Tuesday, December 1, 2015


           Two years ago a friend on Facebook, a guy I never met who lives on the East Coast, contacted me through Facebook’s chat function with an “amazing opportunity” and because he “couldn’t sleep at night” he wanted to “share this once-in-a-lifetime chance” with a “real go-getter.”  
            I guess I was the go-getter. 
            He explained to me that the grand prize for the person who could sell the most within the parameters of this “opportunity” was a brand new BMW. 
            “Who wouldn’t want to own a BMW???” he typed emphatically.
            “Well,” I began, “just last week I bought a BMW, a slightly used X5.”  I explained some of the features:  a sleek merino leather interior and a really cool moon roof that I can open up while cruising north on the Pacific Highway pretending to be in a Mr. Mister video.
            I don’t remember the exact words he used, but his response to my enthusiasm was a comment along the lines of “Well, la-dee-dah.”  I didn’t expect this, of course.  If anyone is excited about their new car purchase and talks to me about it, I am happy for them, I don’t scorn them.  I don’t feel any sort of envy in situations like this.  I actually find that when people upgrade their cars or their homes I tend to feel inspired.  My Italian immigrant grandfather used to say, “Quando il sole splende, il sole splende per tutti,” That phrase translates to this:  “When the sun shines, the sun shines for everybody.”  If someone can work hard and buy something nice, then I can, too.
            My life was not always that of the entrepreneur with the cool German car living a shorts-based existence in beachy southern California.  Truth be told, for most of the time I have owned my company, it has been a struggle.  It’s taken me a lot of work to get to where I am now.  I know that most people refuse to look at the work involved and glamorize the life of people who start their own businesses.  I suppose this comes from seeing too many informercials promising that you, too, can be sipping mai tais in Fiji while your business runs itself, or the latter-day equivalent:  the YouTube ad with the guy who claims that if you read a book a day you can start your own business, tool around in an Italian sports car all day and live in a (rented) mansion full of tacky décor (just click your mouse and transfer some cash for the “secrets”).
            I constantly remind myself of a time many Junes ago in hot Phoenix when I was staring down at a bleak summer after a somewhat mediocre holiday season and spring.  I owned a retail store then and I knew that for the next 3 months traffic would be way down inside my store because people would be either hiding under rocks or heading to San Diego to get out of the heat, anything but driving around that hellish metropolis to go shopping.  So, with credit cards at their limits and very little cash in the bank and not yet having proved my credit-worthiness to qualify for a line of credit with my bank, I sat down at my kitchen table to budget out the summer.  I used estimates on sales and worked with what little money I had left.  Part of this budget included spending $90 for the MONTH on food.    In order for everything to work I had to spend no more than $3 a day on food.  Yes, this was in the United States.  Could I do it?
            I found creative ways to stretch my food dollars.  I discovered the ethnic grocery stores – Mexican and Vietnamese – that sold the basics in bulk for less than any “big box” store.  They also received the second-rate produce that was not up to the chain store standards.  Tomatoes were three pounds for a dollar.  Lettuce was fifty cents per head.  Meats were cheaper at the Mexican places and fish was cheaper at the Vietnamese places.  I was also introduced to new foods at these stores.  At Loi Nam Grocery I will never forget the delight on the face of an Asian man in his 80s when a worker at the store dumped out a crate of what looked like a type of tomato.  The old man was so happy, smiling broadly and muttering ecstatic phrases to himself in his own language.  I had to ask what these things were.  His daughter who could speak some English told me they were a certain type of persimmon found in Vietnam and Laos.  I bought some.  They were cheap and I had to see what all the fuss was about.  It was that June I learned to appreciate the small joys in discovering a new fruit.
            I had a small plastic container in my kitchen for my food money.  When the calendar ground to the end of June I found that I had 83 cents left in this container.  83 cents!  I survived on 3 bucks a day for food and had money left over.  I did it.  Yay!
            I wanted to shout my victory from the rooftops.  I told some customers about what I did.  Most people reacted in the opposite way of how I felt.  One older lady looked at me gravely and tears swelled up in her eyes.  “I never knew things were so bad for you,” she said quietly.  I didn’t share this sadness.  I felt like I had accomplished something massive.
            Most people don’t know this story of mine.  While I feel those days are far behind me I know full well that things could go back to this – for me or for anyone else – and I am fine with knowing I could do what it takes to make do with what I have.  What I wrote here was not meant to garner any sort of sympathy or to engender feelings of any sort, good or bad.  I would only ask that when I do buy that beach house overlooking the Pacific that you please keep in mind my $3-a-day struggle and just be happy for me.

Monday, September 14, 2015



When I owned my retail store in Phoenix I would get certain people who would walk in my door; look around at all the colorful, exotic and unusual (not mutually exclusive terms) merchandise; and come up to me and ask, “Do you need anyone to help you on buying trips?”  The person who would ask this was usually a yoga-poised, upper-middle-class, white woman tending toward middle age.  If you have ever lived in Phoenix, the typical “buying trip” questioner usually hailed from North Scottsdale or some other tony area of “The Valley.”  Their questions were sincere, and so were my replies.
            “Do you speak Spanish or Portuguese?” I would begin.
            The expression on their faces always would start to change with that first question.
            “Have you had any experience in Mexico or other parts of Latin America outside of the touristy or beach resorts?”  I would continue.
            By the second question the light was usually out of people’s faces.  What I was asking was going counter to their image of a buying trip.  I’m not sure if Cost Plus or Pier One commercials have anything to do with it, but I can only imagine what these women were thinking what buying for my store was actually like.  I can only assume that they pictured themselves in some sort of khaki-colored safari outfit complete with pith helmet and white silk scarf, standing beside a truck with a clipboard in hand, watching other people load that truck, and having a translator close at hand so that nothing would be missed.
            Can I tell you that I have never had a buying trip like that?
            Most of the times I go buying, I do go to the remotest places to find the best stuff.  I chuckled when I received a Yelp review back in 2006 that called me “The Indiana Jones of Latin American Arts and Crafts.”  While I do occasionally get lazy and buy stuff from trade shows, most of my merchandise comes from the small towns throughout the hemisphere, from the unsung folk artists working from home with their families and friends in some of the most desolate areas.  Going to the “untrodden” places myself ensures a constant flow of fresh, unusual items to delight my customers.
            And buying trips usually are a TON of work and fraught with many difficulties.  So, you’ve heard of a magical town in the mountains where its inhabitants make the best stuff?  Well, the bus might not show up to take you there, or it will break down on the road, or if you hire a driver the driver’s car’s axle will become so choked with sand that you can’t make it to the destination (all have happened to me).  Are you short-handed for loading the truck?  YOU load the truck.  Did your favorite crafter forget to put “Hecho en Mexico” stickers on your merchandise?  Tough luck.  It looks like you will be staying up until 3:00 in the morning in your marginal hotel room putting stickers on all of your colorful finds, hoping that the hotel doesn’t turn off the electricity for the evening before you are finished.
            I have to say that physical fitness is a key component of a successful buying trip and I hadn’t realized it until my last buying trip of 2 months ago.  Being in good physical form never even crossed my mind in years past.  I just got up and went and did what I needed to do.  I took my body for granted.  Well, this July 2015 buying trip really kicked my butt because I have never been so out of shape in my life.  The previous July I had an accident and couldn’t walk (or walk properly) for a good 9 months.  I couldn’t exercise much and I put on weight.  I didn’t think much of it until I took this buying trip.  It was 100% urban – no jungles, mountain, deserts, etc. – and it kicked my butt!  I had never been so sore and in so much pain, and I really didn’t do much.  Sure, I was on the go for 100% of the time, because you can’t relax and ALWAYS have to maximize your time on buying trips, but it really shouldn’t have affected me the way it did.  That last buying trip was a wake-up call and I am making the changes that I need to so that all future buying trips will be easy, at least when it comes to anything to do with the physical aspect.
            Even now, while I am 100% online, I get the buying trip requests.  I don’t mind the company and sometimes I have gone with other people on these purchasing adventures.  If your passport is handy and you fit the buying trip criteria I would welcome an extra pair of hands and someone to talk to.  Another person can be of great help, no doubt about it.  Just leave the pith helmet and the clipboard at home.

Sunday, June 8, 2014


It's really hard for me to believe that it's been 25 years since I took that first train down into the heart of Mexico as a student.  I've been back there to work once (in 1995) and have gone there, literally, countless times since I started Sueños Latin American Imports back in 1999.  It's a second home, but is still a place of mystery and adventure to me.  Following is the entry I wrote exactly 25 years ago today, by hand, in pencil, in the pages of a blank journal.  I hope you enjoy following along with me.

Ciudad Juárez, Chihuahua                                                                                 June 8, 1989

     Well, I finally made it!  I'm sitting quite patiently at the Ciudad Juárez train station.  So far the trip has been nothing less than eventful.  I travelled out to El Paso with 4 people in a cramped Datsun but I can't complain; it was cheaper than the bus or plane.  Upon arriving in El Paso we took a rickety bus to nowhere - actually somewhere, but I don't quite know.  It took us across the border all right, but it didn't stop at immigration.  Wandering aimlessly in the foreign city, we finally got to the place "to get our tourist cards stamped."  There was a little hassle but we got through it fine.  We proceeded by taxi to the train station to wait and wait and wait.  Although the train is late and we are all a bit wearied, it has given me many chances like these to reflect upon things.  I have to admit, it hasn't hit me yet.  Overall, I feel very content and happy with my decision to come here in this manner.  Sometimes apprehension is present but that is quickly replaced with excitement and happy thoughts of anticipation.  So goes my first day of my first adventure in a foreign land.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014


Carlin, Dan. “Little Shop of ‘Miracles.’” The Arizona Republic. 27 Aug. 2004: E1, E2.



Little shop of ‘miracles’


Milagro buyers, store owner find good fortune in Latino charms


By Dan Carlin


            Robert Bitto runs an unusual store for an extraordinary clientele.

            Many of his customers hug him when they enter his shop, buy him presents on his birthday and invite him out for dinner throughout the week.

            They do so because Bitto is a friend, but also because he and his central Phoenix shop, Sueños Latin American Imports, have altered their lives in profound ways.

            “I meet the most interesting people here,” says Bitto, 36.

            “This stuff really opens people,” he says, gesturing to the kaleidoscopic collection of arts, crafts and religious tokens that fills the walls and covers the floor of his store. “I hear a lot of stories about what’s happened in connection with the things I sell here. You have to wonder what’s going on.”

            Bitto sells milagros (Spanish for “miracles”), rustic, metal charms shaped like body parts, animals and various allegorical subjects that are said to possess supernatural powers.

            Sometimes he sells them in bulk over the Internet, but mostly he delivers them one by one over the counter at Sueños, his bright yellow store on Seventh Avenue. The business has connected him to the curious culture of milagros, drawing him into the lives of the characters who shop there.


Finding comfort


On a recent afternoon, Cecelia Larson, a grave-looking woman with a tousle of dark hair, comes into the store with an ordinary request.

“My sister is having eye surgery tomorrow,” she says. “I want to put a candle and a milagro by her bedside to help protect her during the procedure.”

Bitto nods and sifts through a wicker basket on his counter filled with different milagros – pistols, horses, livers, lungs. After a few moments, he finds what he’s looking for and extracts a glittering metal eye form the pile.

He presents it to Larson for her approval, then slips the object into a small, yellow envelope and places it on the counter. Larson covers it with a protective and smiles slightly, as if suddenly reassured.

Many of Bitto’s clients are middle-aged Mexican-American women, but they are also young mothers, U.S. Marines, pagans, devout Catholics, elderly Anglo-Americans and teens, all joined by a belief in the power of milagros.

Bitto often hears how his milagros helped a couple to conceive or saved a customer from a debilitating illness or protected a loved one in danger.

Customers at Sueños speak freely about divorces and family problems, illnesses and tragedies. Many of them stop by the store simply because a visit makes them feel better.

“You just feel comfortable here,” says Jeanette Sinohui, a Sueños customer since 1999. “You can just come in a say hello, then turn around and leave without buying anything.”


Something to believe in


            Walking into the brightly colored interior of the store is a calming experience. Water trickles from a fountain in the center of the store while tiny mariachi or norteño music pipes in softly over the stereo.

            The orange wall of Sueños’ interior glow with the colors of the art and crafts Bitto has collected from all over Latin America – shiny ceramic chickens from Mexico, checkered quilts from Peru, delicate paper roses from Chile.

            One corner is covered with dozens of crosses of all sizes, made from Brazilian driftwood, Mexican bottle caps, plastic, silver and everything else imaginable.

            Sinohui says she comes in to see Bitto at least twice a month because it “lightens my day.”

            And she buys milagros for herself and her friends because of what they’ve done for her in the past.

            “As you go through life and medical things happen, (milagros) give you something you can believe in, that you can hold in your hand,” she explains.

            Bitto isn’t sure what to think when he hears stories of the milagros’ power. A self-declared fallen Catholic, he grew up without the cultural experiences of most of his customers (his father is an Italian immigrant, his mother is descended form 17th century Dutch and French settlers.)

            “I’m not a believer and I’m not a non-believer,” he says. “If the supernatural rears its head, I’ll look at it.”

            Plenty of Sueños customers cast a similarly skeptical eye on the more esoteric products sold in the shop.

            Karen Perry, a former lawyer, shops at Sueños to furnish her Scottsdale home and her condo in Rocky Point.

            When asked about milagros and the religious items in the store, Perry lowers her voice to a conspiratorial whisper, “There are a few things that are a little scary to me.”


Bad times, good times


            Bitto says he started Sueños to fill a niche for unique goods. After five years of working as an international accountant for American Express, Bitto considered getting a doctorate in anthropology.

            Plan B was to open a Latin American imports store with the contacts he’d built over the years. Through six months of studying in Mexico and years of traveling around Southern America, Bitto had gathered the names of artisans throughout Latin America, thinking they might be useful some day.

            He quit his job in 1997 and opened Sueños in a storefront at Camelback Road and Central Avenue. Two years later business outgrew the space, and he moved to Seventh Avenue.

            In a business as emotional as Bitto’s, store traffic tends to fluctuate on the mood of the country. When things are bad, business is good, and he says there has been a revival in milagros in the last few years.

            Marion Oettinger Jr., curator of Latin American art and interim director of the San Antonia Museum, says milagros have always reflected the concerns of the Southwestern Hispanic society.

            “They’re more than just objects,” Oettinger says. “They’re also a part of a cultural complex, and they can tell us a lot about the people who use them.”

            A few other stores in Arizona and around the West cater to the rising interest, selling milagros and crosses, but he familial atmosphere at Sueños draws customers from all over the state, and Bitto has even made friends around the world through Internet sales.

            And while stores like Casa del Corazon in Encinitas, Calif., or Milagros Gallery in Sonoma, Calif., stock milagros for collectors, Bitto attracts a working-class Mexican-American clientele. Most of the milagros at Sueños cost 95 cents each, or $28.95 for a bog of 100.

            Sometimes Bitto wonders if Sueños is worth the trouble. Prostitutes stroll the street on cooler days, and some mornings he has to kick drunks off the stoop of his shop.

            In January he was robbed, tied up in a backroom until a neighbor discovered him.

            “At that point, sales weren’t very good, and the robbery just made things worse,” Bitto says. “I came in one day and just yelled at the top of my lungs, ‘I hate this place!’”

            After word spread of the robbery, one customer offered Bitto two counseling sessions with a therapist.

            Bitto declined, but the kindness of the gesture made him realize that Sueños was much more than a store.

            “Whenever I think of closing this place down, I think of the impact on peoples’ lives, in the countries where I buy the stuff and here, and I can’t do it.”