While a rural shop succeeds, mid-Missouri's Hispanic Chamber of Commerce gets put on the back burner
Sedalia is known to many as the home of the Missouri State Fair. Nearly 400,000 people flock there every summer for the festivities. But Sedalia is also known for another one-of-a-kind offering where people flock to a small storefront not too far away from the fairgrounds.
It’s called Concepcion Bridal and Quinceañera Boutique. Telma Mejilla-Bohrn, the owner, is originally from Honduras, then moved to New York and finally settled in rural Missouri. And she said she’s glad she did, although it took her a couple years to adapt to her new surroundings. During that time, she had actually wanted to return to the east coast. But, she said, she stuck with her vision of opening up her business in the Midwest.
"Si yo me hubiera regresado para Nueva York, entonces no hubiéramos abierto esta tienda", ella se rió y hizo un gesto a las docenas de vestidos a su alrededor. "Entonces pues Sedalia no tendría tienda de quinceañera".
Translated: “If I had returned to New York, then I wouldn’t have opened this store," she chuckled and gestured to the dozens of dresses around her. "Then Sedalia wouldn’t have had a store for quinceañeras.”
Mejilla-Bohrn said soon-to-be birthday girls come from all over Missouri to come to her store, since as far as she knows, hers is the only one around for miles to sell the traditional fifteenth birthday dresses. She listed the cities, as she looked up, counting in her head: Kansas City, Columbia, Jefferson City, Sedalia, Springfield, Marshall.
The mother of four opened the store 21 years ago in honor of her late grandmother and named it after her. Mejilla-Bohrn pointed to a portrait of Concepcion hanging proudly above the poofy dresses.
"Quiero ayudar a mi familia. Todos a ellos como que son mi familia", ella dijo.
Translated: "I want to help my family. And everyone here is like my family," she said.
Although, she said one challenge she has had to overcome is making sure her products are known on a wider scale through marketing and advertising. She now utilizes her online store to account for that, but it was an obstacle when she was first opening.
It’s business owners like her that a group of people in Columbia wanted to help. They were led by Jonathan Verdejo, a local DJ and business owner. Verdejo and a couple others wanted to start a Hispanic Chamber of Commerce based out of Columbia in 2018. Verdejo currently serves as a board member for the Columbia Chamber of Commerce and co-owns Blue Diamond Events.
Funnily enough, he actually knew about Concepcion Bridal and Quinceañera without ever having gone there.
"And this is funny: I have never talked to those people that own that place. I have never been there," he admitted. It just shows how close Latino communities can be, even miles apart.
Verdejo had intended to help business owners like Mejilla-Bohrn with resources, information and connections.
Unfortunately, after five years, Verdejo has paused his effort to start a mid-Missouri Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. Verdejo said there are a lot of reasons that led to his decision, but the biggest reasons he attributes are lack of time and local resources.
“It's difficult to just kind of pick up and do that, and make it happen out of nowhere, out of nothing," he said.
In Columbia, Verdejo said there just wasn’t enough buy-in from people to make it a success. He said it takes a lot of people to handle all of the tasks that go into creating a chamber.
He does give credit, though, to the Columbia Chamber of Commerce as it has been working hard to try to keep people in the city—no matter their race or ethnicity. And it's because Columbia has long been a place, as Verdejo explained, where people leave after a time.
"Columbia has been a place like that for a long time. Being involved with the Chamber of Commerce, I know that there's a lot going on behind the scenes as far as them working on solutions for that, and not just the Latino community, like everybody in general," Verdejo said.
Two hours away from Verdejo is the home of a nationally recognized Hispanic Chamber. It’s in St. Louis. Antonio Maldonado formerly served as the vice president. He said non-Hispanic companies wanted a way to reach potential Hispanic customers, so they put effort into helping the chamber thrive. In other words, they have big interest from big companies: which comes with money and resources
"So how do you get to the Hispanic community? " Maldonado rhetorically asked. "Well, you have to do it through Hispanic organizations like the Chamber of Commerce.”
Here, I clarified what he had just summarized: “It kind of sounds like in order for a Hispanic Chamber of Commerce to really be successful and thrive. It needs the support of the entire community, not necessarily just Hispanic-specific.”
“Correct," he said, nodding his head. "That is correct.”
Maldonado added what has also helped create stability for the Chamber was having a brick-and-mortar location in the city for people to gather and network.
As far as local support goes for Telma Mejilla-Bohrn, she’s not struggling in Sedalia. She said she naturally has the support of not just the Hispanic community, but also the Anglo community. People come to her for baptism, birthday and wedding dresses, among other things. And she gets to be a part of it all, experience the romance and family bonding right along side them.
"Es tan bonita que me siento orgullosa de ser parte de todo esto. Porque primeramente ellos vienen aquí, los he conocido que vienen por sus vestidos de comunión y luego vienen por su vestido de quinceañera", ella dijo. "Y he tenido otras que han venido después por su vestido de boda".
Translated: “It’s so beautiful and I feel so proud to be a part of all that. Because primarily people come here and I know them already because they came for their Communion dresses and then for their quinceañera dress," she said. "And I have had others come back even after that for their wedding dresses.”
Ana Maria Crabtree stepped into the store to buy a green dress for a baptism...and she’s also going to a quinceañera soon, so she comes in relatively often.
"Estoy viendo todas las opciones, así que todo lo que voy a necesitar", ella dijo.
Translated: “All of the options are here. It has everything I’m going to need," she said.
Meanwhile, Verdejo is keeping the idea of a possible Columbia Hispanic Chamber of Commerce one day.
"I think that there's a lot of potential for it to be a valuable resource and for it to grow," he said, but it needs larger community involvement and a group effort to find its footing.
¿Dónde está mi gente? will continue with four more upcoming segments.
For the audio transcript, click here.