Situated amid the sleek steel giants lining the popular retail playground of Chicago’s “Magnificent Mile” is a bold and vibrant portal that offers an experience quite unlike that of its neighbors.
Colorful blankets drape over tables displaying a variety of handmade goods, and lines of papeles picados—traditional Mexican hanging paper decorations—zig-zag across the ceiling above. After the main floor has left you thinking you’ve seen it all, a staircase in the center of the shop ascends into yet another level of wonder.
Colores Mexicanos serves as Michigan Avenue’s gateway to another world, inviting tourists and locals alike to experience the richness of a traditional Mexican street market—a richness that has been authentically curated and proudly cultivated.
The artisan gift shop is ablaze with every color visible to the human eye, from serape table runners to miniature fruit earrings. Palm-sized alebrijes carved from Copal wood and hand-painted in Oaxaca stand in wait. The walls are adorned with unique, custom-made pieces ranging from embroidered denim jackets to sacred heart mirrors.
The shop’s visual appeal is certainly big, bold and blaring, yet even more representative of the shop’s roots and origins is its energy that holds a subtle charm—warm, inviting and homey.
Each of the shop’s beaming employees greet visitors as they enter with offerings of knowledge about the pieces and recommendations of their favorite sections in the store.
Nancy Guerrero is one of these employees. Her favorite pieces in the shop centered around the kitchen and table section, which featured spices, aprons and handwoven baskets. She recalled the familiar comfort of the homes of her mother and grandparents.
“When you go to a Mexican house, you know it’s a Mexican house,” Guerrero said. “It’ll have a nice candle or a colorful plate… you’ll just know, you’ll feel it.”
That’s exactly what makes the appeal of Colores Mexicanos more than just its visuals. Its colors can be felt.
But this vivid scene isn’t fabricated to conceal a chintzy money grab. Embroidered sweatshirts from Chiapas, paintings on the parchment of Amate tree bark from Balsas River basin of Guerrero, “LeLe” dolls from Querétaro. Each of the pieces sold in Colores Mexicanos are artfully crafted within the country that they are proudly representing when sold in downtown Chicago. It’s all real.
That realness is built on the values of connection, culture, and home that the shop’s owners have held steadfastly to since day one.
“We started as a little street festival, you know those vendors that have a little tent, that was us,” said Gabriel Neely-Streit, one of the three owners of Colores Mexicanos.
Neely-Streit was quick to credit his co-owner and founder of Colores Mexicanos, Erika Espinosa, with the “heart and soul and the motivation” that brought the shop to life in its early days at local street festivals.
“It’s really difficult, as I’m sure you can imagine, hauling all this stuff, packing up every day, building out your space,” Neely-Streit said. “And she would do that alone, or with the help of her nephews who now work here. It was just a little family thing.”
Leticia Espinosa is Erika’s sister and the third co-owner of Colores Mexicanos.
“[Erika] started selling everywhere,” Leticia Espinosa said. “In Pilsen, at markets, in the parks, at festivals, different places in the community.”
But that entrepreneurial fire spread further than those small markets could reach. The team behind Colores Mexicanos had a vision and big goals.
One of those goals? Challenging cultural bias.
The team behind Colores Mexicanos saw a gaping hole in the center of the Chicago retail industry—there were no fine Mexican cultural stores. So many shops were selling pieces that were simply parading under the facade of being authentic, but the majority had been mass-produced in factories on the other side of the world.
“There was an opportunity to show finer things,” said Neely-Streit. “There’s a whole level of craftsmanship of incredible artisans that wasn’t being shown because people had the idea that Mexican culture was cheap, or should be cheap.”
The shop features pieces from over 50 different artisans scattered across 13 different states in Mexico, each piece entirely handcrafted.
Colores Mexicanos works diligently to ensure that these artisans are not only being compensated fairly, but also treated with the highest dignity.
“We value the families. We value their work,” said Leticia Espinosa. “We do not just buy products, but we try to help them also.”
Leticia Espinosa recalls an instance in which they helped a Mexican chocolate farmer obtain proper documentation in order to send his products to the U.S. She chronicles another circumstance in which Erika Espinosa aided an artisan woman in Mexico to sort out an instance of domestic violence in her family.
Colores Mexicanos is more than just a retail shop to this team.
The pride that these individuals take in their work, in their mission, and in their connections noticeably radiates from them— it’s on their faces and in their words.
Leticia Espinosa attributes the shop’s popularity to the fact that their products are noticeably high-quality.
“People notice that this is different than other ones around,” Leticia Espinosa said.
But the difference isn’t just in the goods. It’s in the hearts of the people who are bringing those goods to the streets of Chicago – the people who are translating the colors of Mexico into a palpable aura of connection, culture, and home.
Header by Mei Harter