commit to changing the system that had failed her. “It took me a while to realize that I was probably not the only one in this situation,” Salamanca told Forbes. Once she had that revelation, she decided it was up to her to fix the problem. Instead of taking the traditional four-year college route, Salamanca enrolled in community college and got to work building her own business.

First, Salamanca devoted herself to creating a blog that gave undocumented and low-income students information about scholarship opportunities. When realized that she was one of 3.6 million Dreamers in the U.S. who were unable to qualify for federal financial aid, Salamanca realized she had an un-tapped market on her hands. Deciding to go a step further, Salamanca decided to create an app specifically for undocumented students who were looking to fund their college education. Despite having no formal background in tech, she applied for tech competitions–like the 2013 Hackathon for Dreamers. She left that competition with renewed confidence in both her ideas and her leadership abilities. It was then that she committed to both bringing her app idea into fruition and taking on a role as CEO.

Spurred on by her initial success, Salamanca decided to try her hand at the Voto Latino Innovators Challenge in 2014.

At the time, Voto Latino (founded by Latina actress Rosario Dawson) had put out a call for “Millennial-led projects that will improve the lives of and expand opportunities for Latinos in the U.S.”. Taking a leap of faith Salamanca decided to apply for the priciest grant: $100,000. Although she had no idea if she’d win, she decided it was worth a try. ” I thought to myself, ‘Well if I win even half, that’s a huge win for my project'”. And it seems that Voto Latino recognized the potential of her project as well.

Salamanca was ultimately chosen as a finalist for the competition and entered the final rounds in Washington D.C. as the only community college student as well as the only sole-female founder. At the challenge, Salamanca pitched her project to a panel of all-star judges that included Rosario Dawson, America Ferrera, and Wilmer Valderrama. Apparently, Salamanca made an impression. Voto Latino gave “Dreamers Roadmap” a grant of $100,000 towards funding. 

Now that Sarahi Espinoza Salamanca is CEO of her own company, her future has never been brighter. 

Salamanca has come a long way from being told that college is “not for people like her”. Now, Dreamers Roadmap has over 30,000 users and is integral to the college-admission process for many undocumented students. Not only was Salamanca named a “Champion of Change” at the White House in 2014, but she also received a House of Representatives Award in 2015, and placed in Forbes’ prestigious 30 Under 30 list. Although she has encountered numerous obstacles in her life due to her ethnicity, gender, tax bracket, and immigration status, she has overcome them all through determination and perseverance. 

But more than any of these other accomplishments, it’s the impact she’s had on people’s lives that is the most impressive. To date, Dreamers Roadmap has helped over 20,000 students find scholarships for college. “We hear from our users via social media or email on how our app has changed their lives,” she said in an interview with Forbes. “Hearing their stories reminds me that we are doing a good job and fulfilling our mission of bringing hope and financial opportunities to immigrant communities”.