Businesses preserve Latin American traditions and nurture immigrant dreams
By Yecenia Alfaro
Cowboy boots, sombreros, belts and buckles line the shelves in one Langley Park store. In another nearby, hand-sewn formal dresses, floral bouquets and party favors beckon to families planning quinceañeras, baptisms and other milestone events.
These only-in-Langley-Park specialty stores illustrate, with vibrant colors and designs usually only seen in Mexico and Central America, how immigrant entrepreneurs have kept traditions alive in this Maryland city known for its Latino population. Despite the economic recession, the survival of these shops attest to their significance.
El Alazán Western Wear and Gloria’s Bridal provide more than vaquero wear and fancy gowns. They reflect the culture, traditions and dreams of both their owners and customers.
“Dressing up with boots and sombreros is part of the Hispanic tradition. It stays in your heart and in your mind at a young age,” Nora Reyes Del Portillo, owner of El Alazán Western Wear, said in Spanish. “Langley Park is filled with a lot of Hispanic people and most of them enjoy wearing boots, belts, buckles, sombreros because they were raised wearing this attire.”
El Alazán – which means “the chestnut,” as in a chestnut-colored horse – is hidden in a small corner intersecting New Hampshire Avenue and Holton Lane. The smell of leather, the sounds of music from the Mexican and Central American countryside, the chatter of customers trying on boots defines the environment at El Alazán. People from Mexico, Central America and Latin America are Reyes Del Portillo’s primary customers. With a shop nearly entirely filled with boots, discerning customers of El Alazán feel the material, examine the designs and often even smell the leather, Reyes Del Portillo said.
“The boots we have are made of three types of snakeskin,” Reyes Del Portillo said, “including water snake, python and cobra.” All her boots are brought from parts of El Paso, Texas and Guanajuato, México.
Nearby Gloria’s Bridal is another Langley Park business store where Latinos and African immigrants purchase dresses and items for special occasions.
“The people from other cultures are great people whom I love to help,” Gloria Calderon, owner of Gloria’s Bridal, said in Spanish. “They are educated, patient and professional – and not to mention elegant.”
Born and raised in in El Salvador, Calderon had a dream of becoming a designer when she was a child. Her dream began in 2000 when she opened her own bridal boutique. In 2008 she became a designer.
The vaqueros and their boots
At El Alazán, Reyes Del Portillo sees mostly Latino clientele, but does sell boots to African immigrants, whom she says prefer ostrich boots, and non-Latinos from the United States, who favor the narrow cobra boots.
The store’s shelves are filled with colorful and creative boot designs, in shades of red, pink, white, gray, orange and more. The boots range from $40 at the lowest up to $2,000, Reyes Del Portillo said. She’s seen a major decline in business due to the recession. Reyes Del Portillo said she used to sell $500 boots on a regular basis, but now she rarely sells ones more than $40 and her customers mainly come on weekends. During the week, she only sees one or two customers, she said.
Much as Gloria Calderon does, Reyes Del Portillo sells boots to people who wear them for special family events such as quinceañeras, baptisms and first communions. However, some of her customers wish the boots were more acceptable everyday wear in the streets of Langley Park, as they would be in Latin America.
“I do not wear my cowboy boots on a regular day,” customer Henry Ruiz said, “because one time I went to the grocery store and the American people were looking at me different, like they’ve never seen someone wear boots.”
“Being stared at makes you think twice of what you wear,” the Langley Park resident added, laughing.
Ruiz, who is from El Progreso, Guatemala, bought a pair of boots from El Alazán Western Wear and he enjoys wearing them to family events. He notes that Guatemalans have a different preference in boots than Mexicans.
“People in Guatemala wear boots that are more Americanized, meaning less narrow and more round,” Ruiz said. “The Mexican people I go out with wear the colorful, narrower with designs.”
Reyes Del Portillo said many of her boots are also worn in Manassas, Va., another hub of Latino-immigrant population. In Manassas, the community holds dances and parties on weekends and more Latinos are seen wearing boots than in Langley Park or other communities in Maryland.
Ruiz said that sometimes he holds back on his traditions because he wants to avoid feeling isolated from the public. But inside his heart he will always be a cowboy from Guatemala, he said.
Reyes Del Portillo said she always wants to maintain her traditions, serve her community and make them happy.
“My customers leave the store happy because I treat them as my family. Their race doesn’t matter. We are all equal,” Reyes Del Portillo said.
Designing with creativity
While Reyes Del Portillo maintains her traditions, Calderon uses Latin American traditions as a springboard to exercise her own creativity as a designer and to pursue a dream.
“In my mind, I always want to create something beautiful,” Calderon said.
Her small boutique on University Boulevard is hard to miss. So is her passion for designing when she speaks of her business.
“I love to work with dresses. I love to feel the material. I love to envision myself creating dresses for beautiful people and I love the color, which inspires me to create more and more,” Calderon said.
Calderon spends days, hours and months designing and making dresses. Everything inside her store is made by hand, such as decorative champagne glasses, floral bouquets and dresses. Calderon uses bright colors to design because she said the color creates a vibrant and sparkling look.
She prepares by attending fashion shows in Las Vegas and in New York to get ideas. When Calderon receives an order, she does everything by hand.
Vickie Martinez, a resident of Langley Park, had her wedding dress made by Calderon.
“When I looked at my dress and saw all the diamonds, the art and the train I was impressed,” Martinez said. “I told her how I wanted my dress and it was perfectly made the way I wanted.”
Like El Alazán, Gloria’s Bridal has also been affected by the economic crisis. Calderon used to travel internationally to host fashion shows. She said that people use to call her more often to design, but business has died down.
“I use to get about 50 orders a month and now I only get about 10 a month,” Calderon said. She also had to cut back on her employees. Calderon started with eight people and now she only has two. Her business went down 60 percent and people are cancelling or postponing events, which affects the business, she said.
Yet Calderon continues dreaming and says nothing will stop her creative aspirations. She hopes to extend her business to other states once the economic situation gets better, she said. She believes in her work.
“I’ve came this far to be a designer, Calderon said. “I will continue to grow because I believe in creation.”