Manos Unidas Creando Arte. Photo courtesy of Santa Ana Building Healthy Communities.

In Their Own Words: Lessons Learned

Center for Cultural Innovation (CCI) is partnering with Santa Ana Building Healthy Communities (SABHC) to develop and support the small businesses of Santa Ana’s Latino residents and cooperativos. These efforts are meant to generate income, sustain cultural practices, and empower infrastructure for the underserved community of primarily immigrant, low-income Latino residents and business owners.

In our previous post, CCI partner Ana Urzúa Alcaraz closed with a brief update on the five creative businesses currently supported by CIIN funding. With her help, we were able to speak with the founders of two of those groups to hear about the evolution of their work, in their own words.

Manos Unidas Creando Arte (MUCA) is a collective that provides social, cultural, and economic opportunities for its members through the production and sale of crafts made from commonly found recycled materials. MUCA recently won a Santa Ana City Council award for their positive community activity, inspiring vision, and notable success. Founding member Esther Trinidad came to Santa Ana ten years ago from Puebla, Mexico, where she had previously been a dedicated homemaker. We spoke with her about how the CIIN funding has helped her launch and grow the business. (Ana Urzúa Alcaraz provided translation support from Spanish to English.)

CCI: What was your personal inspiration for launching this business?

I wanted to do more than being a homemaker. I was inspired by my three children–I wanted them to see me as a mother but also as a woman doing more things outside the home.

CCI: Could you describe the early days of launching the business?

I began as a volunteer at the local park and community center. We spent a long time advocating for this park to open in our neighborhood, which is very densely populated. As women and family members, we wanted to be involved in figuring out the programming for the space. One of the big interests was for postpartum support and services for women. That’s how our work group first came together.

Our first business idea was to create traditional Mexican clothing but we saw that it created too many expenses and startup costs for the materials. But we remembered a class we already had in arts and crafts, learning how to make things out of newspaper–one of our original business partners took that class and made a small purse out of the newspaper beads. So we thought this wouldn’t cost so much to bring together and this is something we can do together creatively with the women in the community. So we’ve been doing this for over two years now.

CCI: What was the hardest thing about starting your business?

The hardest part is being a little less attached to my family. I still have all of the responsibilities at home that I want to make sure I don’t stop doing. It’s very demanding. We have three kids: a teenager, a preteen, and a little one. The two older ones are at an age where I want to know what they’re doing in their free time! At the same time, I need to keep the little one occupied with things to help her development. And of course I still want to make time to maintain my relationship with my husband–little things like having a coffee together, alone. I want to honor my commitment to my family, and it takes a lot of time. It was hard for all of us. Our group started as thirteen women but now there are three. Some of them just developed other interests, but others needed more time at home or at other jobs, or they needed to make money faster.

CCI: What resources have been the most helpful to you?

Honestly, resources for very basic equipment like tables, chairs, a canopy for the outdoor markets–all the basic materials we use, because we don’t have money from our own pockets so easily. At the beginning we did a group garage sale and each of us contributed to get the first-first funds to get started, but then the majority of the heavier equipment needs were covered by the CIIN funding.

 CCI: What are your greatest needs as a small business operator in the next few years?

Classes or training to improve our product…we would also like to organize our displays differently. Right now everything is laid out flat on a table, but we really want to showcase the artistry behind this. It is an artform, and we’d like to show that, because we think that we can reach wider markets–maybe bigger markets. We’re also learning to use technology and the internet and other electronic supports. We’re curious about things like Etsy, but we don’t want to embark on that until we have the skillset to understand and manage that relationship so that we don’t have to depend on a third party or an intermediary.

CCI: How does your cultural heritage influence the work you do?

My cultural heritage is Mexican and it’s a matter of deep pride for me. We also now sew clothes that are deeply traditional in style and it’s a source of great pride to see women wearing these clothes that we made, especially when we get requests for custom items. Even if I haven’t made something like that before, I will find a way to make it happen. And of course it also helps that I can help them match the clothing with the newspaper bead jewelry!

CCI: Could you tell us about the City Council award and what that meant to you?

It’s important because we want to be able to encourage other women in the community to know that just like us, they have talents and abilities that can be recognized. If MUCA can do it, they can do it too. As women we don’t only have kids, we also have talents.

CCI: What does success look like, for you, long-term?

I would like to see us in a physical store where you could see all of our art showcased, and to see our products all over–in Santa Ana and everywhere else!

We also spoke with Abel Ruiz, the founder of Comunidad en Resistencia para el Empoderamiento Cultural y Ecologico (CRECE OC). This five-member farming collective recently added an additional ¼-acre location, doubling their available space to grow food for their membership. Ruiz has lived in Santa Ana since 1996, when he emigrated from Zacatecas, Mexico, to join his family. Prior to starting CRECE, Ruiz worked for a youth empowerment nonprofit, as a program assistant for the City of Irvine Agricultural Department, as a high school mentor, and as “a taco guy” while he was in school.

CCI: Please share a bit about the philosophy and history of CRECE.

We’re trying to change the food system here in Santa Ana to provide access to fresh food, both by providing additional income, and by providing access to work the land. We have an agreement that anyone who works can take what their family needs. It’s a different way of understanding money.

We have two economic activities. The first is an organic CSA where we sell vegetable boxes for $12, $25, or $35. Everything we grow is organic, so we only use non-GMO seeds, and natural pesticides like neem oil, garlic, chilis, etc. We haven’t done a full market analysis, but we figure it should be cheaper than Mother’s [the local organic natural foods market] but a little more expensive than Northgate [CA chain of Hispanic foods groceries]. We try to strike a balance between the two.

We also use the space to do cultural events and workshops. For a few years now we’ve been growing cempasúchil [Mexican marigold], the Day of the Dead flower, which was inspired by one of our elders. We recently had a lady from Michoacan do a workshop about making their version of  “atole de tamarindo” with ground maize grown in the garden. That was on the Second of October, which is the commemoration date of a painful episode in Mexican history called The Massacre of Tlatelolco. So she presented her workshop on making Michoacan-style atole, and then while we enjoyed the homemade atole, we watched the documentary, “Tlatelolco Nos Olvida” which was edited by Hugo Nava here in Santa Ana.

CCI: What was your personal inspiration for launching this business?

Since I was a kid in Mexico, I had the opportunity and the fortune to work with my grandparents in the field growing the traditional foods like corn, beans, and squash. I also helped my neighbor butcher pigs. So that was my first relationship with food. There wasn’t much appreciation back then for “good food” but after I came back to Santa Ana after college I got involved in a community garden and started reconnecting with growing food, and learning new skills like making compost.

Then, the nonprofit that was in charge of the community garden space was very neglectful, so all of us in the community organized ourselves to hold them accountable. So that launched me into this idea of “organizing in community.” So eventually I got a job doing agricultural, community engagement, and civic participation workshops for youth. That’s how we started organizing these new spaces. It came from a realization about three years ago that it’s important to do work through nonprofits but we should also venture into cooperatives. It was a critical lens for the residents: it’s good to have outside organizers and nonprofits supporting the community, but where is it that we can create our own spaces? So the process was pivotal for us, because we started organizing ourselves to be sustainable without relying on grants all the time.

CCI: What was the hardest thing about starting your business?

Everything is still hard! The first lot was pretty much abandoned, with weeds and deep roots everywhere. So on the one hand we had to develop the cooperative system–the structures, the rules, the agreements–but we also had to develop the physical infrastructure to be able to produce good food. That takes time to build the soil so that it’s productive and not attracting pests.

CCI: What resources have been the most helpful to you?

Ana [Urzúa Alcaraz] has been really helpful in getting technical assistance to the cooperative, like trainings and workshop curriculum and grants. Monetary support always helps, of course, either to buy stuff or to compensate people for the knowledge that they bring to the space. But we’re also a network of cooperatives, so we’re not alone and there are other groups we can share and work with.

In general, I’d say relationships and organization are the most important resource. Santa Ana is one of the hardest places to live, economically. The rent is super high, sometimes people live five or six families together to make ends meet. But where there’s a lot of need, there’s a lot of potential. We have a reputation as being a dangerous place to live, but if you know your neighbors, we’re good with each other. People have more affinity for working together here because alone we wouldn’t be able to survive. That mindset is a tool. We turn that into a plus instead of a negative.

There a lot of people in the community that already have a lot of know-how because they’re migrants from Mexico, and they know how to work the land. Sometimes we get people with academic backgrounds in agriculture who give their ten cents, but mostly it’s our people in the community who understand the process of reconstructing the soil. Every day we’re inspiring ourselves, I guess.

Even the process of getting the land was about relationships. We acquired the first property from a woman who wanted to start a youth intervention gardening program but she didn’t have the expertise to share those skills, so we worked with her to get the contract for the land from her contact, which was a private owner. Of course long-term security is still a concern though–it’s always a risk to put so much time and effort into a space we don’t own ourselves. But our intention is to hurry up and do well so we can purchase our own land as a base to produce food and income, and have a secure place to use all of our knowledge.

CCI: What does success look like, for you, long-term?

Having a sustainable business! We do seek income from grants right now but that’s a means, not the end goal. We were born out of organizing and holding institutions accountable to us, so I hope that one day we can say that we are very well-organized, we have the means to produce income and sustain our families, and we can structure our internal politics on our own terms. We want to work with outside organizations, but I hope that local residents will set the tempo.

So…hopefully in five years we can acquire our own space, so we don’t have to eat our nails every day worrying about whether the land will be there next month…have a structure that we can be well-organized under…have land that is productive and ecologically healthy…practice our culture where everything we cook comes from the land…and be politically strong enough to meet politicians halfway instead of begging for things.

CCI appreciates the opportunity to broadcast the “primary voices” of the Santa Ana community who are working together in ways that culture and community are assets that inspire and sustain.