Sandra Villarreal, 32, points to a map in her studio of the United States and Mexico with a few European countries drawn in at her McAllen home. The shaded areas represent places she’s shipped shirts, handbags and caps purchased from her online store.
The Monterrey-native’s brand, Salsa For President, makes quirky apparel with designs as simple as the word “Barbacoa,” or as aggressive as phrases like “No estes chingando.”
Verbiage taps the Tex-Mex zeitgeist, often inspired by experiences and anecdotes Rio Grande Valley residents might sympathize with.
“This is where I spend most of my life,” Villarreal said, outside her studio. “I really love the fact that I’m doing this from here (the Valley).”
Despite this, most of her customers aren’t local. Currently, her biggest markets are in California, Illinois, New York and in larger cities in Texas. She’s also sent items to France and the United Kingdom.
“Sometimes, I check my phone and I’m tagged somewhere where I’ve never been, but now (I’ve) been, kind of,” she said. “It’s really (expletive) cool.”
Her website boasts images of models wearing her attire, and each item is made per order. One week she could have a dozen orders, and in the next have over 100.
“I’m taking a break right now,” Villarreal said.
Though, a “break” to her is just abstaining from posting on Instagram for a few days. She still had eight orders to get done.
Her last break was interrupted by an Instagram post by Jessica Pimentel where she’s wearing Villarreal’s “Pinches Haters” shirt. When celebrities tag her on posts, it usually spurs a wave of orders, Villarreal said.
Though it’s great for her as a business owner, she admits days like those can get hectic.
“At the end of the day, it’s just me doing all the work,” she said. “Nobody teaches you how to start a business. … You encounter different problems every day and you have to figure out how to solve them.”
One shirt she makes has the phrase “Estx Perrx Si Muerde” printed on the sleeve, which was inspired by Villarreal’s experiences of being catcalled. The shirt turned out to be one of her best sellers, which she attributes to many people being “just being fed up with it.”
That’s usually how it goes, Villarreal said. She tries to make shirts that underrepresented groups, particularly women and border residents, might find relatable or empowering.
“I want people to just walk with pride and remember that that’s part of you. Whether you like it or not,” Villarreal said.
Another of her shirts reads “Callejera ” and another reads “Pocha ”— both are words Hispanics don’t typically use to express pride, she said.
“I remember when I was younger being called a ‘ pocha’ was kind of embarrassing,” Villarreal said. “My favorite thing is to play with the language a little bit because I know some people are still embarrassed about that kind of stuff.”
Her business’ namesake, and the shirt that started it all, was a red “Make Salsa Spicy Again” T-shirt, that sports an eerily similar design to President Donald Trump’s campaign logo.
“I think it was a reaction to the direction the (Donald Trump) campaign was taking,” Villarreal said. “There was so much fascism and racism being thrown around; I felt I needed to say something.”
The campaign, and now the current administration, has continued to use the similar rhetoric that’s put communities like the Valley at the center of attention. Because of that, Villarreal feels it’s important now more than ever to highlight the work border residents like her are doing.
“A lot of eyes, especially right now, are on the border,” Villarreal said. “So, whatever work is coming out of here, it’s super important we are covering it because we’re here in the trenches of that conversation.”