The store has become like a second home for Vanessa Vaca.
From behind the cash register counter, her 5-year-old son Cristian emerges clutching his Ironman action figure, his soft-spoken questions breaking through Vaca’s concentration.
Cristian is home sick from school that day and wants to watch a different movie.
After an obligatory brief apology, Vaca switches gears from businesswoman to mother in a single breath. The family dog Chula attentively follows her around the store as Vaca answers the store’s phone and her son’s requests.
San Sebastian Rustic, the furniture and home accessory store she opened nearly five years ago with her father, is another one of her babies, Vaca explains.
“I don’t think I’ve conquered the balance yet; it’s a daily struggle,” she says. “If I close early I feel guilty because the store should be open. But I realize you can’t turn back the time.”
As she raises three young children as a single mother, it is not unusual for Vaca to blend her business environment and her family life. The 33-year-old has an affinity for the creative arts and is as likely to stay late after closing hours to finish painting a piece as she is to close the doors early to make it to a school assembly.
Her children, 7-year-old Isabella, 6-year-old Giselle and Cristian, add vitality to the store, Vaca says with a laugh.
“It’s bittersweet sometimes. I have colorful stuff they can break. Sometimes they get tired of being here. Sometimes they want to come. They have their own adventures outside in the dirt,” Vaca says. “I’d rather they be here with me.”
Over time, her children have taken on San Sebastian in their own way. Her children have been known to pass out postcards to customers as they walk in the door or greet them with a smile.
With the workshops she’s taught in store, her children learn more about their Mexican heritage and the meanings behind decorative and cultural items that are sold.
“I think it’s helped bring them closer. It’s helped their maturity level. They know how important it is to be on time and to behave. It’s a different type of school. Hopefully the store will be around, and they can say they grew up with it,” Vaca adds.
But when the first store opened, it was a challenging experience for the young mother who was recently divorced and moving from a bustling metropolitan area to the quieter area of Imperial Valley.
From her background in graphic design and visual communications, opening San Sebastian Rustic in Brawley was drastic change from her life in Los Angeles where she grew up.
The proposal to open the store came from Vaca’s father Pedro Vaca after she had spent two hours in LA rush-hour traffic on a Friday night.
“I wouldn’t go back,” she says with a laugh. “It is a more appealing lifestyle out here.”
Father and daughter worked together as a team to open the store, and now Vaca is primarily responsible for the management, though the two still work in tandem.
“He’s the owner, and I’m the boss,” Vaca says with a smile.
The store began as a custom wrought iron furniture business, and the location prompted her father to start buying furniture to expand the business. With the initial focus on larger pieces, Vaca says the store put her on a quick learning curve. Despite the struggling economy, she has been able to refocus the effort not only on larger custom pieces but also on affordable accessories that fit the Valley’s demand.
Since then, San Sebastian Rustic has hit its stride and continues to evolve.
Word of mouth has helped the business grow, and Vaca says the most satisfying part of her day comes when customers express joy about a piece they have added to their home.
“I know these items are not a necessity, but people buy them to make themselves feel better or to make their home their own,” Vaca adds. “It’s great to see their reaction.”
Being a single mother and making ends meet can be stressful when coupled with the instability that a business can experience. Vaca says each day is a blessing to start over fresh.
“Some days I wonder whether I gave enough to the kids or to the store,” she admits.
Pedro Vaca says his daughter doesn’t have an easy job, but she’s doing well.
“I know she has a lot more things she wants to do, but in time she’s going to reach her goals. It makes me feel very good as a father,” he adds.
Though she is moving closer to having a lifestyle balance of work and home life, Vaca says it is the invaluable things she was taught by her father and her late mother, Margarita, that keeps her going.
Vaca describes her father as a dedicated businessman and recalls as child he was already gone when she would awake. The smell of his cologne lingered in the house, evidence of his unfaltering work ethic.
“He is very clean and is all about letting customers know he’s honest about his business,” she notes with a smile. “Customers don’t need to know if the owner is having a bad day.”
Her mother, who passed away 13 years ago from breast cancer, was feminine and strong. Margarita, who did a lot of interior decorating and sewing, taught Vaca that she can be smart and be soft.
At heart, Vaca embodies her parental influences. Her worn out cowboy boots speak to her willingness to climb on a forklift and move inventory when needed, but her outfit remains stylishly adorned with silver jewelry she crafts by hand.
With her mother’s open mindedness and her father’s traditional upbringing, Vaca says she’s grateful for the balance of culture that was infused into her childhood. “My mother loved American culture,” she adds.
Her father, on the other hand, exposed her to Mexican culture and took her to Mexican rodeos called charreadas, where she competed in sidesaddle riding called escaramuza. From the age of 15 to 24, she rode competitively in the U.S. and Mexico.
Pedro notes his daughter often took risks that scared him. “She was so good,” he adds, noting in particular Vaca’s time as the captain of one of the escaramuza teams.
Vaca has an affinity for old Mexican film stars like Maria Felix and legendary artist Frida Kahlo, whose likeness she has captured in handcrafted pieces offered in the shop. The store has transformed into a creative outlet and platform for Vaca in recent months.
“I know if I wasn’t doing anything creative, I’d be in a bad place. Good things are starting to happen now,” Vaca adds.
A lover of Mexican folk art and altered art, Vaca has started to pick up painting again as well as creating catrina dolls, aprons, pillows and housewares with a southwestern and Mexican flair. She recently hosted a Dia de los Muertos workshop for children to create sugar skulls and learn more about the holiday.
“I’m very proud of being bicultural. I get goose bumps with both national anthems. There’s a lack of resources locally that teach culture,” Vaca says. “It’s neat to enlighten people about stuff like that.”
Recently her passion has flourished for crafting original pieces, like a hand-painted nightstand that she put up on her Facebook page and that sold by the end of the day. “I feel like my craft is more sophisticated now,” Vaca says of her continuing her education in the arts at workshops offered in Mexicali.
While she’s adding more custom pieces to the store, Vaca says she’s learning more about networking and developing her retail store into so much more. As an artist herself, she hopes to expand the store to include a gallery element and a space for other local artists.
“When you do something you love, it starts fueling the fire to do more,” she adds.
Vaca admits that she feels at peace with her life right now. Though it’s difficult to raise her children as a single parent, she believes her children have highlighted the good and the not-so-favorable aspects of her own personality. In that way, she is constantly learning from her son and two daughters.
“When you see your children doing something, you realize that they’re mirrors. They’re reflections of you,” Vaca says.
Pedro, who plans to retire soon and move to the Valley permanently, says he is glad his daughter continues to promote her cultural background.
“She is always seeking roots and history,” Pedro says. “I feel very proud of my sons and especially my daughter dealing with a lot of things. It makes me happy that they go for what they want.”
Over time, Vaca has settled into that drastic decision she made one Friday night to uproot her life and move to the Valley.
She says she believes her mother would be proud of her and would encourage her to continue pursuing her life’s greatest passions. Vaca realizes she’s still in the process of making up her own rules by which to live.
“On a personal level, it’s important to me for women to know you deserve good things. You deserve to be happy. No one is going to do that for you. Be true to you,” Vaca says. “I’m staying true to myself and to my intuition.” She pauses for a moment, looking briefly around the store, Cristian’s movie barely audible in the background. She continues, “And God above all.” On particularly rough days, “praying helps,” Vaca adds, with a knowing laugh.