EXPLORING LATINX HERITAGE THROUGH SCENTS WITH BONITA FIERCE CANDLES
A pandemic hobby of hand-pouring candles may have launched Melissa Gallardo's brand, Bonita Fierce Candles, but it's her deeply resonating desire to evoke memories of her Latinx heritage and home that has fanned the flames of her success. Here, she talks to us about why redefining scents in the candle industry matters, the challenges of navigating the duality of being a Latina in the United States and how she hopes her candles will help others embrace their identity.
Tell us about yourself and your background
I'm Melissa! I am the daughter of Salvadoran immigrant parents, born and raised by a single mom on Long Island, NY. As a kid, I was outspoken with classmates, respectful to teachers and a diligent rule follower. I was involved in as many afterschool clubs and activities as I could. But like all kids, I was trying to find my purpose in life and be comfortable in my skin.
At a certain point, I was severely cyberbullied and made to feel like an outsider in a nearly all-white community. After this ordeal, my mom decided not to teach me Spanish; for many Hispanic and Latin parents, not teaching their American children Spanish is a deliberate choice, with the intent to make it easier for their children to assimilate into American culture.
The fear of racism and discrimination turned so many people away from passing on their native languages, the style of our natural hair and so much more. That was me. I was paving my way through school, making mistakes and figuring out how to navigate life as a brown, non-Spanish-speaking Latina.
Despite hardships at home and school, my mom always told me I could be anything I wanted in this country. I took that to heart. But I never had a "what do you want to be when you grew up" moment because having a challenging childhood doesn't always allow you to dream of a future; you're thinking about survival, your tomorrow. I concentrated on studying and working on building the kind of life I wanted, and I would find my career and dream later down the line.
"I worked twice as hard to get half as far in the attempt to catch up with my peers and colleagues—but I was determined to get out of survival mode and build wealth."
When did your love for candles and the idea for Bonita Fierce Candles come about?
Candles have been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. They were used in prayer and as a means of divine worship around my house. Over time I was introduced to scented candles by friends and bought some of my own.
The idea for Bonita Fierce Candles came to me during the COVID-19 pandemic. I was burning a lot of scented candles and decided to make a few as a quarantine hobby. At the same time, I was newly embracing my heritage and wanted to support Latinx-owned businesses. Still, I couldn't find any candle brands that represented my experience as a Latina. That's when I decided to take my quarantine activity of candle making and turn it into a business. I can now provide a unique collection of candles celebrating Latinx heritage.
"Candles con Cultura" or "Candles with Culture"—talk to us about this concept. What makes your candles different? What makes them uniquely you?
Candles con Cultura was the realization that the scents I grew up with weren't in the home fragrance industry; you won't find any that accurately represent Latinos. What makes Bonita Fierce Candles unique is that we create fragrances that remind us of our Latinx childhood and celebrate and elevate Latin culture year-round. You'll find scents like Cafecito Con Leche, Azúcar and Lavender Fabulosa that remind you of the perfect sip of coffee in the morning, your mom waking you up to the sound of salsa or the smell of your favorite lavender cleaning product.
"You'll find scents like Cafecito Con Leche, Azúcar and Lavender Fabulosa that remind you of the perfect sip of coffee in the morning, your mom waking you up to the sound of salsa or the smell of your favorite lavender cleaning product."
How has your upbringing contributed to how you operate as a business owner?
I'm the first in my family to become an entrepreneur, but my mom set the foundation for my success. By the time I was 14 years old, I had started my first job. My family was struggling financially, so I knew I had to become independent, provide for myself and prepare for life after high school.
By the time I was 17 years old, I had three jobs throughout college, six internships and worked on campus. I even went as far as commuting four hours a day to get to my first full-time job after graduation. I worked twice as hard to get half as far in the attempt to catch up with my peers and colleagues—but I was determined to get out of survival mode and build wealth.
When I discovered I wasn't fit for a standard 9-5 in the corporate world, I turned to entrepreneurship, which was completely unfamiliar territory. Recently, my mom told me that even when I find something difficult and don't know what to do or how to start, she knows I will do it. She raised me to take on the impossible, to continue to go after my dreams, and instilled the mindset of never being fearful to ask for help when you don't know something.
"We believe celebrating culture is self-care, that you define your heritage and what it means to you. By lighting a candle, you are standing in your worth, letting things go that don't serve you and are unapologetically yourself."
Is there something you hope people would take away from the experience of lighting one of your candles?
I hope people feel seen and that their voices are heard. I want to evoke the feeling of home and childhood memories that bring comfort. We believe celebrating culture is self-care, that you define your heritage and what it means to you. By lighting a candle, you are standing in your worth, letting things go that don't serve you and are unapologetically yourself.
You've managed to stand out so brilliantly in the saturated candle market. Why do you think your brand has resonated with so many people in and outside the Latinx community?
Authenticity. The creation of the brand is rooted in my journey of embracing my Latinx heritage as an American. There's a saying in Spanish, "No soy ni de aquí, ni de allá," or "I'm not from here nor there." Many people, not only Latinos, experience the same conflict of not feeling enough for their parent's homeland and not American enough at the same time. There's this in-between, and my brand is embracing that unique experience. You are enough, and you define your heritage—whatever that means to you.
"There's a saying in Spanish, 'No soy ni de aquí, ni de allá,' or 'I'm not from here nor there.' Many people, not only Latinos, experience the same conflict of not feeling enough for their parent's homeland and not American enough at the same time. There's this in-between, and my brand is embracing that unique experience. You are enough, and you define your heritage—whatever that means to you."
What has been your most significant pinch-me moment since launching your brand?
Going into Nordstrom and seeing my product on shelves available for purchase! I would never have guessed in a million years, let alone two years ago, when I first thought of starting a Latinx-inspired candle business, that I would have a product on Nordstrom shelves. I never envisioned myself as an entrepreneur or business owner, so it's been the biggest surprise of my life!
As an entrepreneur, where do you hope to take Bonita Fierce Candles? As a person, where do you hope it will take you?
I hope to take Bonita Fierce Candles nationwide to make it a household name. I want to bring multicultural candles into your home to celebrate all kinds of heritage and culture, and that kind of celebration is self-care. As a person, I will have a lifelong journey reclaiming my roots. I'm relearning heritage, history and language that was lost. I hope to be at peace with who I am and always navigate this cultural crossroads with courage.