[From the Greenpoint Gazette]
Emily Cantrell sat behind her Mac laptop as music softly fills Huitzilli, her store. Surrounding her are colorful objects—traditional textiles, panama hats, soaps, silver jewelry and lucha libre masks—that traveled from different regions throughout Mexico to Greenpoint, Brooklyn. Huitzilli (pronounced “weet-zeal-lee”) means "hummingbird" in Nahuatl, a dialect from Central Mexico.
Sitting in the back room while her son, Emilio, painted, Cantrell sipped her coffee as she talked about her Mexican obsession and her foray into the business world, coming from an art background.
Helming from Denver, Colorado, Cantrell spent some time in Germany studying photography before returning home to Denver. Then, she was off to New York to follow her art. Cantrell created a life of her studio world to feed her creative side and the restaurant business to pay the bills. She and a fellow artist, Jesus Pollanco, started a studio-gallery, hosting international contemporary artists.
"We made some really great connections with different artists," she said, "and we were able to get a certain amount of attention to their work through what we did." They also had showings in Colorado, one show in Cuba, and a trade show with artists in France.
It was in New York that brought Cantrell to her husband and to Mexico.
"Well," Cantrell said with a smile, "it's a love story and an immigration story." She met her husband in New York and they went back to Mexico to meet his family. They were married and had problems coming back to the U.S. because of visa problems. After having Emilio, they eventually came back. However, they couldn't let go of Mexico and made a point of regularly going back south.
"[I was] going back there and bringing handcrafts little by little because I thought they were so amazing,” she said. “I sort of started selling out of my suitcase to my friends and had this secret dream that maybe someday I could dedicate myself to it."
In the meantime, Cantrell worked in the restaurant business while working on her art. But she was ready for a change. That's when the idea of opening Huitzilli came up, opening last July.
"One of the things that's really interesting," Cantrell said of running her own business, "is that there's so many different learning curves. In doing a new business, I get to know specific families in Mexico that live in ten different states and work directly with them. It's more than just going to a trade show and buying a whole bunch of stuff from one central location, to going to where they live normally and meeting them and their families and getting to know their problems."
While giving a tour of the store, two men paused at the storefront. Cantrell excused herself and unlocked the door. In Spanish, she asked if they wanted to step inside. After declining and chatting for a little bit, they walked away.
“I've gotten great foot traffic, a really interesting mix of people,” she said, returning to the tour.
“The neighborhood is great, I love the neighborhood, I'm so thrilled I can both live in the neighborhood, have my son in a great school in the neighborhood [P.S. 132], and work in the neighborhood,” Cantrell gushed.
“It begins a lot of conversations when they come into the store and they see something,” Cantrell said, “and they either remember something or it reminds them of something. Even people from other countries, like Latin America, feel very nostalgic for the handcrafts they have in their home country.”
“They're like, 'Oh I know how to make this,' or 'My grandmother used to do that,'” she said.
“We sell a lot of different things kind of evenly,” Cantrell said of sales. Soaps with natural scents, wool, handmade jewelry, and children items are among Huitzilli's popular items.
“The lucha libre stuff, people are crazy about,” she added. “It's been fun seeing what people respond to and how they react to different things.”
Cantrell has a close connection to each and every product in the store. Traveling throughout Mexico, she and her husband seek out unique and intimate products to bring back to the U.S.
"Basically, the business started as a wild goose chase. We've bought some ponchos in Mexico City in Culiacan where they have a really great handcraft market,” Cantrell explained. “I said, 'You know, it seems like it would be really better to go where people make these things. So that started the first wild goose chase: going to some town way off in another state that turned out to be completely not where they made the stuff and that was just the beginning of the story."
"I meet the people where they sell or find out about them through asking 'who makes this?' or 'I've seen these, where are they?' Cantrell said, explaining how she finds her products.
"It was about me trying to find different people, places, on the right day, right time and the right season because a lot of these people, a lot of these crafts, people stopped doing it," Cantrell explained. "A lot of craft traditions are dying out, so there are fewer and fewer people who are doing it. It becomes harder and harder to find people that do it and get them when they actually have stuff, because a lot of times, it's a very small amount and they sell it at a very specific time. It's tricky.”
"Right now, my art is kind of my business at the moment because that's basically all I can handle," Cantrell said of her other passion. "The photography I do is part of the business and I just do stuff that I like. I take a lot of photographs when I'm [in Mexico], unfortunately I never have enough time to edit them or even think about showing them."
"It's kind of cool that through the business, I started approaching photography again from that aspect [of commercial photography] and coming back around to it again," she added.
"I sort of knew the problem of living in Mexico, or living anywhere outside, you know, if you want to call it the third world or whatever, because I've lived there," Cantrell said.
"Being a business person, you have to deal with all of those aspects of their lives too, and the uncertainties and problems they face so that's been one of the bigger challenges."
As for the store, Cantrell said, "Right now I'm really enjoying doing an entrepreneurial project of my own in something that I love.”