Each month we’re spotlighting a designer and collaborator on Shrill Society whose work brings a theme from our Nasty Woman planner into your closet. In March, our focus is on immigration and civil rights. We're excited to talk with Texas-based designer Jen Zeano of Jen Zeano Designs about her Latina Power shirt, working with formerly detained youth, and her campaign to save Netflix’s Latinx family sitcom.
Shrill Society: You were not a designer when you started making shirts.
Jen Zeano: [laughs] No, I was not!
Can you talk about how you found yourself creating your own t-shirt business?
I started at the very, very, very beginning. I was hand drawing on mugs. I was kind of just doing it locally, trying to get orders from friends and family. Then I realized I wanted to do something else because I wanted to leave my full-time job. So that’s when I started making shirts. I did the first design and, I kid you not, it took me weeks to even figure out how to use Illustrator and Photoshop because I had no idea. After what felt like forever, I released the first shirt, which was not the Latina Power shirt, it was another shirt that we still have on our site. I invested whatever we made and just continued until we were able to make more shirts. It wasn’t until I made the Latina Power shirt that I really figured out where I wanted to take the business.
Making the Latina Power shirt was a defining moment in the popularity of your business and it sounds like for you personally. Can you talk about what was going on in your life at the time and the inspiration for the shirt?
Totally. It was actually Trump. There’s really no other way to put it. I was feeling very disheartened, frustrated, and helpless. At the same time, I was feeling very upset and angry. So that’s when I decided to create the Latina Power shirt. It was around the election time. I did that mostly for myself. I didn’t think people would react the way they have reacted so far and still continue to react. It was more of, I think, “this is something I need.” Then the fact that people reacted so well, absolutely loved it, and felt the same sense of empowerment that I was trying to create for myself, that was just the cherry on top. Once I realized that people wanted that, that they wanted to feel that empowerment from our own Latina community, then that’s when I was like, “this is exactly what I’m meant to be doing.” I focused on that solely and it defined my whole entire brand. That’s when I decided JZD was going to be a Latina empowerment brand.
It’s amazing because Natalie Gaimari, who we talked with last month, tells the same story. And Amanda [Shrill Society’s co-founder], who designed the Nasty Woman shirt says the same thing. Each of you had this moment of feeling disempowered or shocked or vulnerable and making something for yourself, only to find out there was a whole community of people who also wanted the same thing.
I didn’t know that!
One of the things that’s important to us at Shrill Society is helping people translate their values and the things they believe in into their everyday actions. How do you embody your Latina Power ethos in your daily life and work?
I’m Mexicana and I live in a border town. For us, I don’t know, 98 or 99% of our population is Latinx [93.20% per the 2010 census], so we’re not exposed to as much racism or discrimination as we would be if we lived in a different town. But because we are in Brownsville [Texas], we have a lot of the shelters where the immigrant children are, and we have detention centers where teenagers and adults are being held. So we try to be active and help out as much as we can. When I started selling the Latina Power shirt, we started donating to the ACLU because I felt that’s where the most help was needed. Now we donate, not to the shelter itself, but we have detention centers, so sometimes the kids―well they’re not kids, they are teenagers, but they are kids because they are so young and they don’t know what to do. These teenagers, when they turn 18, they get released without anything. They have no money. They have no food. They have sometimes no shelter. They just get a bus ticket. So we help out to make sure that they have food or that they have money to make phone calls because they don’t even get phone calls sometimes. So that’s where we try to be active. We take advantage of the fact that we live in a border town and that we’re able to help people that are in our direct community. When we can, we still donate to the ACLU and Planned Parenthood.
You said “we.” I’d love to hear about who supports you in your business.
It’s actually my wife! She used to work at an immigration law firm. She did that for about two years. She was working there helping the kids in the shelters and in the detention centers, which is how and why we know about them. She would help them find some sort of relief, whether that was placing them with family members or finding them sponsors. But about six months ago, she left that job to help with the business. So now both of us are doing JZD full time.
That’s incredible, one that you’ve been able to expand and support both of you, but also that you two have been able to marry your passion and expertise in this way.
She landed that job and about two or three months later I created Latina Power. It was perfect because she was already in that community, and the people she was working with were so devoted to helping these kiddos. She’s always been super passionate about immigration. We were able to use the resources she had to find out about these detention centers that people don’t talk about, that many people don’t even know exist.