Inside Track: Mall owner strikes a balance

Nancy Quero Ramirez’s store, Guelaguetza Designs, is a hub of cultural activity.
Being part of an entrepreneurial family convinced Nancy Quero Ramirez to eventually start her own business. Courtesy Nancy Quero Ramirez

Baked into Nancy Quero Ramirez’s retail store and online business is the hope that fostering an appreciation and understanding of Mexican culture will arise.

Guelaguetza Designs, 2727 DeHoop Ave. SW in Wyoming, sells handmade, fair-trade merchandise made in Mexico, which includes craft products such as textiles, avant-garde footwear and looms made by more than 30 artisans.

But, as Quero is proud to point out, “Guelaguetza” comes from the Zapotec language that’s typically interpreted as the reciprocal exchange of gifts and services, or to help each other. The Guelaguetza also is an annual indigenous cultural event in Mexico that takes place in the city of Oaxaca, Quero’s hometown.

It’s a celebration that features parades of indigenous walking bands, native food and statewide artisanal crafts, such as pre-Hispanic-style textiles. Each costume, or traje, and dance usually has a local indigenous historical and cultural meaning. While the celebration has attracted an increasing number of tourists, it is primarily one of deep cultural importance for the indigenous peoples of the state and is important for the survival of these cultures, according to Wikipedia.

That is Quero’s heartbeat.

I like the meaning,” said Quero. “That’s what we’re trying to do: building bridges with other people so we can understand each other. We want to make sure people who don’t have any Mexican heritage appreciate that, understand the culture. What is the meaning of the colors? What is the meaning of the designs? That way we can understand the meaning of culture when you understand your neighbor and the meaning of culture.”

Quero’s customers are a blend of those of Mexican decent and those who are not but have an appreciation for the colors, fabrics, textures and Mexican milieu inherent in the products Guelaguetza Designs sells. But that’s not enough for Quero.

Guelaguetza Designs and 10-unit plaza
Position: CEO/owner
Age: 38
Birthplace: Oaxaza, Mexico
Residence: Grand Rapids
Family: Husband Gerardo, sons Damien, Ethan and Caleb
Business/Community Involvement: Wyoming Community Enrichment Commission, Mexican Heritage Association and Lanzita Community Center, and former board member of Holy Name of Jesus Parish.
Biggest Career Break: Purchasing a 10-store plaza, which includes my very first brick-and-mortar store. I am very happy with that because now I can have this goal where people can come and build this connection with Mexico and not only with the Latina community but build those cultural bridges.

She also hosts workshops, put on hold because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Most of them are artistic in nature that offer the potential to expand one’s understanding of the world, including a Dia de Muertos (Day of the Dead) altar exhibition, sugar skull painting and ornament painting. 

“The intent is to bring people together to learn about Mexican cultures to the different communities,” said Quero. “We had people from different backgrounds and cultures who were interested in learning about Mexican cultures and we got to meet and learn a little bit about them through the workshops, which is open to conversation for the people who attend them. People love it. We hope we can get back to those workshops again.”

Quero said she hopes to resume hosting the workshops next year that would have people painting Mayan and Aztec calendars made by an artist from Yucatan.

Quero emigrated from Mexico to the United States 19 years ago with her mother, two sisters and a brother. She didn’t speak English, which was initially a drawback in acclimating herself to her new homeland.

“I felt not belonging, and I wanted to go back,” recalled Quero. “I started meeting amazing people and, little by little, I started feeling that I started belonging to this community, especially hearing people speaking Spanish in stores. That’s one of the reasons I started getting involved in different organizations because my community needed that. We need to belong to it and the way to do that is having events and making sure people understand what’s going on. That’s part of why I started to join (community organizations) because I wanted people to know that there is help, there are many things to make them feel part of this community.”

I came basically without anything, just the clothes I had on, no luggage,” said Quero.

She pauses to collect her emotions.

“It’s a little hard to think about that,” continued Quero. “It was a great journey of growing as a person, as a professional. I’m proud to help my community, in working hard for everything that I have.”

Working hard is a mantra that runs through Quero’s life.

She worked for 15 years for electronics services manufacturer Firstronic, first as an assembler and then — putting to good use the accounting acumen she learned through her associate degree from Grand Rapids Community College — went to work as a buyer in its purchasing department.

“I have these natural skills of business is in my blood,” said Quero. “My father was a businessperson and my whole family is in some kind of business, my grandpa or my uncle, so that is really in my blood. I started working in accounts payable in the company and doing purchasing at the same time. Working in purchasing comes very natural to me and I decided to keep on purchasing 100%. It was tough sometimes working in that field. We had a lot of shortages. I quit before the pandemic but before that we had a lot of shortages, but it was a challenge every day and I did enjoy it.”

In the end, it wasn’t enough.

It was a paycheck, but it’s not the same because it’s not doing what I love the most,” said Quero. “Every immigrant is looking for a better life. I overcame the language barrier by educating myself and growing within the company, from the production floor to front office work. I helped to change the perception of my team members about Latino employees through my hard work and dedication to the company. This grew into an environment where they accepted my language, my culture and myself as a valued employee. As immigrants, we live every day trying to fit into this new American culture.”

The draw to be an entrepreneur herself proved too irresistible. She credits family members for paving the way.

“Multiple members of my family in Mexico have built small businesses from the ground up with very little money and lots of hard work,” she said. “They inspired me to one day be an entrepreneur and make a difference in my community.”

Quero took the plunge two years ago to open a brick-and-mortar store thanks to a friend who connected her to SpringGR, a 12-week training program that helps people develop their business plans.

Then she bought a 10-unit strip mall for $320,000 (asking price was $345,000) where Guelaguetza Designs is housed as well as her other tenants. She intends for her store to soon occupy a second one of those storefronts.

We are expanding because we just keep growing,” said Quero. “We were just running out of space, so we just decided to expand into the next unit, but we’ll be in the same building, which has windows because right now, we’re like hidden. We’re excited for the growth. We’ll have more room to sell more items. Sometimes people will come in for items that we don’t have so we are going to bring new items that people have been looking for.

“The other units are occupied, which is a huge help financially,” added Quero. “I’m not so much worried as I would be if I was by myself trying to cover all my expenses at the end of the month.”

Quero said she has ingratiated herself into the American way of life, yet she remains true to herself.

I know my accent would never go away,” she said. “I’m just proud of my accent. I’m proud to be a bilingual person. I had to go to classes for many years.”

For Quero, “to thy own self be true” is not a banal phrase.

“To do what you love the most because when you’re doing something that you love, you feel happy,” she said. “Do what you love the most because for me what I’m doing, when I come to my shop happy every day ready for what’s coming, I love it. I used to work in the factory and that’s OK, it was a paycheck. But it’s not the same because it’s not doing what I love the most. In my business I’m helping people through my business. That fulfills me, and I think that’s very important.”

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