Elena Flores regrets not learning how to sew from her talented mother, who died fifteen years ago. But she’s made up for lost time. Flores first got behind a sewing machine in 2014, both as a way to honor her mom and as a creative outlet—she was then employed as a caseworker for adults with developmental disabilities. After taking some classes but mostly teaching herself at her Corpus Christi home, she began making T-shirts and then turned to items such as lotería clutches, jean jackets, and kitchen towels with colorful designs celebrating her heritage. Now the 44-year-old runs Sew Bonita, a store that’s attracted national attention; it sells not only her work but creations she curates from other Latino makers. 

Her brand’s name, a clever play on words, reflects the bilingualism and dual cultures of Flores’s upbringing in the border town of Eagle Pass, about 140 miles southwest of San Antonio. The name is also assertive. Sew Bonita is so chingona

“Chingona” has historically been a derogatory word for women seen as aggressive and mean. But Mexican American pop culture has reclaimed the term; it is now more often used to describe an independent, confident woman, which is why Flores, who has lived in Corpus since her early twenties, emblazoned the word across the front of the first T-shirt she designed. That same spirit drove her to launch Sew Bonita, as an online boutique, just a year after starting her hobby. In 2021 she opened her first storefront; the small, five-hundred-square-foot shop was open only on weekends because Flores still worked her full-time job. Despite the limited hours, it became a popular spot and was featured on a segment of ABC’s Good Morning America in May of last year. A few months later, she was able to quit her day job and move Sew Bonita into a space almost six times bigger, in a strip mall in the coastal city’s Meadowbrook neighborhood.

Painted enamel plates from 180 Degrees.
Painted enamel plates and cocktail shakers from 180 Degrees. Photograph by Mackenzie Smith Kelley
Pan dulce key chains from Xochico.
Pan dulce key chains from Xochico. Photograph by Mackenzie Smith Kelley

When I walk into the shop on a Saturday afternoon, the explosion of color reminds me of the mismatched-yet-warm homes of friends and familia. Flores’s radiant smile grows brighter every time a customer enters; she tries to say hello to everyone and offer coffee. I recall what one of her vendors, Albert Tanquero, of the Found, a Chicago-based maker of whimsical stickers, cards, and other gifts, told me: “Elena has created a store that feels like you’re visiting una amiga or una tía.” 

In the front right corner, a pink neon sign exclaiming “¡Hola Bonita!” hangs on an Instagram-ready wall covered in paper flowers. Nearby is another photo op: a decorative red door, flanked by sconces and potted plants, with the metal house numbers 512, an homage to hometown icon Selena Quintanilla’s song “El Chico del Apartamento 512.” Festive papel picado flags flutter from the ceiling. “¡Bienvenidos!” is painted on the blue back wall in swooping sans serif. “I want to always incorporate a lot of color and a lot of culture,” says Flores of her shop and her own crafts. “And with my upbringing, there’s a lot of stuff for me to reference.” 

Many of the first-time customers who roll into Sew Bonita marvel at the visual cacophony. As Flores rings up their items, two women tell her that they both have surgeries coming up and that they’re nervous. She listens attentively and offers words of comfort and reassurance. Later, Flores recounts to me the time two elderly shoppers bragged that they had been following her on Instagram since Sew Bonita started. Their pride was validating for Flores. “We’re creating culture and community,” she says. 

Elena Flores sewing at home.
Elena Flores sewing at home.Photograph by Mackenzie Smith Kelley

That community includes Latino vendors from across the state and beyond. The store is a gift giver’s paradise, with serape tote bags, hand-painted earthenware, flower-painted cocktail shakers, kitchen towels from the Sew Bonita label, and ceramic figurines in the shapes of animals, suns, and sacred hearts. Koozies, buttons, and tees from Que Rico T-Shirt Company, founded by two friends from Abilene, celebrate Latino and queer culture through humor and pop icons—its signature phrase is “Bidi Bidi Fun Fun.” Shoppers will find Austin-based Siete Foods’ grain-free Mexican snacks as well as bilingual children’s books, including some by author and illustrator (and El Paso native) Raúl the Third. A large section of wall is decked out with rows of stickers, featuring everything from pan dulce and taco trucks to Dolly Parton, as well as hand-painted greeting cards. It’s by far the most popular area in the shop. 

All the vendors Sew Bonita carries have a few things in common. Flores works only with brands whose items are available wholesale so that there’s always stock. And she’ll go with a maker only “as long as the representation of the culture is there, and it matches our vibe and what we want to portray as a reflection of home,” she says. Some approach her first, while she seeks out others. 

One was especially easy to find: her husband, Gerald Flores, who has his own apparel and merchandise line, Taco Gear. In one corner of Sew Bonita, he sells Mexican food–themed shirts, snapback hats, and other items. Each is listed on a laminated menu card on a beer-branded metal table, the kind found in taquerias across Mexico. He helps out around the store however he can. “I’m the lead cashier,” he jokes.

In the back of the store, Elena Flores hosts classes, including popular sewing workshops she oversees as well as sessions led by artists such as Kathy Cano-Murillo, of Phoenix-based Crafty Chica. Last fall Cano-Murillo traveled to Corpus to teach sold-out sessions on making holiday gift cards and painting ceramic piñatas. She was taken with what Flores has created, calling the store a gathering place. “I saw the excitement on the faces of the people who came through the door,” she told me. “It wasn’t just about going there to shop. It was about experiencing something magical.”

This article originally appeared in the July 2023 issue of Texas Monthly with the headline “Ties That Bind.”  Subscribe today.  

Alexander Henry Fabrics at Sew Bonita in Corpus Christi.
Alexander Henry Fabrics at Sew Bonita, in Corpus Christi.Photograph by Mackenzie Smith Kelley

Around the Tienda

A few of our favorite vendors at Sew Bonita.

Alexander Henry Fabrics: The textile-design house from Burbank, California, specializes in cotton fabric (pictured above) in solid colors as well as prints including sacred hearts, angels, and the Virgin of Guadalupe.

The Found: Chicago business partners Albert Tanquero and Jim York embrace diversity and social justice with mugs emblazoned with empowering messages and pins depicting pop divas.

Que Rico T-Shirt Company: Founded by Roman Flores and Isaac Padilla, this pop culture brand is built on humor and specializes in apparel for all ages, including onesies.

Siete Foods: The family-operated Austin company makes popular grain-free tortillas and chips as well as a line of seasonings and salsas.

Verve Culture: A set of Mexican napkins from this Colorado-based importer of artisan goods can be used to brighten the kitchen, keep tortillas warm, or wipe up spicy salsa verde.