Meet Nopalera, A New Premium Bath And Body Care Brand Proudly Celebrating Latin Culture

“People don’t appreciate the level of artistry from Mexico. They want cheap Mexican products,” says Sandra Lilia Velasquez. “What irks me is that everyone is happy to pay for French bath and body products, and it’s because they think products from Europe are better. I want to make high-end products that play in that space and show Mexican products are just as good and high-end as products from France.”

The Latina entrepreneur is changing the narrative with Nopalera, a bath and body care line launching today, Día de los Muertos, dedicated to filling a gap in the personal care market for products speaking to and honoring Mexican Americans. It’s premiering with five stockkeeping units—Flor de Mayo Cactus Soap, Noche Clara Cactus Soap, Planta Futura Cactus Soap, Moisturizing Botanical Bar and Cactus Flower Exfoliant Mandarina—centered upon the ingredient nopal and housed in vivid packaging.

“I want it to do what Shea Moisture and Nubian Heritage have done for the African American community, but do it at the high-end level,” says Velasquez. “My intention is to celebrate and elevate Latin culture, so the products are undeniably gorgeous, and you can’t resist.”

Nopalera is launching with five stockkeeping units: Flor de Mayo Cactus Soap, Noche Clara Cactus Soap, Planta Futura Cactus Soap, Moisturizing Botanical Bar and Cactus Flower Exfoliant Mandarin. They are priced from $14 for individual soaps to $71 for a set containing a soap, botanical lotion bar and exfoliant. Amanda Lopez

Velasquez has strong ties to her Mexican heritage. Raised in San Diego, her mother Lilia Velasquez is a Mexican immigrant fighting for the rights of her fellow immigrants as a prominent immigration attorney. She insisted Velasquez learn Spanish, an ability she put to use as singer for Pistolera, a band founded in 2005 that merged cumbia and rock. In 2011, Velasquez’s children’s music group Moona Luna debuted with songs aimed at bilingual kids. Her latest musical effort is solo act SLV.

As she pursued music, Velasquez had day jobs to keep her afloat. She worked in the dance departments at The Juilliard School and Columbia University before being tapped by beverage company Mr. Mak’s Ginbao to guide production and distribution. The position at Mr. Mak’s Ginbao springboarded her into the consumer packaged goods sector, where she would go on to manage sales for chocolate purveyor Mast and zero-waste haircare brand HiBar, and develop a specialty in the supermarket channel.

“My intention is to celebrate and elevate Latin culture.”

Velasquez’s Nopalera lightbulb moment happened in the summer of 2019 while she was eating eggs and nopales at her parents’ house. Velasquez, who had recently taken up soap making, began to wonder why brands weren’t incorporating nopal in their products. Aloe vera was ubiquitous in beauty and personal care formulas, but nopales, the name for pads on Opuntia cacti that bear prickly pears, were absent.

“Nopales have been around my entire life, and I feel we take them for granted. They are there against fences and along the sides of freeways. They are this wonder plant because they need nothing,” says Velasquez. “All they need is dirt to grow, and they’re not only good for your digestion, but you can make textiles out of them and apply them on your skin the way you would apply aloe vera.”

Nopalera founder Sandra Lilia Velasquez
Nopalera founder Sandra Lilia Velasquez Shervin Lainez

She started replacing aloe vera with nopal in soap recipes and picked up a cooper sheet from the local hardware store that her artist father Luis Velasquez bent and welded into a sort of cookie cutter shape like a nopal to slice soap into nopal forms. The result was soap that fit nicely in the hand and underscored the nopal at the heart of the recipe. “Nopal is the most Mexican plant ever, and it’s resilient as hell,” says Velasquez. “For me, that’s the inspiration.”

Velasquez considered introducing Nopalera as a skincare brand. Her friend and brand strategist Julie Kucinski helped persuade her to turn it into a bath and body care brand. “She said, ‘Is this a skincare brand or is this a bath and body brand?’ I had never made that distinction, but, once she asked that question, I said, ‘I think I’m a bath and body brand because I can’t envision myself authentically coming out with products just for the face that are supposed to make you beautiful because the whole brand is rooted in the belief you already are,’” says Velasquez. The bath and body care orientation suited her practical personality, too. She doesn’t load up her medicine cabinet with gratuitous personal care merchandise.

“Nopal is the most Mexican plant ever, and it’s resilient as hell. For me, that’s the inspiration.”

Nopalera’s products are priced from $14 for individual soaps to $71 for a set containing a soap, botanical lotion bar and exfoliant. The vegan, cruelty-free and palm oil-free soaps are designed to be rich in plant butters for moisturization purposes and lightly scented. Nopalera’s products meet Whole Foods’ and Credo’s ingredient standards. Currently, the brand manufactures products in-house, but Velasquez is vetting co-packers to eventually outsource manufacturing. It cost her $25,000 to get Nopalera off the ground, including packaging, website creation, branding and ingredients. About half of it came from Scholastic Corp.’s timely licensing of four Moona Luna songs for educational programming.

Graphic designer Abby Haddican handled the packaging illustration. In her brief to Haddican about Nopalera’s packaging, Velasquez instructed her it had to be unabashedly Mexican. “There can be no assimilation in the branding,” she recounts she told Haddican. Nopalera’s bright color palette contains orange, yellow, pink and green. The lynchpin of the packaging design is a woman surrounded by the sun’s rays with three nopales sprouting from her head. Velasquez describes her as the Nopalera goddess woman. “She represents us. She represents our inner wisdom and our culture,” says Velasquez. “She is very striking. She looks very serious and also friendly, but mostly badass.”

In addition to nopal, Nopalera’s vegan, cruelty-free and palm-oil free soaps contain rice bran, castor seed and coconut oils, and shea and cocoa seed butters. The brand’s products meet Credo’s and Whole Foods’ ingredient standards. Amanda Lopez

Although Velasquez is a supermarket expert, she’s targeting upscale clothing, home goods and lifestyle stores to build Nopalera’s retail network. Going forward, the brand will straddle personal care, home goods and lifestyle categories with products such as candles, journals and oil cleanser. Gifting is expected to be an important sales driver for Nopalera. The brand’s goal for first-year sales is at least $100,000.

Direct-to-consumer distribution will play a big role. Early on, Nopalera tested social media advertising with simply its logo and the phrase, “Mexican botanicals for bath and body,” in American cities with large Mexican-American populations—Los Angeles, Dallas and Houston among them—and the brand promptly collected 800 emails. Nopalera will continue to reach out to Mexican-Americans, a group that constituted 36.6 million people in the United States in 2017, according to the Pew Research Center, via social media to grow its DTC consumer base.

“The women that are going to be attracted to this are women who love their cultures and families, and they believe in human rights and equality. They have a certain set of values that allows them to be like, ‘Yes! Why didn’t this exist already?’ They have their fists in the air, and that’s why they got on board. They are proud of the brand because they are proud of themselves,” says Velasquez. “There are millions of us, and I’ve only just scratched the surface.”