By Laura Rossi and Chanelle Perrin
“I feel like La Sirena is here to stay, its not time for us to die, “ Dina Leor said when asked about the fate of her Mexican folk art store, “its time for us to grow.”
La Sirena, located in the heart of the East Village on Third Street, is an ancient Mexican folk art store that Leor started by her yearly trips to Mexico “I have been going to Mexico since I was a little girl and it was the only thing that would recoup me. I would bring stuff back and people would stop me on the street and ask ‘oh where did you get that?’” Leor would take down their numbers and began bringing items back and selling them to those who requested it, “I actually never decided to have a store…this woman had a space and a light bulb went off and I had always dreamed of having a store but I had never thought about it until then.”
Leor was born and raised in Manhattan, her mother was Argentinean and her father was from America, but she says she was born with a “Mexican heart,” and that she loves Mexican folk art, the richness in it’s culture and she loves sharing it in New York City, the mecca of diversity. She also says she loves to support the artists back in Mexico and provide them with the financial stability to continue on, “I just love the richness of Latino culture, especially Mexican culture, that’s just my heart.”
La Sirena, which means the mermaid, opened to the public in 1999 and after several trips to Mexico, Leor had a large, intricate collection of handcrafted pieces she purchased from artisans she had built relationships with over the years. Although making a business out of her beloved pastime was not expected, it served a bigger purpose, “A lot of the delivery guys that come around here are Latino immigrants, I had one guy come in and get very emotional. I know it can be hard for some of them that may be illegal and can’t go back home, so for him, my store gave him a little piece of home,” she said.
La Sirena showcases art from several regions of Mexico; there are El Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) paper mache pieces, religious artifacts that glorify a multitude of different saints, multicolored landscape paintings, wool-woven baja hoodies and blankets, amongst hundreds of other hand-crafted pieces.
As the store began to solidify its eclectic inventory, Leor faced some inevitable hardships of being a small business owner. The landlord began to find new ways to raise the rent and Leor realized that the overhead expenses would soon affect her business.
One way she decided to generate support for her business Dina Leor started an Indiegogo; an online fundraiser site that she says would bring awareness to Mexican folk art, and what it does for the Latino culture in New York City, “I want to raise consciousness for Mexican folk art and the Indiegogo will help to get the word out,” she said.
Although the rent hikes threaten Leor’s motives for expansion, she says she dreams of opening a cultural space that is “six times the size of La Sirena”. The cultural space would be an open space where Latino artists can showcase their art, their methods of creation all the while showing support for their homeland. “I would love to have abuelitas come in and prepare some little snacks, not like a whole restaurant or anything, but just a little something” she added with laughter. The cultural space would be open to everyone, she added, and she feels would inevitably build a closer community. “I feel it should be for everyone in the community, and to me, community is any human being who wants to be involved,” she said.
Leor’s words are a testament to her life’s work, she has spent the greater portion of her life purchasing pieces of art to keep the culture alive. “One of my most moving experiences was on a trip to Mexico. A female artist was working on a clay piece in her hands while breast-feeding her child, and that’s when I knew this was it. Tradition. This is how you keep it alive.”