Welcome to Mis Recuerdos (translates to, “my memories” or “my souvenirs“), a series inspired by the daily stories and anecdotes that we hold close to our hearts because they remind us of our culture and past travel experiences. When I launched Recuerdos it was that burning desire I had to create a space where we can all immerse ourselves in the culture of travel by making it part of our daily lives. But more than just travel, Recuerdos celebrates heritage and traditions that are passed on from generation to generation and makes our lives that much richer.
Today we are speaking with Aisha Cort, a lecturer, entrepreneur, and lover of the culture of travel. Inspired by her Afro-Latina roots, she launched Vela Negra, a shop centered around the beauty of scents through candles and body care. In this interview, Aisha speaks to us about her heritage, the power of scents as a way to connect to travel, and the importance of celebrating our culture through thoughtful recuerdos.
Where are you connecting with us from?
I’m based out of DC, by way of Boston. I’m a full-time lecturer of Spanish at Howard University and a full-time entrepreneur and founder of VELA NEGRA, and also, Hey Dr. Cort!
What’s your story?
My mother and father are from Cuba and Guyana, respectively. My mother came to the states in the 1960s, and my father came in the 1970s. I was born and raised in Boston, MA. My grandmother was born in Cuba, spent a chunk of her childhood in Jamaica, and was raised by her Panamanian grandparents.
What inspired you to launch Vela Negra?
I learned candle-making from my Cuban grandmother as a child but had picked it back up in recent years as a stress-reducing outlet, and I was also sick of picking over candle scraps at TJ Maxx and Marshall’s. With VELA NEGRA, I wanted to create a mindful, environmentally conscious, but luxurious addition to the home.
I’ve had the plans for VELA NEGRA written down for almost 7 years, but I didn’t end up launching until 2020 – in the middle of the pandemic — it was a time of intense uncertainties when the home was catapulted to the center of our lives for work, play, and communion. 2020 was also a time when we were questioning and renegotiating our understanding of heritage and identity and how those are reflected and celebrated in our daily lives.
How are you celebrating your Cuban heritage through Vela Negra?
VELA NEGRA is really the combination of a desire to capture and share a piece of my Afro-Cuban and Guyanese culture, to create a viable and respectful alternative beyond the scraps of what the outside world gives us, and also wanting to be intentional about what we create and what we bring into our home.
What recuerdos are you reminiscing about with each scent?
Each fragrance transports me to someplace and some different time. For example, Morena brings me back to being 5 or 6 and being wrapped up in the warmest hugs by my mother or grandmother. Wepa brings me back to Luquillo Beach in Puerto Rico, while Ashé, brings me back to Habana del este.
Can you walk us through the significance of the names you gave the candles?
I go for fragrances that create a feeling. For example, ‘Ashé’, you hear that in Afro-Cuban Regla de Ocha practice. People say ‘Ashé’, and it’s a blessing and a greeting. In my family when we say it, it’s similar to how people would say ‘Bendición’. Also, it is this understanding of an essence that every living being has. It’s your life, energy, Ashé. For Ashé, I tried six different fragrances until I felt that the smell was communicating what I wanted. The same thing with Morena and Azúcar, or even Coquí. That whole season that you drink coquito, what does that feel like? Trying to get that into fragrance is a whole process. You have to make sure that things burn right and that the fragrance works, but also make sure that when you smell it, it hits the frontal cortex where all your memories are. Making sure that the final fragrance connects with that part of your brain and makes you feel something is important for me.
Grandmothers are the keepers of wisdom and love in our Latin families and we love how Vela Negra is inspired by your Abuela! Tell us more about that.
I am the child of immigrants – My mother and my father. Each of them came to this country and started from scratch, staying connected to their roots and family while pushing for something greater. I wouldn’t be here or have accomplished even a portion of what I’ve done so far in my life without their guidance and support. I really am a mere reflection of them. I also come from a family of makers. – My grandmother + mother. My grandmother was a maker and a creative – before we started using those words. She trained as a tailor before she came to the U.S., From my grandmother, I learned how to crochet (that was my thing), knit, and make candles. I learned how to make soaps and butter from my mother. I learned how to make coconut oil from scratch from my dad and my aunt. As a first-generation business owner, I have been able to build upon their examples of industriousness, ambition, boldness, and resilience. These are traits and characteristics that I observed as a child but that also can not be taught in an MBA course. I feel lucky to be able to transfer these traits, as well as other strengths, to my practice as an entrepreneur.
Whether it is as a professor or in your business, it’s clear that culture is very important to you. What are your thoughts on encouraging people to travel deeper? What are some ways people can do this while traveling or from home?
I believe that travel can and should be more than just consumption, so I would encourage travelers to lead with intention and mindfulness – in whatever you do. As you curate experiences and memories, consider how you can make more impactful decisions and be deliberate with your dollars.
Your favorite travel destination and why?
Cuba is always number one because it just feels like home and I still have family there so I can move around with ease. After that, I lean into destinations like Mexico and Brazil where there is something in the air and I can get close to that feeling.
What is a destination you plan to explore soon?
I have not yet been to the African continent or Asia. I did my ancestry.com and would like to travel to the countries that showed up – Benin, Ghana, Nigeria, Senegal. I had a trip planned to Japan in 2020, but you know… pandemic. I’d also like to see Thailand, Indonesia, and Singapore.
What recuerdos (souvenirs) do you love bringing home when you travel?
I am not really a t-shirt or person, and I wish I were, so I love to grab recuerdos like magnets, notebooks, and little unique trinkets like rings and bracelets that I will actually use.