Embracing Identity Through Fragrance: Bonita Fierce Candles Ignites Latinx Heritage and Culture in the Home

By Christine Nappi, Senior Writer

Strike a match, light a candle and immerse yourself in Latinx culture. As the sweet scent of coconut and eggnog flows from the Coquito candle and wafts through the air, you’re instantly reminded of family holiday traditions. You feel nostalgia, comfort and like you can embrace who you are. But most importantly, you feel at home. 

This experience is the goal of Bonita Fierce Candles, a premium, eco-friendly candle company dedicated to celebrating Latinx heritage and home. Founded by Melissa Gallardo ’19, Bonita Fierce aims to help individuals reignite and embrace their Latinx culture, while also bringing representation of Latinx culture to the fragrance industry. 

“For Bonita Fierce Candles, it really just is all about embracing who you are and where you come from, no matter what spectrum of the culture you come from as a Latino, or Latinx or Latina because there’s so much multiculturalism within our space,” Gallardo said. “We’re embodying not only just the smells, but the cultural aspect of it.”  

Gallardo describes how growing up she always felt at a crossroads of being a Latina in America, and never felt like she could be her true, authentic self. When she came to Manhattan College, she started to learn more about her heritage and embrace her true identity. 

When the pandemic hit in March of 2020, Gallardo began making candles as a form of self-care, and realized in turn that the scents she grew up with weren’t represented in the fragrance industry. 

From there, she was inspired to create Bonita Fierce Candles as a way to bring diversity to the candle industry and help others become their true selves. She  officially launched her company in November 2020. 

“It was so important to me because I want to see representation in a space where there isn’t a lot of BIPOC representation,” Gallardo said. “There isn’t a lot of representation for Latinos in this space. If you go to a big box store, you will not see a Latino owned candle brand, and it’s an area where I want to see growth … I want to make sure that my brand represents Latinos, our culture and continuing on in an equitable space.” 

Gallardo creates a wide variety of coconut soy candles, and prices range from $15 to $38. Some of the candle scents include cafecito con leche, a coffee scented candle, mucho amor, a fruity floral candle and abuela’s bakery, the after-fiesta-desserts scented candle. However, these are only a few of the meticulously curated scents. 

Gallardo also has “The Cultura Collection,” that has candles with Spanglish quotes, such as “Greetings from Mi Casa,” and “No Drama Por Favor.” She hopes that these candles will bring customer’s memories to life, whether it reminds them of their abuela’s cooking, salsa dancing or Walter Mercado’s horoscopes. Her goal is to ensure Latinx customers can see themselves in these candles. 

“I want to make sure that all my customers see themselves in these candles,” Gallardo said. “I also just wanted to make sure that they have an experience that they see themselves and I want them to make sure that they’re, they’re coming back and saying, like, this reminded me of a memory [and] this smells like a memory I’ve had as a child.” 

Gallardo makes all of Bonita Fierce’s candles by herself, along with the help of some family members in her garage. She described experimenting with different waxes when she first started, as well as different oils and wicks before settling on coconut soy wax with a wooden wick. On an average day, Gallardo can make anywhere from 80 to 100 candles, and she is currently experimenting with scents for her spring and summer collections. 

The mission of Bonita Fierce is to create candles that embody Latinx culture and bring back memories for its customers. MELISSA GALLARDO / COURTESY

After creating candles, Gallardo then markets them to her target audience of millennial and Gen Z Latinas. She first started networking with friends and colleagues, but since starting has used skills she learned as a communication major at Manhattan College to promote her product. Specifically, Gallardo learned how to hone in on her brand and pitch her content to media outlets. 

“I’ve been able to use the skills that I’ve learned over the years and just put it back into entrepreneurship, and it really worked out well because you know when you have a great brand story it really just resonates and shines,” Gallardo said. “I learned how to present myself, build my brand and then just show the world what I’m doing.”

Gallardo received her first major media hit in spring 2021 from Cosmopolitan, and was featured an additional two times in the magazine. After that, she was featured on ABC’s Eyewitness News and Good Morning America as a Latina business owner for Hispanic Heritage month. Gallardo describes being both excited and shocked for her and her brand getting so much attention. 

“It was surreal in both experiences [on ABC and GMA], to see myself on screen,” Gallardo said. “It was really surreal to see how much momentum came [in] and all of that brought great business and brought so much brand recognition and just so much credibility for a brand that I’m still working on by myself in my garage.”

Since obtaining media coverage, Bonita Fierce has grown tremendously. Gallardo has partnered with big name brands such as Google, Buzzfeed, Estrella Julisco and ABC to give her candles as corporate gifts. She describes how these deals have not only increased brand awareness, but have also helped her increase sales. When she first started, Gallardo was making a couple hundred dollars a month, but now has reached five-figures a month. She predicts Bonita Fierce will reach six figure sales within the year. 

On top of running her business, Gallardo is also a freelance media professional where she’ll work a couple months in the industry and then take off to focus on Bonita Fierce. She is currently a Digital Content and Merchandising Coordinator at Redbox and is also pursuing a Master’s Degree in media management at The New School. 

Despite being a student and working as a freelancer, Gallardo plans to pursue entrepreneurship full time and grow Bonita Fierce even more. In the future, she hopes to break into the perfume industry and expand Bonita Fierce’s product base. 

Gallardo describes that her success with Bonita Fierce Candles wouldn’t have been possible without the supportive community behind her. She encourages anyone looking to pursue entrepreneurship to pursue their business ideas and to find a community that will support those ideas too. 

“If you have an idea, don’t let it sit on a shelf — figure out your game plan, figure out how you’re going to get the money, what it’s going to take, build your savings for it [and] set a goal for yourself and just start somewhere,” Gallardo said. “By starting somewhere I really also mean building a community because no business isn’t built on, you know authenticity and having a community to back you up. You want to be your most authentic self in yourself and in your brand, and you want to build a group of people that also resonates with that feeling.”