By Isabella Barron / El Inde
“Honestly, we’re super close. We’re best friends,” María José Cortés says, giggling. María José has soft facial features, with big brown eyes and dark brown hair and can commonly be seen with a smile on her face.
María-Inés, her younger sister, bursts out laughing along with her. Like her sister, María-Inés has big brown eyes and dark brown hair, bangs and most often wears her hair in a low bun. Sitting at her sister’s apartment in Tucson, Arizona, María José asks for a minute before opening up about her relationship with her younger sister in fear of tearing up. After a deep breath, María José says, “I feel proud of myself, and I’m proud of my sister too.” The blinds constantly sway behind them as they sit at the dining table giggling and smiling at one another. As they interact with each other, no one in the room would ever know that between the sisters lies an eight year age difference.
Born and raised in Nogales, Arizona, María-Inés, 18, and María José, 26, each have their own small business selling unique, one-of-a-kind products. In addition to being a freshman studying business at the University of Arizona, María-Inés interns at a financial management firm during the week. She runs her own small business called JC Jewels where she sells unique hand picked necklaces, bracelets, earrings, rings and more through Instagram and open houses. Her interest in business began when she helped her mom sell jewelry in high school, which led her to organize a scholarship her senior year of high school with the money she made. After seeing the success of selling jewelry in those few months, she decided to make an Instagram account selling what she had left over from her project. Little did she know more success would come her way, ultimately establishing her online business. After seeing yet again another overwhelming response in people wanting to purchase their jewelry, she decided to order more. Now she has even delivered out of state to New York, Oregon, California and more.
María José works her daily job as a service manager at a bank all while owning her own small business, Di Luna Candles. María José sells hand-poured homemade candles through Instagram and Etsy. She also sells at farmers markets, open houses, and her candles are available at several stores across Tucson. Di Luna, meaning “of the moon” in Italian, came from a nickname she shared with her father, as they called each other “mi luna,” meaning “my moon” in Spanish.
María José’s interest in candle making started during quarantine last year when she decided to order a candle making kit, a small hobby that would soon become her first business. Candle making takes a lot of patience, María José says, as there are many steps, including measuring all of the ingredients accurately, checking the temperature of the wax ensuring it is perfect. After pouring the wax into the small jars, she has to wait an entire day for the candles to fully dry. Then she is able to clean the jars, decorate and label them. The first batch she made, she decided she wanted to sell a couple by posting them on her Instagram account. She says that she sold out the first day, with people even ordering more than she had available. “I honestly thought it was going to be something small. I never thought that it was going to be as big as it is now,” María José says. Some of Di Luna’s signature candles include the Rose Petals candle, a white candle adorned with real rose petals on top, the Peppermint Eucalyptus candle, a white candle topped with real pieces of eucalyptus, and the Citrus Peach candle, a light orange candle topped with real dried orange pieces.
Regardless of their age difference, the sisters see each other as role models. Their love and passion for business and marketing has created an even stronger bond, a bond that allows them to learn from each other and grow together. María José started her business a couple of months after María-Inés had established hers, seeing her younger sister being so passionate about her business inspired her to pursue her own. Feeling frustrated at the beginning of the candle making process, María José felt discouraged and even thought of giving up. María-Inés did not allow this to happen, as she told her sister to keep trying and was there “cheering her on” through the process. Calling herself a “perfectionist,” María José recalls asking her sister for her opinions on even the smallest details. She says that they love bouncing ideas off of each other and brainstorming new ideas for their businesses, hoping to one day even own a business together.
The sisters grew up in Nogales, current population 20,031– a border city that is quite different from any other town. She described Nogales as “old school, traditional, and very orthodox.” As a border town between the United States and Mexico, Nogales is an amalgamation of the two cultures. María-Inés says that this allowed her to make her own culture, taking the best of two worlds.
Coming from a traditional town taught the sisters to work especially hard for their dreams, and to stay humble throughout the process.
“We always talk about this,” the sisters say in perfect unison. “This is our topic,” María José says. The eagerness to speak was written all over their faces. “Nogales is so small, and everybody knows everybody. Most people that we probably know it’s like, the wife stays at home, man goes to work, and, I hate that. I don’t like that, we don’t like that,” María-Inés says. María José added, “It’s not bad, it’s just how people are raised, it’s what they are used to. Especially since Nogales is like, 95% Mexicans, it’s like, Mexicans are more…” “Machistas,” María-Inés concludes.
When María José first moved out of her house in Nogales to attend college at the University of Arizona, she was in a long-term relationship. She says she believed that her future involved getting married and moving back to Nogales, so she decided to base her studies off of that end goal. “In my mind, we were going to live in Nogales so what am I going to do? I was studying to be a teacher because there was nothing else in Nogales for me to do. I never even thought that I could open a business. I was going to settle for being a teacher just because it was a small town and I didn’t know what other options there were for me. There aren’t a lot of businesses or big businesses in Nogales,” María José says. After studying education for a while, María José realized that it wasn’t what she truly wanted to do. She worked multiple jobs while attending school and through one of those jobs she realized how much she enjoyed merchandising and finance and ultimately decided to go that route instead.
Their hardworking nature is in their blood, María José says, since they grew up watching their parents always working. Their father has worked in the imports and exports business for several years. While their mother was a stay at home mom, she always had small side businesses going, whether it was selling cakes and pastries, or selling jewelry, which her youngest daughter has now taken over. María-Inés’ business, JC Jewels, started off through her mother, with the business name JC coming from her mother’s initials, Josefina Cortes. María-Inés recalls her mother organizing and hosting open houses for her jewelry at their house, which she called her “favorite days of the year” as a child. People went in and out of the Cortes home all day, where they had tables set up displaying the jewelry as well as tables adorned with food for the buyers to enjoy during their visit.
With the support and words of encouragement of their parents, they both have continued to pursue their ideas with their businesses. “My dad is super creative and is all about entrepreneurship. I feel like both of my parents have always been like that. They’re super supportive about businesses, if you wanted to open a business it was always like ‘go for it, if you don’t succeed you’ll learn and try again later on,’” María-Inés says.
María-Inés acknowledged that although she thinks there is a lack of businesses in Nogales, she has seen a recent increase in businesses in the past years. “I think now that social media has become so big and such a vital part of our lives, there’s a better possibility for people to do their own thing and have their own business, and grow out of that mentality,”María-Inés says.
María José’s childhood friend and fellow Nogales native, Giselle Leyva, recalls that her friendship with María José blossomed as they attended the same elementary school and high school. Depending on where a young adult grows up, Giselle explains, there are different expectations set in place for them and their career paths. “Young women should have the power to decide their own future and follow their dreams. They should be given the opportunity and tools to make those dreams come to fruition. Just look at Di Luna, such a successful business. I would love to see a world where all women would follow their dreams and support other women achieve theirs,” Leyva says.
She has been following María José’s journey of the business since it was only an idea, thrilled to see how fast it has grown in such a short amount of time. “I am so proud of María José and all her accomplishments, especially becoming a small business owner. I know all the hard work that’s behind the business and how much effort she has put forward. María José is organized, determined, goal oriented, a hard worker, she manages to have a full-time job and keeps her business growing,” Leyva says.
María José said that throughout the interview process for this story, she has consistently felt proud of herself and her sister and she has felt seen. Considering most of the content and work the sisters are producing is promoted through online platforms such as Instagram, it is easy for one to simply scroll by and leave a like with little to no thought. “I didn’t think anyone was noticing all that I was doing,” María José says. Although one can see it as simply selling jewelry and candles, there is always much more to it. Together, these sisters are crushing the gender stereotype that has been instilled in young women in Nogales for generations, and they aren’t going to “calm down” or adapt to what the “traditional” mindset demands they should do. They are going to pursue their dreams as young entrepreneurs.