Every morning, Dina Leor opens her Mexican folk-art store the same way: by lighting sage, burning incense and scattering rose petals. “I feel it affects the store if I don’t,” she says.
With the approach of Cinco de Mayo, a flood of local restaurant owners and residents have been coming to La Sirena, in the East Village, looking for authentic, handcrafted decorations like papel picado banners and colorful ponchos. As I lingered over some painted shot glasses during a recent visit, Dina called over: “People in America associate Cinco de Mayo with getting drunk! I have no idea why!”
Measuring about 10 feet wide and and 30 deep, the East 3rd Street store is a sliver of life and color amongst the monochrome blocks of neighboring businesses. “The store is Dina,” says Alfred Estrella, a young Dominican student who is part of La Sirena’s three-person team (or “mini family,” as he calls it). “It looks like chaos,” Estrella says, “but it is organized chaos. Everything makes perfect sense.”
In the store window, shelves overflow with brightly painted figurines, mugs, bags, rugs, jewelry and artwork. The Mexican saint Virgen de Guadalupe is represented in many pictures and models. “She’s miraculous. I wear her every day on my heart,” Dina says, pointing to her dangling necklace.
The Cinco de Mayo holidays – a commemoration of the Mexican army’s 1862 victory over France at the battle of Puebla – are also very near and dear to Dina. And not just because, this year, her team is providing pop-up shops for both the PEN World Voices Festival (whose theme this year is Mexican literary culture) and the Renaissance Hotel’s Cinco celebrations. Although her heritage is Polish, Argentinian and American, Dina says that she has a “Mexican heart,” and has traveled to her favorite country over 40 times. “When I went to Mexico for the first time, I felt like I was home. I fell in love,” she says.Ever since, Dina has been collecting trinkets from the markets and artist houses she visits there. “I would walk around New York and people would stop me to ask where I got my bag,” she says. “Back then there wasn’t anywhere to buy this kind of stuff. So, I would take down their numbers and buy things for them when I went.” What began as a friendly gesture soon turned into a business, and La Sirena opened in 2000.
A combination of healthy superstition and spirituality determines Dina’s outlook on life, and the way she runs her store. Each morning, she leaves her apartment on 10th and C at around 11.15 am to walk to La Sirena. The store’s name translates as “The Mermaid” in Dina’s second tongue, Spanish. “I really loved the ocean as a kid,” she explains, “I feel like I’m a mermaid.”
Before she became a shopkeeper, Dina went to art school, worked on a construction site, went to carpentry school and even owned a creative arts day care. She sold her work on St. Marks Place and worked as an art therapist at a Bellevue outpatient school. After being laid off from Bellevue, she decided to start up her day care again, and went to post a notice at a shop on Avenue B. While there, she noticed half the store was closed off. “They were looking for someone to take it over,” she says. And Virgen de Guadalupe knew who would be perfect.
Dina soon moved to an independent spot on East 3rd Street, but owning her own place was never going to be smooth sailing. Having lived in Manhattan all her life, Dina calls herself “the dinosaur,” surviving like a fossil with decades of New York history imprinted upon her. Dina knows how the city has changed– for better and for worse. “When I moved to the East Village 30 years ago I loved it because everyone was too scared to go there, so it was nice and quiet,” she says. “I find it scarier now with all the drunk college kids. At least when someone was on crack you just knew it and you stayed away from them.”
In 2012, the changes in the East Village brought Dina’s business to the brink of closure. The Cooper Square Mutual Housing Association Rent was forced to increase commercial tenants’ rent by 30%. Dina was given just thirty days to pack up her store: a collection she had been building for over 20 years. “I wouldn’t have any problem moving, I’d like a bigger space,” says Dina. “But people know me, and they know I’m here. I have people come in and say, ‘I came to your store 10 years ago – I’m so glad you’re still here.’” It was City Council member Rosie Mendez who eventually saved La Sirena from shutting its doors. Mendez managed to negotiate a deal that suited both sides, which will remain in place until 2020.
And so, in its own personal Battle of Puebla, La Sirena has fought off the ultimate East Village enemy – gentrification — and lives to celebrate its sixteenth Cinco de Mayo. Meanwhile, Dina Leor remains as cheerful as ever. As I leave, a customer walks in to buy gifts and clothes for her whole family. “It warms my corazón and I have smiles from the inside out knowing I offer this service,” Dina says. “It is one of the things that makes my heart sing.”