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For Lucy Angel Camarena, Cultural Heritage Is The Foundation For A Better Chicago

Written by on April 13, 2023

Entrepreneur and Little Village native Lucy Angel Camarena is passionate about building a better Chicago. Through her organizations Flores Campo Santo and Grocery Run Club, and her work supporting Latino-founded home goods store Comercio Popular, she creates sanctuaries for Mexican art, culture and history around the city.

Proud Chicagoan and first-generation Mexican American Lucy Angel Camarena is determined to use her heritage as a foundation to enrich Chicago’s Latinx communities. Her strong connection to her Mexican heritage has inspired the creation of several businesses and also motivates her to spotlight the Little Village neighborhood, where she was born and raised. 

The granddaughter of two farmers, Camarena understands the importance of human connection to the land. During the pandemic, she found inspiration in watching plants grow, which led her to open Flores Campo Santo, a flower shop blending traditional and modern Mexican culture through floral arrangements. Using both Chicago-grown florals and flowers native to Mexico, the store operates as a way for Camarena to share her Hispanic heritage and stay connected to her family’s long history of cultivating the land. 

“I’ve always played with flowers. My mom is a big gardener, and she’s always had flowers in our backyard,” explained Camarena. “All of us have a very specific relationship to the land. I’m playing with something daily that is coming from the ground, that was tended to by people.”

Camarena’s flower shop collaborates and shares space with Comercio Popular, a store specializing in hand-crafted home goods sourced from Mexico. The store was co-founded by Camarena and her two close friends Miguel Cervantes and Dom Cordilla as a pop-up shop in 2018 and later evolved into a full-blown storefront. 

Lucy Angel Camarena inside the warm atmosphere of Comercio Popular in Little Village. Ari Mejia/Vocalo Radio

After Cervantes’ passing this January, Camarena, along with other close friends, has been working to keep his legacy alive by running the store. Through their travels to Mexico sourcing vases, cups, planters, art and more, the team finds ways to bring the stories from the vibrant cities and markets to the atmosphere of the store. Camarena prides herself in knowing every time someone purchases something they are not just taking home an object, but a part of someone’s story.

“The goal of this space is to showcase what it means to be Mexican, in all of the ways that we are Mexican, because there’s no one way and there’s no right or wrong way,” Camarena said.

Camarena’s pride in her heritage and city is the root of everything she stands for as an entrepreneur, whether at Campo Santo or her food security nonprofit, Grocery Run Club. In this segment of “This Is What Chicago Sounds Like,” Lucy Angel Camarena discusses what inspired her entrepreneurial endeavors, the creation of Grocery Run Club and how she was influenced by her family lineage to create Flores Campo Santo. 

Lucy Angel Camarena inside Comercio Popular, which she co-founded with her best friends Miguel Cervantes and Dom Cordilla. She continues to run the business as well as her flower shop Flores Campo Santo. Ari Mejia/Vocalo Radio

Where are you from? ¿De donde eres?

I am born and raised in Chicago, I grew up in Little Village on the West Side of the city. Obviously, it’s very special to me as the neighborhood that raised me. My parents moved here from Mexico in the ’70s, and have called Little Village home since then. And so it just feels really special to kind of be first-generation, in that respect. But almost second-generation, they’ve lived here longer than they ever lived in Mexico. Es muy especial estar aquí en La Villita, obvio La Villita es una vecina muy importante para la comunidad Mexicana. For me, especially, being in the space right now, it’s just super important for me to take up space in the neighborhood that raised me. Y tener una tienda en la vecina que me creció. The store that we’re in is called Comercio Popular. And it is also a shared space with Flores Campo Santo, which is my flower shop. The flower shop is owned by me, but the space itself is a project that was co-founded by myself, my best friend Miguel Cervantes and my other best friend Dom Cordilla. Miguel passed away in January, this project is now being taken over by a couple of us. But it’s just such a reward to be here, and to carry out a project that is so deeply rooted for both of us. 

What kind of things do you have in the shop?

So we have a lot of home goods, we have a lot of jewelry, we have a lot of clothing. But I would say our home goods is probably what sticks out the most. And home goods, for us, is such a wide range, whether they’re vases, cups, planters, ceramic pieces that can stand alone as art. And then a lot of tapestries and textiles, as well.

The goal of this space is to showcase what it means to be Mexican, in all of the ways that we are Mexican, because there’s no one way and there’s no right or wrong way. But we always felt that the Mexico that we saw was a very contemporary one. Sometimes, what we see here in the States, especially in a community like Little Village, is just the very traditional. And there’s nothing wrong with that, but we wanted to just bring this other viewpoint to the space. We traveled to Mexico four to five times a year to source, and so there’s little snippets from everywhere, but we wanted it to be very natural, very airy, bright. We want you to kind of explore every corner and find something new. Every single thing in this store has a story. And every single thing that is in here, we know who made it and where they made it. There’s very few things here that we have that are machine-manufactured, but the rest are all handmade. 

For us, it’s very special to be able to kind of share them and then see them go off into their new homes and know that people have little pieces of Mexico with them. I’ve always played with flowers. My mom is a big gardener, and she’s always had flowers in our backyard. During the pandemic, it was such a therapeutic release for me, to be able to see something grow. I have a really great friend, Lucia, who was growing flowers at the time. To literally be able to go to her farm and cut something so fresh that grew in our city — by a Chicago girl, also — and be able to arrange it. And so much of what I do is very logistical, while, to that point … it just felt like such a creative outlet, to be able to arrange something like that.

Mis dos abuelos eran parte del programa de Los Braceros entonces siempre pienso ellos crecían fresas imparticular en California entonces cuando pienso yo trabajando con algo que vino de alguien que estan crecen algo o en Holanda o México, o en Colombia, y hay poder trabajar con esto en Chicago estoy muy feliz. Both of my grandfathers were farmers, the reason that my parents were able to come to the U.S. is because my grandpa, both of my grandfathers were part of the Bracero Program. I think about them so much when I think about flowers, because I think of the land and our relationship to the land. All of us have a very specific relationship to the land. I’m playing with something daily that is coming from the ground, that was tended to by people.

And so, for me, especially on our trips, you know, coming, these businesses, together, going to Mexico and going through the flower markets and seeing what’s available there and bringing that back, and that informs so much of my flower selection here. Whether that’s color palettes that inform me or specific flowers that go into my designs, is informed by those trips, as well. 

Inside the brick-and-mortar location of Comercio Popular in the Little Village neighborhood. Ari/Vocalo Radio

What are the other businesses you’ve started?

I’ve had my event production company since 2018. Predominantly work in event production and cultural programming, so whether that’s something as big as Pitchfork or something more on the programmatic end, I helped open the Hoxton Hotel and I have a couple of partners here that I do monthly programming for. I was going into my first year, completing my first year, I was booked through 2020 and was like, “Wow, I’ve made the right decision, of kind of going into entrepreneurship,” and then the pandemic hit. And so my life kind of twist-turned upside down. 

During that time, I started a nonprofit called Grocery Run Club. We focus on providing food security to the South and West Sides of the city. We still have that project going today, it’s about to turn three. And then that project spawned a physical Run Club, so we have a health and wellness component to our nonprofit called GRC Run Club, where we meet two times a month and run throughout the city. It was sponsored by Lululemon almost right off the bat, and so we’re the first Latino run club in the United States that’s sponsored by them, and we were the first sign in Illinois. So, really exciting things happened during that time.Corremos dos veces por todo la ciudad. Corremos tres millas, y de verdad es un momento para nosotros como latinos, como personas de color para enfocarnos en nuestro bien estar. 

Lucy is also the co-founder of Grocery Run Club, a nonprofit combating food insecurity on the city’s South and West Sides. The GRC grew to form an actual running club, which is the first Latino-led run club in the U.S. sponsored by Lululemon. Ari Mejia/Vocalo Radio

I have some really great people around me that help support the things that I do. I obviously have a couple of businesses that are just me solo — but Dom, one of my best friends who helps to build things to ideate things, Jorge, who is my co-founder in Grocery Run Club and the Run Club. I think in a day to day I’m able to kind of go through all of the projects, because, even though they have their own mission, and they are very unique in their own ways, to me, they kind of all help create a better Chicago, in my world. 

What has kept you in Chicago doing this work?

For me, as a Chicagoan, as someone who’s lived here my entire life, who plans on living here my entire life, my biggest thing is creating more opportunities to put us on the map and to remind people that Chicago is a very special city. It’s a very hardworking city. We’re doers, and we’re passionate about what we do. I am not who I am without Chicago. I just feel like our possibilities are endless. And I do feel that, because we’re such a united community, that you can make anything happen, and nothing feels out of reach in Chicago. I’ve been able to witness people do insanely incredible things, with sometimes little resources and just with a lot of want and passion, and I think there’s something in our weird water about that. 

Since 2016, we have been profiling people who give their all to Chicago and enrich us socially and culturally by virtue of their artistry, social justice work and community-building. Take a listen. Read their words. Become inspired.

Interview and audio production by Ari Mejia

Introduction written by Joshua X. Miller

Photography by Ari Mejia, edited by Morgan Ciocca

Transcription and editing for length and clarity by Morgan Ciocca

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