The warm, woody scent of Palo Santo envelops you when you walk into the Mestiza Shop on 18th Street. For many customers, especially those who live in the surrounding Pilsen neighborhood, it’s the scent of home. That’s by design, says co-owner Sugieri Martinez.
“We feel like sometimes when people come in, they might have had a really rough day, but when they smell the Palo Santo that we burn in our shop, it calms them down,” said Martinez.
Mestiza Shop co-owner Lorena Almanza adds, “We just want everybody to feel always welcome here.”
Almanza and Martinez have known each other since their days at Farragut High School. The married couple opened their current location in 2017 with an eye toward offering wares made by local artists as well as imported goods. The items range from the traditional to the quirky – but all with a distinctively Latina accent.
“It’s so important to us because we don’t see ourselves in the mainstream media. We don’t see items that we can connect to in the mainstream shops. We don’t see them on commercials on TV.”
The goods on offer at The Mestiza Shop are intended to fill that gap, Martinez says. They’re also a platform for fair trade artisans as well as Chicago’s makers.
“Papelito’s Lindos, she makes beautiful note cards that you don’t really see at a store when you’re looking for Latino-inspired note cards. So she makes things that are for Father’s Day, Mother’s Day with the Latino flavor in them,” she said. “Mi Madre Lo Hizo, all the products are made by a local Pilsen resident, her name is Elizabeth and her daughters help her in the business. She creates all these miniature food items like conchas, elotes, into little earrings.”
Almanza says two items with a more modern sensibility have been popular recently. “Our bestsellers are definitely the concha pillows and the millennial loteria, especially right now because people are staying home and holidays are coming.”
The “Mestiza” in the name reflects the owners’ identities as much as it does the items that fill the shelves.
“As Mexican women, we are already of a very mixed ancestry,” Martinez said. “We are Indigenous and we also are European. And so our Mexican culture is a mixture of those things.”
Almanza and Martinez say that they have seen many of their neighbors’ businesses in Pilsen shutter in the last two years, but robust community support helped them weather the pandemic.
“Because of them we were able to pull through the pandemic that we went through, because we were so close to maybe closing down,” said Almanza. “We just feel so blessed that we were able to stay afloat.”
And they say they hope they can keep bringing their cultural remix to Pilsen for many years to come.
“For us it’s so important to incorporate the old and the new. We’re also, as a community, changing, but we don’t want to lose our culture, we don’t want to lose where we came from. So I think it’s important to fuse those things. And I think that’s what Mestiza does,” said Martinez. “We’re just delighted that we can, you know, be here for the community and also do something really fun.”