Sandra Velasquez wants Americans to see Mexican products with a new lens. “We can also make premium, beautiful brands. It’s not just about cheap, everyday things,” she says passionately.
In 2019, she started Nopalera, a bath and beauty line, using nopal, a popular cactus variety, which grows wild in Mexico and southern California. With little money, she maxed out credit cards, and ultimately took out working capital loans to finance the new venture.
Though she didn’t have too much capital at hand, Velasquez had worked as a sales rep for popular food brands; this helped her understand the importance of branding. Working with a designer, she created the unique image of a Latina woman with her hair set in the shape of the prickly pear cactus.
The image resonated, garnering feedback and interest in the brand even before she had debuted Nopalera. Upon launching the brand, Velasquez quickly sold out of her initial batch of soaps, which she was making — and continues to do so — out of her Brooklyn space herself.
For Velasquez, Nopalera is more than a bath and body brand, she says. As the daughter of a farm worker in California, it’s important for her to respect her roots and yet, create a different image of her community. “We are not all the same, and we should not fit under one generalization. There are those who are interested in a more premium product, that still speaks to our heritage. And I wanted to show that we can make something that’s beautifully designed and in line with today’s popular brands.”
The range falls under clean beauty, made with natural ingredients, free of animal products, and fragrance-free as well (for sensitive skin). Nopal, the hero ingredient in all her products, has many uses beyond bath and beauty, Velasquez explains: as a substitute for leather, as a bio-plastic, and of course, as food. The cactus also regenerates quickly, she notes, making it an eco-friendly material that will grow back fast. “I have one here in Brooklyn and if I cut it back, it’ll grow in a week. So in that way, it’s a great renewable material.”
Building her shop on the popular e-commerce platform, Shopify, Velasquez was able to secure capital through Shopify’s Small Business Loans. As she scales up, and is already on the shelves of over 200 wholesale accounts, she hopes to hand over the manufacturing to a co-packer. “It is hard to find the right partner, because what I’m doing is time consuming, and each mold has to be removed by hand. It’s not something that can be automated as easily.”
Velasquez explains that her moisturizing bars use oil, procured from the seeds of the prickly pear fruit on the cactus, and the process for setting the bars can take more than 24 hours. “Whereas most moisturizing bars use beeswax, which is a simpler process of melting and setting, this is more complicated and requires me to keep coming back to it to get the right consistency.”
The soaps, which come in three different varieties, utilize the pad, or the edible part of the nopal. While there are beauty brands using elements of the nopal plant, Velasquez acknowledges, none of them are “blatantly Mexican, and that’s what I wanted to do, showcase the culture of Mexico.”
Instead, she adds that much of the industry has a “very Eurocentric attitude, and it’s time for a change.”