Friday, June 14

Women at Work in RVA: Ida MaMusu & Argentina Ortega

Our Summer Symposium kicks off in Richmond, Virginia, on June 20, and we'd like to introduce you to some of the wonderful people we'll celebrate over the course of the weekend. Since our new website isn't ready to show off just yet, we're sharing the interviews from our latest oral history project here. Every day leading up to the Summer Symposium, we'll feature two more stories from Women at Work in RVA.

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"Being an African woman in a business of my own, I wanted to make 'African' real special, and I decided to add another 'N' and another 'E' on the word 'African' and make it 'Africanne', which is a female African woman in business."

Africanne on Main

In 1980, Ida MaMusu fled war-torn Monrovia, Liberia, and came to the United States. Her grandmother, Ida Williams, was originally from Reston, Virginia, and went to Liberia as part of the American Colonization Society, a movement sending freed slaves back to Africa. Under her grandmother’s tutelage, Ida learned the art of cooking, sometimes without even going near the kitchen. When Ida MaMusu fled the war, she had no choice but to leave her entire family behind. She arrived in Richmond in 1986 and worked for the next decade to bring her two children and parents to the United States. After opening Braids of Africa on Broad Street in 1996, Ida found herself not only doing hair, but cooking meals for her customers. Inspired, she opened her first restaurant space next door in 1998, eventually moving to a smaller, better-located space on Main Street. Ida’s grandmother always told her that the things she learned from her were not hers to keep—that she must pass them on to keep her memory alive. In 2002, Ida started Chef MaMusu's Cultural Cooking School to pass her knowledge on to young girls.

"I just wanted to survive and have an independent life. That’s what I wanted to have because over there it’s just the men—the men, the men, the men, and you have to do what they say. They don’t let you achieve your dreams."

La Sabrosita Bakery

At the age of 19, Argentina Ortega left Sensuntepeque, El Salvador, and moved to the United States for a better life. Shuttling back and forth between El Salvador, Southern California, and Houston, she took baking classes and began earning a living working in a bakery. On the side, she sewed handmade draperies. In 2005, Argentina settled in Richmond to be with her three sons: Mario, Eduardo, and Jorge Dawson. With a small business loan, she purchased La Sabrosita Bakery, a tiny space on Holy Street. At the time, the bakery had a poor reputation with only a handful of clients. Working day and night, she turned the business around, making the deliveries herself in her little car, driving hours beyond Richmond to Fredericksburg, Williamsburg, Norfolk, and the Eastern Shore. Gradually, she built an incredible reputation and customer base. In 2009, her sons' construction business slowed to a halt, so the four became partners and opened in a larger space on Midlothian Turnpike, where the business sits today. Her customers hail from all corners of the world, and hundreds of deliveries are made each week, stretching beyond Virginia into Washington, Maryland, and North Carolina. Argentina no longer makes deliveries herself; a small fleet of semi-trucks makes them for her.