– Although Latinas aren’t historically at the forefront
as business owners, these women defy the odds with
the support of their families and their take-charge spirit. –
By Emily Kemme | Photos by Jordan Secher
A taste of Mexico
Graciela Lucero immigrated to Colorado from Durango, Mexico, in 1995 to pursue a better education. It hurt to leave, but school was always her goal.
“Life in Mexico was as beautiful as any kid can live,” she recalls.
She graduated from Greeley Central High School in 1998 and studied at Aims Community College. Her brother, Gerardo Lucero, emigrated 10 years before; during that time, he helped support her and their parents.
Graciela opened Taqueria Los Comales in Fort Collins with her husband, Armando Chavez, in 2001. Their son, José, who assisted with Lucero’s interview as his mother is not fluent in English, became manager of the restaurant in 2021; as part of a regional family of restaurateurs, Gerardo runs sister restaurant Los Comales in Greeley.
José earned a culinary and business degree from Johnson & Wales in Denver, channeling what he learned growing up in his family’s restaurants.
The family has always felt accepted and welcomed in the community, with many loyal customers since opening. Lucero believes that’s because of evolving food improvements and how dishes are presented. Many of their cooks have been with them since the early days, but her husband enhances the program with chef hires from Mexico.
Since José took on management duties, Lucero and her husband travel widely to develop new menu and plating concepts.
For their first 20 years, Los Comales never served alcohol, but COVID-19 shutdowns offered an opportunity to remodel the restaurant and add a bar.
A Latino mixologist from Las Vegas developed the program, teaching that the value of tequila and mezcal isn’t about getting drunk, José says.
“We use lime and fresh ingredients with all our drinks and make syrups in-house, but you won’t lose the tequila in our cocktails,” he says.
Graciela believes that when a customer walks into Los Comales, the experience encompasses more than food.
“We want you to feel like you’re in Mexico when you dine with us,” she says. “It’s not just spectacular food, it’s the culture that comes with it.”
The colors of Mexico
Vanessa Jimenez is first-generation Mexican-American. Born in California when her parents emigrated from Mexico, the family returned to Mexico when her grandfather became sick. Jimenez’s sister was born there, but Jimenez feels lucky to have been born in this country.
Luck means obtaining worker status and citizenship: because the rest of her family was born in Mexico, they went through the long process of getting United States citizenship. Jimenez was in high school when her parents became U.S. citizens; her sister obtained hers when she was 18. But as much as she cherishes her legal status, a part of her heart remains in Mexico.
Jimenez always dreamt of owning a store. She remembers her grandma’s grocery in Zacatecas, and her husband’s grandma had a shop in Fort Morgan selling clothes and colorful Mexican candies.
But she says Mexican women don’t often open stores like the one she did in Old Town Fort Collins.
Her in-laws had just opened Babalu’s Cuban Cuisine, and when a space nearby became available, they encouraged her to open a store because they thought it would be good for her to have a place where her two boys, ages 9 and 7, could go to be with her after they got home from school.
She says her family’s guidance taught the value of hard work and sacrifice, but her store, Frida Azul, was inspired by the iconic Mexican painter, Frida Kahlo.
“Azul is Spanish for ‘blue,’ one of my favorite colors and Kahlo’s house in Coyoacán is called La Casa Azul,” Jimenez explains.
Jimenez learned about the painter when she was a teen and became captivated by the self-portraits, colors, flowers and the way the complex artist dressed in traditional Mexican textiles and jewelry.
“Her paintings are imagery of her dreams, but Kahlo painted her own reality, the feelings, emotions and traumas signifying experiences in her life,” Jimenez says. “Kahlo and her love of Mexico-that is also my culture and it brought me to where I am.”
She fills her shop with greeting cards, stickers, prints and bags with Frida Kahlo imagery, handmade jewelry, long Mexican skirts like Kahlo wore and huipil—traditional shirts made by Mexican artisans from Oaxaca.
Although her parents immigrated permanently to Colorado in 1990 and found work at the beef processing plant in Fort Morgan, “things don’t work that way for everybody, it’s tougher today because of immigration laws and there is a stigma from the previous administration and the media that it’s all criminals and bad people that come to this country,” Jimenez says.
“In my experience, the people who come here are mothers, fathers and children who are searching for a better life and work to help provide for their family.”
Being Latina in Northern Colorado can be challenging because of a lack of representation, Jimenez says. “Finding forms of funding, putting myself out there as a minority, it can be nerve-racking.”
Prior to opening her store, she hadn’t known about the prominent local Latino community. Promoting her business on social media helped make connections to BIPOC Alliance and Fuerza Latina, groups creating awareness about issues affecting the Latino community and offering accessibility to resources and programs to obtain work status and citizenship.
“I admire activists and ask, ‘what can I do?’ How they portray Mexico in the media, it’s not perfect, but my store is a little piece of Mexico. I hope that the way I convey it shows Mexico is a calm, beautiful place that’s filled with art that goes back many years.”
Born and raised in Greeley, Nina Duran-Gutierrez got her start in the world of business at age 10 when her grandparents, Ernest and Cecilia Duran, helped her with an initial investment in pop cans to stock the soda machines at her grandfather’s apartments.
“We went once a week to collect money and restock,” Duran-Gutierrez recalls.
Her business acumen today includes stints in direct marketing across the country, co-ownership of a laser hair removal salon, managing Duran-Gutierrez’s and her husband’s real estate portfolio and her current position as president and majority shareholder of a Greeley concrete construction company.
She attended Colorado State University, graduating with degrees in exercise and sports physiology, but she returned to Greeley and began an entry-level job at State Farm. This meshed well with her grandfather’s idea of work, she says, but it didn’t satisfy her.
“I wasn’t encouraged to start my own business. Grandpa wanted me to stick with the corporation and get good benefits. In my family, the women were traditionally the caregivers, not the business owners.”
The idea, even the expectation, that she would stay home with her kids didn’t sit well with her.
“I wanted to learn, read and unlock the possibilities of what can be obtained with owning your own business,” she says. “I also didn’t want anyone to fire me.”
She left State Farm and got into real estate in 2004 with her aunts, Mary Jane Duran-Blietz and Irene Barela, who mentored her and taught her enough about investing to build a portfolio. But the housing bubble crashed in 2008.
She left real estate and joined a coffee company called Organo Gold to become one of the company’s top female income earners in North America. After the company split, she co-founded another direct sales company selling coffee-infused nutraceutical products with seven partners, moved to Florida and spent the next few years living out of a suitcase, traveling all over the states and Canada.
“It was high stress but fun until we discovered our CEO was embezzling money. I made a choice at that point: I was 32, not married and no kids. I was grateful for the experience, but I just wanted to go home,” she says.
She received a low six-figure settlement and with two cousins, invested in a Greeley salon, Beso Salon & Spa, running it for 10 years until selling it last August. During that time, she met her husband, John Gutierrez, and gave birth to two daughters.
The concept of marketing a laser hair business to Latinos dovetailed with her family tradition of women caregivers, she says.
“Being Hispanic, I’ve had problems with laser hair removal: the skin color and the frequency of the machine wasn’t suitable to my skin type. I got hypo-pigmentation—I burned. If you don’t have the right machine, it’s like shooting grenades,” she says. “What I loved most about my business were the women who came through my door. For some of them, the procedure wasn’t a luxury, it was a desperate need—they were hiding behind makeup. It gave me a chance to nurture in a different way.”
The salon also gave her time with her young family, and she volunteered for seven years on the United Way of Weld County board of directors, co-chairing Weld’s Early Childhood Council. She also owns rental properties with her husband.
Last year, she gave in to her husband’s steady encouragement, sold the salon and purchased her in-laws’ shares of their Greeley concrete company, Can-Do Concrete Construction. She came in as a majority shareholder and company president, a position giving her freedom to make her own hours. She now gets to go to more of her kids’ sports events.
She says her in-laws built a wonderful business focusing on agriculture and ditch repair. Her father-in-law, Pete Gutierrez, was born in Greeley; his father relocated permanently in 1951, moving to the Spanish Colony in northwest Greeley to work in the sugar beet industry. Before emigrating, they had been migrant workers throughout the ‘40s.
“I’m breaking barriers as a female Latino in construction, but my mother-in-law was the business owner for a long time,” she says.
She and her husband are expanding the company to work with municipalities and are close to doubling their revenue after one year. She’s grateful for her family’s support, even while recognizing her path wasn’t a direct one.
“I always feel that in life there’s a set path you have to go on, and if you go off course you don’t realize the blessings. With hard work you end up where you’re supposed to, with all the good, hard, bad and disappointing lessons you’ve learned on the way.”
Emily Kemme is a Colorado freelance writer.