By James Maher
Name: Dina Leor
Occupation: Owner, La Sirena Mexican Folk Art
Location: East 3rd Street, Between 2nd Avenue and the Bowery
Time: 12:30 pm on Wednesday, Feb. 12.
I’m from the island of Manhattan — born, raised and still living here. I grew up on the Upper West Side, on 89th and West End but I’ve been down here 30 years. I live on 10th and C.
I’m Argentine American with a Mexican heart. My mom is Argentine and I was born here but my mom didn’t speak English then, so I learned Spanish first. I remember she used to watch telenovelas, soap operas, because she couldn’t go to school since she was a stay at home mom. She would watch soap operas because it felt like real life.
We traveled a lot when I was young. I went to Mexico with my mom and my brother when I was a teenager. When I went I wanted to run away from home. I met a friend and my mom said I was going to stay with them for a month. I was planning to run away and stay, but I was a teenager with braces, and the family was seven people living in a one-room house. I realized they were not going to be able to take me to the orthodontist. I was worried about my teeth rotting. It was a teenage worry. Then I thought my mom might die if I ran away, so I didn’t. After that, though, I always felt this deep connection to Mexico. It felt like my home.
I’ve had many lifetimes in this life. I did many things. I went to college, I was a waitress, a babysitter. I worked as a receptionist at Maimonides Medical Center. I used to be a Union carpenter for six years. I started doing it because I loved making things. I built buildings in Battery Park City.
When you’re in the Union you have to go to college, so I also have a degree from the New York District Council of Carpenters. Then I injured my back and was told that if I went back to work I could be paralyzed, but I went back because I loved it. It was exhausting but wonderful. So I went back to work until I couldn’t move and then I stopped. Thank God I wasn’t paralyzed. Then I went back to school and got a BFA in art therapy. I worked as an art therapist with seniors and with little kids and I worked in a rehab. Then I started a daycare in my home called Creative Arts Daycare for pre-K kids. I had about 4 kids at a time and I loved it. We would do art together. I would take them to the Park. We did a lot of creative things.
I have gone to Mexico since I fell in love with the country and the people when I was young. When I was teaching it was the only thing that would revive me. I get goosebumps just saying it. There was just something about the earth, people, culture and art there. It’s so rich. I kept going and I’d bring stuff back and people would stop me and say,‘Oh where did you get that bag?’ I started taking people’s phone numbers and buying stuff in Mexico and bringing it back for them. I’d have little sales in my classroom. It built up and the next thing I knew I was selling at St. Mark's Place on the weekends because I had so much stuff. I had a Mexican booth. I’d sometimes be out there to 2 and 3 in the morning. I wasn’t a businesswoman, I was just doing it for my passion.
I decided to do my daycare again and was going to go post about starting it at a kids’ consignment shop on 7th and Avenue B. As I was leaving the women mentioned that her partner left and she was thinking of subletting the space next door. I had never thought of opening a store but a lightbulb went off. I said, ‘Well, I’ve always dreamed of having a store.’ This was 1998.
Then she totally screwed me up. I was doing really well. I had never had a business and didn’t know what I was doing but I was having fun selling stuff I loved. It was December before Christmas and we had a line of people out of the store. So I went back to Mexico and she told me not to worry and that I could stay there. Back then I didn’t have anything in writing. I spent all my money and had 11 wooden crates sent up and then she told me I had to move out the next month. She never told me she had sold the lease. So I had to put all that stuff in my house.
I looked for places for a few months until one of my customers found this space and I’ve been here ever since. I only buy things that I love. To me the beauty of everything, or at least 90 percent of it, is that it is handcrafted by families. It gets handed down from generation to generation. They’re always happy when I go there because they know I’m a shopaholic. I’m actually not a shopper believe it or not. The only thing I love shopping for is Mexican folk art when I go to Mexico. My passion is for Mexican culture and folk art.
I have a lot of longtime customers and I feel really blessed that way. I have things from $1 to $1,000. I remember one time this Mexican mom came in. Her kids were born here and she couldn’t take them home because she was undocumented. She wanted to get something for all of them but she only had $20. And she was able to get four little things that were all handmade from Mexico. It was a memory from home. Those kind of things touch me.
I’m now negotiating my lease for two years so I don’t know what’s going to happen. My dream is to have a cultural space, so maybe it’s my time to do that, but I haven’t found a space. It’s hard to find a space, but I have faith.
James Maher is a fine art and studio photographer based in the East Village. Find his website here.