An Interview with Founder, Karen Torres

An Interview with Founder, Karen Torres

By Aliya Segura.

Born to Colombian immigrants and raised in Chicago’s Rogers Park neighborhood on the north side, Karen Torres is very proud of both her Chicago and Colombian roots.  In 2014 Torres founded Tulia's Artisan Gallery. Walking the many street festivals of Chicago is where she got the idea to start her business.  “I wanted to see the wealth of Colombian art represented in the Chicago marketplace” states Torres when asked why she created Tulia’s Artisan Gallery.  She named the business after her maternal grandmother, “Mama Tu” or Ana Tulia, but the business is really an homage to both of her grandmothers Ana Rosinda and Ana Tulia.  Both matriarchs overcame insurmountable odds in Colombia to make sure their children had a better life.  “I wanted to celebrate both of my grandmothers for how they hustled to create a livelihood for their families and how they instilled the values of love, generosity, and service in their children.” states Torres when asked how she came up with the name Tulia’s Artisan Gallery. She states each of their stories are very similar to the stories she hears today of the artisans and makers she works with in Colombia.     

What do you remember about MamaTu? What kind of values did she instill in you or your family?

“MamaTu and her husband had an arranged marriage and together they built and ran small businesses from sugar cane mills to dairy farms.  They shared their modest success among friends and family in the form of micro loans, student loans, and charitable donations to their local church and community.  My fondest memory was how she gifted a cow to each grandchild.  I got to meet a few of my cows on summer vacations but my cows were very unlucky.  They always died tragic deaths and then I’d inherit the calf.  One died by snake bite, another tripped and fell down a steep mountainside.  In the end, my last cow was taken to the butcher and the proceeds went into my college savings account.”, Torres states as she discusses what she remembers of her maternal grandmother. Whether it be donating money to the church or helping people in her village get back on their feet, having a strong family and strong community is one of the main principles within this family. Torres shared that this value of giving back to the community is what she aims to honor as she collaborates with master makers who are working to preserve and strengthen their own communities. 

Oil on Canvas portrait of Ana Tulia Martinez de Olmos.  Artist: Nubia Alcira Roncancio, 1994

“Mama Tu” Oil on Canvas by Nubia Alcira Roncancio,

granddaughter of Ana Tulia. 

What do you remember of Ana Rosinda? What values did she pass on to her children?

“Ana Rosinda, was an awe-inspiring woman.  She was a mother to 14 children, but had to bury half of them at very young ages.  She became a midwife in her community having only a 4th grade education.  She and her husband survived internal displacement, but lost everything they had.  And she hustled her whole life to make sure her kids got the education she was denied.”, Torres stated when she discusses why honoring her grandmother Ana Rosinda is something she holds close to her heart for the brand.  She recounts how Ana Rosinda hustled most of her life selling anything and everything she could make.  She would make and sell wool blankets, empanadas, arepas, and in her later years, rosaries, lots and lots of rosaries.   “She would buy the wool from the sheep herder, then make the thread, then rent time on a loom to make the blanket, then sell them in the marketplace. Later in life, we would bring her suitcases full of beads from the States so she could make rosaries and sell them on Sundays after mass, so she hustled a lot in her life.”, says Torres when remembering how hard-working her grandmother was to provide for her large family. Ana was the embodiment of diligence and perseverance as a mother who continued to take care of her family even when the odds were against her.   

 Tulia's Artisan Gallery Founder Karen Torres with her grandmother Ana RosindaAna Rosinda with her granddaughter Karen Torres

Were there any similarities or similar values your grandmothers had?

“I think the most similar value was their passion for education, which is why they hustled most of their life so their kids could receive an education.”, Torres states. Women of their generation in rural Colombia didn’t have the option to go to school past the 4th grade.  Education was vital for both grandmothers as they wanted their children to have the opportunities that were denied to them.  Education, especially in Ana Rosinda’s family, was their vehicle out of poverty and led one of her sons to immigrate to the US . The education mindset was passed down to Torres as she reflected on how she is very much a book & museum nerd.  While she has formal degrees in Cell & Molecular Biology, she has also spent a lifetime immersing herself in what she loved most about her culture, the art, the people, her ancestors, and heritage. Her connection with her grandmothers and visiting Colombia every summer initially blossomed her love of anthropology and cultural studies. “Growing up in the States, separated from my extended family, I felt a void and needed to learn as much as I could about where I came from.”, Torres responded. 

Torres aims to continue honoring Colombian culture as internal displacement directly impacts mostly Indigenous and Afro-Colombian communities. “It is a way to not only give back, but hearing artisans' stories reminded me of my grandmothers and how I can honor, educate, and continue their legacy as artisans deserved to be honored and celebrated as well.”, states Torres as she explained how creating Tulia’s Artisan Gallery has granted her opportunities to discuss displacement, like at the Chicago Fair Trade Museum on World Refugee Day (June 20th). Torres wants Chicagoans and anyone who encounters Tulia’s Artisan Gallery to know the importance of fair–trade values, which are not so far from being interconnected to the values her grandmothers passed down.

 Karen Torres speaking at the Chicago Fair Trade Museum on World Refugee Day June 20, 2023
Karen Torres speaking at the Chicago Fair Trade Museum on
World Refugee Day June 20, 2023. 
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