What to Know
- La Sirena Mexican Folk Art has been bringing Mexican culture to Manhattan residents for over 20 years.
- The store closed in March 2020 and has experienced a series of financial burdens as a result of the pandemic.
- Dina Leor, the founder of La Sirena Mexican Folk Art, wishes that the government provided more assistance to small businesses like hers.
Among the lively streets in the East Village lies La Sirena Mexican Folk Art, a small business offering Manhattan residents a piece of Mexican culture, one artwork at a time.
While the store’s exterior appears simple yet the inside presents a vibrant and colorful atmosphere where paintings of Frida Kahlo decorate the walls and colorful dolls hang from the ceiling.
La Sirena Mexican Folk Art, also referred to as La Sirena, has been supplying Manhattan residents with an abundance of folk art crafted by Mexican artisans for over 20 years. Dina Leor founded the store in 1999 to share her passion for art and Mexican culture with others.
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Leor's passion for Mexican culture began when she visited Mexico as a child where she instantly fell in love with the country. While Leor herself is not of Mexican descent, she shares a deep appreciation for the country’s people, food, and art.
"I just feel like I'm at home when I go there," said Leor who describes herself as an "Argentine-American with a Mexican Art."
Throughout the years, Leor would continue to travel to various regions in Mexico, collecting different pieces of art with each trip. After a few trips, Leor’s collection had grown extensively, so she decided to open La Sirena.
"When I travel to Mexico I always buy too much, so when the store happened it was already a part of my life," said Leor. "I never decided to have a store, it was shown to me.”
Leor sources many of her pieces from families in various regions in Mexico who have been creating folk art, a type of art that reflects cultural identity rather than individual identity and is passed down from generation to generation.
"These are people who are in the patios of their home creating folk art," said Leor. "You come home from school and your parents are doing it so you hang out with them and learn how to do it."
The store sells a variety of hand-woven blankets, painted animals, and masks created by local artisans and their families in Mexico who receive a portion of the sales from La Sirena.
But like many small businesses, the onset of the pandemic brought a series of challenges for Leor and her store.
“Small businesses in New York, we were all impacted by having to be shut down,” said Leor. “There’s no tourism, people for a long time, still, are scared to come out.”
Leor closed La Sirena for a few months in March 2020. She set her sights on crowdfunding with an initial goal of raising $14,000 to pay for her rent, utilities, and to support the families in Mexico who produce art for the store. Leor also applied for government assistance using the Paycheck Protection Program but said: “I wish stores could count on the government more for help.”
Like Leor, many small business owners experienced a series of setbacks as a result of the pandemic. A study conducted in June 2020 found that nearly 43% of small businesses temporarily closed due to COVID-19. The Mid-Atlantic region, which includes New York, witnessed the sharpest decrease in employment and increase in temporary closures.
Recent data also identifies that Latin-owned businesses, like La Sirena, were disproportionately affected. In May 2020, the Stanford Latino Entrepreneurship Initiative found that 86% of Latin-X business owners experienced immediate negative impacts from COVID-19. They also reported that Latin-X owners were less likely to receive PPP funding compared to white-owned businesses.
Leor reopened her store in July but closed again for three weeks in February 2021 when she became infected with the virus.
In need of additional support, Leor decided to reach out to New York Nico, a video creator who had featured La Sirena on his Instagram. Shortly after, Leor received a call from a woman who offered her a temporary location at the Chelsea Market.
“There are silver linings that come out of the pandemic,” said Leor.
The pop-up at the Chelsea Market brought an increase in business for the store at first, but Leor says that business at the second location declined.
“It was so great in the beginning I thought, 'oh this is my savior,' but now it’s gone down, too,” Leor said. “But it is helping kind of save the business.”
While the pop-up closed in September, Leor is continuing to spread her love for Mexican culture by hosting book signings and other cultural events that showcase Mexican food and music. Despite the challenges she’s encountered, Leor stated that she’s grateful to have her health and a support network with other small business owners.
“Even during COVID-19, wonderful things happened,” said Leor. “People came together, there was a lot of love and support within the community.”