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Supporting Mexican Traditions

Gabriel Neely-Streit works with Indigenous artisans in Mexico, bringing their handmade crafts to the U.S.

Colores Mexicanos Hero v2
Gabriel Neely-Streit (left) and fellow co-owners Erika Espinosa (middle) and Leticia Espinosa opened Colores Mexicanos' first retail location, in Chicago’s Riverwalk Community Marketplace, in June.

By Diana Babineau
Fall 2021

Gabriel Neely-Streit ’16 is co-owner of Colores Mexicanos, an importer of handmade art, clothing and accessories from Indigenous communities across Mexico. By working directly with dozens of artisans and artisan cooperatives across 11 Mexican states, Colores Mexicanos aims to help preserve the cultural diversity of Mexico, which is home to more than 60 living Indigenous languages and a wide variety of folk art.

Neely-Streit, a journalism alumnus, developed the idea for the small business while working as a bilingual journalist for Hoy, a Spanish-language paper owned by Tribune Publishing.

“Professor Mei-Ling Hopgood helped me get my first story published at Hoy,” says Neely-Streit. “That first clip turned into a reporting job, working mostly in Chicago’s Mexican American community, under the metro desk editor, Leticia Espinosa. Leti [became a mentor] and a close friend, and now she’s my business partner,” along with Leti’s sister, Erika.

In 2017 Neely-Streit received a Fulbright Fellowship and left Hoy to teach high school English in Mexico City. While there, he traveled to Oaxaca and Chiapas, Mexico, and began reaching out to artisans. “I wanted to know if they enjoyed their crafts or whether they carried on their traditions of woodworking, ceramics and weaving simply because it was the most viable way to support their families,” he says. “And most artisans had the same reply: They loved what they did. Their goal was simply to make a better living at it.”

Minerva Lázaro Hernández embroiders flowers in the Tehuana style traditional to the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, in Oaxaca, Mexico. Tehuana embroidery, which was admired by the artist Frida Kahlo, takes weeks to produce, as every stitch is laid by hand. Lázaro Hernández is one of the dozens of artisans represented by Colores Mexicanos in Chicago.

In 2018 Neely-Streit and the Espinosa sisters founded Colores Mexicanos, which he says provides artisans with living wages, as well as donations and zero-interest micro-loans in times of need. “But we want to do even better than a living wage,” he says. “We are committed to increasing the wages we pay as our business grows, and expanding our charitable giving.”

Neely-Streit says he and his partners “set a few foundational principles” for their approach to fair trade: They only buy directly from artisans — nothing factory-made; they are transparent with artisans about pricing their items in the U.S. and never haggle with them on prices; and they strive to share the stories of their artisans and their cultures.

In addition to their web store, Neely-Streit and fellow co-owners Erika and Leticia Espinosa opened their first retail location, in Chicago’s Riverwalk Community Marketplace, in June.

Diana Babineau is a writer and editor in the Office of Global Marketing and Communications.

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