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Painted Hats Connect Charlotte Dreamer With His Mexican Heritage

Hats for home

Trey Klingensmith and Jorge Gonzalez at a Bonitos Hats pop-up
Trey Klingensmith (left) and Jorge Gonzalez at a Bonitos Hats pop-up. (Courtesy of Bonitos Hats)

The American Dream at its most idealistic is the belief that anyone, regardless of where they were born or their socioeconomic class, can attain success through hard work and determination in a society where upward mobility is possible for everyone. 

It may not always be attainable for marginalized groups in our country, but it’s a notion that’s inspired generations of people to come here and try; that includes the parents of Charlotte Dreamer Jorge Gonzalez.

With aspirations for a better future for their family, Gonzalez’s parents brought him to the United States from Guanajuato, Mexico, illegally in 1999. He was 11 years old when he left his hometown and hasn’t been back since — but not by choice.

As a recipient of President Barack Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, Gonzalez was granted the temporary right to legally live, study and work in America as someone who entered the country illegally as a child. 

However, if Gonzalez were to return to Guanajuato to visit, he wouldn’t be able to return to the U.S. As a Dreamer — a nickname for DACA recipients that came from the heretofore failed Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act, for which DACA was the resulting compromise — Gonzalez can travel outside the country for work, school or humanitarian reasons, but not for leisure.

Now living in Charlotte, Gonzalez told Queen City Nerve that, ever since he left Guanajuato, he has been searching for a way to bridge the distance and feel more connected to his family and Mexican culture.

His latest business venture, Bonitos Hats, is his way of doing just that.

In April 2021, Gonzalez learned his cousin, Monse, who lives in Mexico, was struggling to earn sustainable income through her practice making hand-painted jute and canvas hats — a family tradition dating back 40 to 50 years. 

Eager to help, Gonzalez suggested they partner to sell the hats in the U.S. 

“I hadn’t seen them around, painted hats; they’re everywhere in Mexico for sure, but I had never seen them here in the states, so I was like, why not? Let’s see what happens,” he said.

Gonzalez and his husband, Trey Klingensmith, officially launched Bonitos Hats in June 2021 with their first pop-up at NoDa Brewing. They admit they weren’t sure how the hand-painted hats, so popular in Latin culture, would be received in Charlotte. But the feedback they received at that first event put them at ease.

“We sold five and I was ecstatic,” Gonzalez said. “At that point I was like, at least someone likes it.”

For him, Bonitos Hats has become a way to share a piece of his own cultural background while connecting to the hometown he strives to see again someday. 

“It does bring a lot of memories and some sort of sentimental value to it to know that part of my culture and part of the work that I’m doing that’s also representing my culture is out there,” he said. “These hats are part of my culture and when I see them out there it brings joy to my heart.”

Tapping into a hidden talent

A Bonitos hat’s journey begins in Mexico, where Monse makes them from canvas or jute — a long, soft, shiny bast fiber that can be spun into coarse, strong threads. The company also offers vegan leather and vegan suede hats, which they outsource. 

Most hats arrive in Charlotte completely blank, but some come partially painted by Monse — allowing Gonzalez and Klingensmith to add any necessary finishing touches or embellishments.

At first, Klingensmith would just do the crafting styles on the vegan suede and leather hats while Gonzalez did only painting, but as word spread and volume increased, they both began taking on all roles.

A man wearing a painted hat
Bonitos Hats are hanging in gallery walls and on heads all over town. (Courtesy of Bonitos Hats)

Though the couple has always been creative — Gonzalez’s background is in advertising and graphic design while Klingensmith works in interior design — Bonitos Hats has helped spur entirely new aspects of their artistic abilities. 

For one, Gonzalez discovered his talent for painting. He said it’s now an outlet of expression for him and a way to decompress from his full-time job at Duke Energy. 

It can take him four to five days to complete one hand-painted hat, as each stage of the design can only progress after it dries. On darker colored hats, Gonzalez paints the design first in white, waits for it to dry, then adds colors on top so they pop against the background.

“And depending on how many colors we choose for a hat, that’s so many different layers and each layer has to dry to move on to the next,” Klingensmith added.

Vegan suede and vegan leather hats require special paints and can be sealed with a water repellent spray to protect them. Hand-painted jute and canvas hats are sealed with a clear acrylic polyurethane cover so they don’t fade or smear. That last step makes them water-resistant and UV ray-protected.

“You can literally dump them in the ocean. They can get salt water on them. They won’t smear or fade,” Klingensmith said, the salesman jumping out of him.

Painted hats
Examples of painted hats (Courtesy of Bonitos Hats)

Bonitos Hats, which translates to “beautiful hats,” offers dozens of unique designs from traditional Mexican patterns to butterflies, flowers, birds, cacti, feathers, snakes and even custom designs. Though some are more popular than others, no two hats are exactly alike.

“Because they’re handmade and hand-painted, customers are always going to have a little something that’s kind of unique to their own hat,” Gonzalez said. “While you will see some that are very similar and very alike, but they’re not going to be the same.”

Gonzalez and Klingensmith have come to realize that the hat often chooses its wearer. They’ve noticed customers at their pop-ups gravitate toward what speaks to them, and have even seen people who claim they don’t wear hats change their mind once they put one on and look in the mirror.

Even if they’re truly not interested in wearing the hats, Klingensmith pointed out that they make for great wall decor. Some are currently on display at Tough Ass Crew’s art gallery in NoDa. 

“They are wearable pieces of art,” Klingensmith said. “That’s important, too, because we want them to see that yes, they are art, but you can wear them. They’re fun. You don’t have to worry about messing them up.”

‘A constant battle’

Gonzalez and Klingensmith launched Bonitos Hats with a goal to help Monse make ends meet in Mexico and provide for her family as a single mother. 

They began selling the hats through word-of-mouth, participating in pop-ups in Charlotte, Asheville, Charleston, Raleigh, Durham and Winston-Salem. Now they ship all over the world through their online store and have even floated the idea of a brick-and-mortar location.

“We didn’t have a plan when we started this, honestly, and we currently don’t,” Gonzalez said. “We’re just kind of riding that wave.”

Though he’s happy to be helping his extended family through Bonitos Hats, he still feels a tinge of guilt from not being able to visit them in Mexico due to his DACA status. 

The U.S. is home to approximately 700,000 Dreamers who, like Gonzalez, are stuck in temporary legal status limbo. That’s because DACA, unlike the proposed DREAM Act, does not provide a path to citizenship for recipients.

The DREAM Act is a bipartisan legislative proposal to grant permanent legal status to certain undocumented immigrants who were brought to the U.S. as children and went to school here. Several versions of the bill have been introduced in Congress since 2001, but none have ever passed.

While DACA was a saving grace for Gonzalez, it’s been anything but stable.

In September 2017, the Trump administration ordered an end to DACA and pressured Congress to enact a replacement before recipients lost their protections. The move was blocked by lower courts and taken to the Supreme Court, which ruled against Trump and in favor of keeping DACA in June 2020. 

On Jan. 20, 2021, President Joe Biden issued an executive order reinstating DACA. Seven months later, federal judge Andrew Hanen ruled the program was illegally created and implemented after several states sued on the grounds that Obama had no authority to create DACA, as it bypassed Congress.

Under Hanen’s ruling, the government is currently barred from approving new DACA applications. However, Dreamers like Gonzalez who are already protected by the program can keep their status and apply for renewals while the case goes through the appeals process.

A man wearing Bonitos Hats on the beach
Bonitos Hats are hanging in gallery walls and on heads all over town. (Courtesy of Bonitos Hats)

In the meantime, a new version of the DREAM Act passed through the House of Representatives in March 2021, but hasn’t gotten through the Senate. 

Still, Gonzalez remains optimistic. 

“It’s going to be a constant battle, but I think we’re getting closer,” Gonzalez said.

He is currently going through the application process for a green card, for which he is eligible thanks to his marriage, and in the meantime he is doing what he can to share and connect with his Mexican heritage and Latin culture through Bonitos Hats. 

Gonzalez pointed out that many of their hand-painted designs reflect cultural aspects like the Aztec calendar and the monarch butterfly — a spiritual symbol used during Day of the Dead celebrations that is believed to represent the souls of ancestors returning to bring comfort to loved ones.

In that way, Bonitos Hats serves to celebrate and teach others about Latin culture. For Gonzalez, it helps him bridge the distance and feel just a bit closer to his Mexican family. 

And he’s not alone.

Gonzalez recalled selling Bonitos hats at a Day of the Dead festival at Camp North End in 2021. He said people came up to his booth and thanked him, saying the hand-painted hats reminded them of home.

“It’s so nice to see that it brings a little joy to their heart and maybe they’re in the same situation as I am, I don’t know,” he said, “and to be able to provide that little piece of their culture and their country is amazing to me.”

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