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Aside from the racial disparities in the booming corporate world of cannabis, it’s also an overwhelmingly male-dominated industry. But a new wave of Latinas is emerging in Chicago’s local cannabis community who could challenge that.

After criminalizing communities of color for cannabis consumption, legalization allowed predominately white-owned pharmaceutical companies to make billions. At a federal level, cannabis is still classified as a Schedule I drug, in the same category as heroin and meth, while also currently being legalized for recreational use in twenty-four states nationwide. Last year, Illinois tax revenue generated more than $400 million in taxes and reached over a billion dollars in sales. 

“The plant is female, period. So it only makes sense for women to represent,” said AnaKaren Ramirez, a Gage Park native who founded AK40SEV in 2019, a cannabis-based clothing brand and events company. 

Ramirez, a proud DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) Dreamer, said that many of her supporters admit their own preconceived notions of assuming her brand is owned and managed by a man but she enjoys the shock of tearing down that delusion. “I’d meet people in person and they’d be like, ‘Wait, you’re AKAY40SEV? This whole entire time I thought [the owner] was a man,’” she said.

Ramirez balances being a single mother of two young daughters and working a full-time job in government while managing AKAY40SEV. She is also an advocate for diversity within the local cannabis industry. 

Ramirez’s first event was named Mother Mary Jane, with the purpose of having cannabis consumers bring their mothers to learn more about the benefits of cannabis consumption and to help educate first generation immigrant families.

Vanessa Cardenas and Victoria Cristina Ruiz, both Latinas and Logan Square natives, founded Rollin Rosa in 2022, a premium luxury brand providing vegan-organic, non-toxic pre-rolled pink cones crafted with a custom red rose filter. 

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“It’s not your every-day, it’s more for the people that want something a little more upscale, elegant, it’s an elevated experience. We’re the first to create custom rose filter tips,” Cardenas, who’s also a DACA Dreamer, said. 

“If you ever see a Rollin Rosa box, the first thing you see is a Brown girl on the cover, that’s rare. From the jump, it’s an experience. You slide the box open and the cones have their individual separators so they don’t get squished. It’s luxurious.” 

They remembered the moment that helped motivate them to pursue their business endeavor of creating Rollin Rosa. “We were misinformed that Blazy Susan was a woman-owned company, which is why we were giving them our business,” Cardenas said. “We then discovered it wasn’t a woman-owned business. It was run by a white male and then we thought, ‘well, if he could do it, why can’t we? We’re actually women—and we’re Latinas.’” 

Ruiz also recalled running into sexism when she pitched their products at dispensaries in Chicago.

“I went to a smoke shop trying to get their business. I gave them samples and showed them the catalog,” she said. “The gentleman specifically asked to speak to a man. I told him I was one of the owners, this is a two-woman show. There are no men operating within this company and he refused to do business with me because of that reason.”

Rollin Rosa will be celebrating its two-year anniversary this summer. They’ve come a long way since their start. “We didn’t know anything about the cannabis industry, we didn’t have resources,” Cardenas said.

Now, their signature vegan cones are currently available in more than dispensaries throughout the Midwest along with being stocked at select shops in New York and Massachusetts. They will also be launching a partnership with Urban Outfitters this month, distributing their products nationwide and at the flagship store in New York City. 

While women like Griselda Blanco and the “Queen of the South” are romanticized in contemporary pop culture, women working within the legal parameters of the cannabis industry are clearly facing adversity for simply being women in the business world. 

Latinas have also been historically hypersexualized or portrayed as subservient, while the term “marijuana” was manufactured out of anti-Mexican sentiment in order to vilify immigrants.

But a new generation of Latinas are breaking through all the stereotypes and barriers to let it be known that they are not here to be objectified, to serve men or to be exploited. They’re here to independently thrive, be successful in the industry and proudly represent their culture.

Credit: Mateo Zapata

South Sider Amorinda Martinez, who founded Tranquil Highs in 2019, curates medicinal meditative experiences in the West Loop that provide space for self-administered cannabis consumption. Martinez spent more than two decades working in hospitals and in leadership roles within the medical industry. Now she’s focused on providing healing services to her community. 

Martinez said she strongly believes in Indigenous traditions of plant medicine, adding that cycles of generational trauma endured by communities of color can be broken by learning about pre-colonial healing practices that involve plant medicine. 

“Women were always revered as medicine women, because we carry that divine feminine power,” Martinez said. “The women were the ones allocating medicine to the people of their communities. Naturally, we are the intuitive people, we are the empathetic people, we are more spiritually connected and, because of all those things, we have the ability to respect the medicine better.”

The cultural appropriation of meditative practices is another reason Martinez feels her work in communities of color is important. “People are now used to seeing white women doing this work, white women doing healing modalities,” she said. “Predominately white people come into my space and assume that I don’t own it, and they want to know where I learned my practices. When I tell them that I learned from elders [and] medicine women, they don’t take it for the value [for] which it really should be respected.” 

Liz Marie Palomo fosters community by consulting and providing education on the cannabis industry. Mota Mami, Palomo’s alter-ego and lifestyle brand provides infused essential oil candles and fragrances paired with positive daily reaffirmations. 

She started her career in the cannabis industry as a budtender and went on to manage three locations before deciding to leave the corporate space and become independent.

“As a Latina, in order to give back to your community, you need representation,” Palomo said. “I was the representation in [those] spaces for the tias and tios, the grandmas and grandpas that were trying to find an alternative means for their health. What was beautiful, as the store expanded, I was able to hire more Spanish-speakers/Latinas and expand that presence.”

It’s important to understand that while cannabis is still transitioning into becoming decriminalized, its consumption for decades has been driven by an underground economy supplied by local street dealers that also consist of “trap queens” or women dealers. 

Maria, a Latina who sells cannabis as a side hustle, said the reality is that many consumers are still purchasing their supply from underground dealers. Persistent racial disparities in the legal industry emphasize the importance of including Black and Brown women in that space, she added.

“I think we need more people of color, women of color, Black and Brown, to be more involved with legal cannabis and decriminalize it,” she said. “I think it’s great to do it legally, however I think that the dispensaries are taxing. I think that’s another reason my friends come to me other than the dispensaries, because it’s so expensive and, of course, I’m going to have the better price.” 

These Latinas strongly believe that if women want to legitimately become a part of the cannabis industry, they should.

“The message we want to send to the community is if you want to do something and if you got a dream, don’t let anyone stop you,” said Cardenas.

To find out more about these Latinas’ work, follow them on social media: @akayfortysev @rollinrosaco @tranquilhighs @motamami

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Mateo Zapata, a photojournalist and writer, is the son of Colombian and Chilean immigrants.

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