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Trust Your Hustle: Cha Cha Economy and Alternative, Latina Business Models

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This story is part of KCET Departures' series of articles and essays on the Informal Economies of L.A. and how local entrepreneurs create new opportunities outside of formal economic establishments.

"Don't wait for everything to be perfectly aligned. I had to earn money and invest in my packaging. Earn more money and grow my inventory. If you wait for all the stars to align it never happens." --Ana Guajardo, Cha Cha Covers CEO

Cha Cha Covers has 18,300 thousand followers (and growing) on Instagram. The photos feature glossy long nails encrusted with tiny jewels and images of the Virgen de Guadalupe--glamour and faith together at last. Her Etsy shop has over 2500 reviews and gets you one step closer to owning a set of papel picado nail decals. People can't get enough of the playful and pop culture nail covers. Business is booming online and in person for Ana Guajardo and dozens of other local Latina and POC vendors.

At the Artistas y Empresarios Art Sale (AyE Sale) in Boyle Heights, Ana and her daughter, sold everything from nail decals to newer merchandise, like pencils embossed with the lyrics, "Bidi bidi bom bom" and "Some Girls Are Bigger than Others."

"I serve a very niche audience," said Ana about her craft. However, her products also attract a wide spectrum of shoppers, as was the case at the Artistas y Empresarios Art Sale on the Friday following Thanksgiving. Shoppers at the event avoided dangerously crowded malls and so-called Black Friday Sales, instead joining smaller, handmade mercados like the one in the City Labs parking lot.

It was a tianguis straight out of Coyoacan, only this mercado was in Boyle Heights directly across from the Pico Aliso Housing complex, buzzing with house music and the scent of freshly-made tacos from #LAStreetVendors. It was the completely successful launch of the Artistas y Empresarios Boyle Heights initiative. According to their website, "¡Artistas y Empresarios! [...] is a new creative micro-enterprise, benefiting both street vendors and local artist entrepreneurs." They support two Artists-in-Residence who work on site in City Labs, and will host pop-up events with local artists and street vendors. It's an economic development and arts initiative designed by folks from the neighborhood in partnership with other entrepreneurs, artists and vendors--by and for the local community.

Ana's Cha Cha merchandise was fanned out on a table: Tupac and Biggie had their own nail decal sets, and so did cartoon characters such as JEM and the Peanuts gang. Of course, the ubiquitous Morrissey also rolled his eyes from a pack of nail decals. Although the merchandise is targeted to Latinas and Latinos in their 20s to 40s, Ana's business strategies are rooted in a long tradition of entrepreneurship, like so many vendors of color in this country.

"My grandmother used to sell burritos outside of a factory in El Paso [in the 50's]. It's a long tradition with the women from my family," said Ana Guajardo. Eventually, her grandmother opened a Mexican restaurant that was in business for 27 years. Indeed, women have been finding ways to supplement their family income in whatever ways are possible, in addition to what's available in mainstream job markets, selling anything from Mary Kay to Shaklee vitamins to Avon or Tupperware. As a result, from a young age, Ana also found ways to get her business hustle on.

"I was eight years old and I'd go door to door and rake leaves, bathe people's dogs, started a newsletter, anything," to make money. "I related to my grandmother the most for hustle." We all know that one kid who used to resell swap meet or dime store candy at school: tamarindo roll-ups, Cheetohs from the Costco, all for the convenience of other kids whose schools still don't carry specialty items like Mexican candy (probably for the better). Ana was that kid.

Even in college, when many people have multiple jobs just to pay for books and tuition, Ana was creative about her income streams. She became known as La Switchera, for her prior light switch cover venture. "I was working at coffee places and not making any money. Then the light switches became my main thing." She was an undergraduate at the University of New Mexico, studying American Studies and Art History, specializing in Chicano Art and museum curation. Her light switch covers gained her wholesale accounts as Latino decorative chic became en vogue in the early 2000s, reaching museums across the country through her network of arts institutions and education. Without taking business classes or any formal business training, Ana simply guided herself along. "I just learned as I went," she added.

"Pretty soon, I was able to quit those [side] jobs, focus on the switches. My major was in art history in grad school, and by the time I got out of school, the arts job market was so different. I make a better living for myself than working for other people." Nonetheless, Ana still freelances in the art world and is curating an Yreina Cervantes show at the Vincent Price Art Museum next year.

Entrepreneurship has an innate flexible schedule that Ana and many artisans need and appreciate. Women and folks with children, especially. Art and family demand much of the same creative energy from parents with small businesses, single parents, especially. When day care is too expensive, parents turn to their community for help with raising and caring for a child. When Ana became a parent, she was forced to use her creative energy to generate a new kind of job that would allow her to work from home. She was aided by her community when they came out in droves and bought her goods. She still struggles to balance work and parenting duties, but the demand for her crafts is at an all-time high, indicating that for the hustlers, being your own boss has its significant perks, like being able to pick her daughter up from school and tending to other basic needs (like those dishes that don't wash themselves).

"How else could I take care of her? With and eight to five job, plus a commute, when would I see my daughter?" She leaned into her daughter who was at her side as we talked, folding a dollar bill into a complicated origami. In recent reports on the costs of day care, most studies find that families and single parents barely break even, between salaries and high cost of outside care, making the incentive of leaving a child in day care disappear. According to the Economic Policy Institute report released this year, families in the Los Angeles/Long Beach metropolitan area have to earn at least $6,157 a month or $73,887 a year, for a solid standard of living. However, child care costs exceed the cost of rent in 500 out of 618 family budgets. It takes great creativity to survive such high costs.

"So many of us [artisans] are wearing a lot of different hats, and we're holding down a job and doing our business, a lot of juggling to make ends meet," she added. But her business has shot up so quickly and that's not what everyone experiences. She attributes this success to her good ideas and strong instincts. "When I started this business I was in grad school, really, really struggling financially, and a single mom, but I felt strongly about the idea and sure enough, it changed my life." Now she teaches classes on Instagram on how to use social media to attract and retain customers. By instinct, she's made her way from hustler to expert business owner.

She's also found support in the Leadership for Urban Renewal Network, known as LURN. It is part of City Labs as well as the new LGBT Center and the studio for various other vendors and business owners that lease studio space. "Working with the Leadership for Urban Renewal Network, I'm able to bring in lots of new people because I've been vending in this community for 12 years. It's a great exchange of resources."
Ana introduced me to the building's owners, Alfred Fraijo, Jr. and his partner Arturo Becerra, who is an operations specialist. Both are also parents to a young child, a toddler with ringlets who needed a snack when we met. Fraijo, a lawyer, Boyle Heights native, and Harvard grad, spoke with me about why he and his partner purchased the converted warehouse and adjoining buildings.

"Change in the neighborhood, will happen and should happen. [...]The question is who will the change benefit? LURN is doing its part to tap into the creative potential of our residents by matching capital with great business ideas to anchor businesses and steady the evolution of our neighborhood," says Fraijo.

He continues: "I see how folks are coming to Boyle Heights who just...erase us and our contributions, in art and business. We're here to claim a stake in our community through this building, by those of us who see its beauty." He said he was interested in creating partnerships with mutually beneficial outcomes like opportunities for small businesses and opening up healthy food and job possibilities for his neighbors. From the looks of the turnout at the AyE Sale, City Labs and its partner organizations are doing just that.

At the end of the day, it sounded like many of the vendors had a solid bit of sales: Reina Prado's delicious Good Mexican Girl cookies ran out. Greetings cards that read, "Con mi burrito sabanero" for the holidays ran thin at poet Citlahuic Guehosah's linocut greeting cards table. Ana had a great day, too.

"I have always been interested in theorizing the vendor/artists life, the marketplace," she said as we ended our talk. She'd completed an exhibit at a residency at 18th Street Arts Center in Santa Monica, (an established artist residency program since 1988) on creative economies, specifically on what mercados represent in her community. She left me with this. "The tianguis [has a significant] importance in our community life. We're not just people who are selling stuff, we're creating a whole vibe, and an alternative to certain kinds of consumption. I'm always reflecting on [this work] and what it means in the arts and in our neighborhoods." The feel of the AyE Sale was celebratory and charged with possibility for the kinds of ways we can make a living by buying hand-crafted goods made by our neighbors and friends. Mercados both fill the needs for certain goods and make a space for sociality, for fun, for business knowledge and good news to spread. That's a vibe worth investing in.

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