Maria Oliveira is a força — or force — in the Lone Star State. The 31-year-old co-owns Passport Vintage, a vintage denim shop in Austin, Texas, and is behind the city’s largest vintage market, Laissez Fair — among several other entrepreneurial and event endeavors. Behind them all: social change.
For Oliveira, her higher calling is to fight for the Latino, and particularly, the immigrant community. As a former undocumented migrant herself, and sister to a DACA recipient, the Brazilian-born Oliveira knows firsthand the unique challenges that immigrants confront. Finding ways to ease their lives and give them hope is what drives Oliveira in her business and in her activism.
When her parents made the courageous move to Florida, despite lack of documentation, when Oliveira was a child, she was immersed into an entirely new culture and language on top of her family’s financial challenges.
“I was shunned. I was the weird girl,” she told FIERCE, recalling her time in fifth grade. Unlike in the Brazilian school system, where there was no individualized attention, Oliveira quickly realized her intelligence afforded her the chance at a better life. Her school in Fort Lauderdale didn’t offer English as a Second Language, which forced Oliveira to quickly absorb the language — her accent is nearly undetectable.
She escaped in the magazines she read, borrowing most of them from her best friend’s mother who happened to be French.
“Her mom had all the fashion magazines,” a smiling Oliveira remembered.
She was enamored by the stories behind the glamour. When sharing a room with two siblings got tiresome, she would find refuge by flipping through the pages of W magazine.
Then, in 2005, her family decided to move back to Brazil, where Oliveira took a job at a small boutique, barely earning a living wage. She was determined to forge a new, more hopeful, path for herself when her family re-entered the United States. At 21, Oliveira couldn’t afford college, so she decided to get an education in fashion through a real-world job.
She spent seven years at American Apparel in Chicago, where she worked her way up from sales associate to district manager. She absorbed all she could and credits her time at the company with learning everything from how to dress to the various shapes and colors in clothing.
Noting a lack of vintage denim stores online, Oliveira started her own Etsy shop in 2014. Her business quickly grew, and she decided to expand into a brick-and-mortar. She knew she wanted to focus on T-shirts, jeans and clothes, but this type of fashion wasn’t the most appropriate for Chicago’s cold climate.
She and her business partner Ryan Lerma considered Nashville, Atlanta and Los Angeles before settling on Austin. Passport Vintage opened in the eastern part of the city in the summer of 2016 before relocating to south Austin at 2217 South 1st St.
“Being specialized really helps us stand out,” Oliveira said, adding that some jeans are 40 years old and still have 20 years of life in them.
The Latin American is also making waves as one of the founders and organizers of Laissez Fair, which serves as Austin’s largest vintage market. Her last mercado welcomed 1,500 attendees.
Another @laissezfairtx is in the books! Our Fall market was our final one for 2017 and definitely the craziest! Our counters clocked in over 1,500 attendees!! CRAZY. For those who don’t know, @ryanlerma , @pieceology and I are the organizers behind @laissezfairtx (w/ the assist of @crissyfish at @Space24twenty). This team has it down like clockwork @pieceology does ALLL the vendor and sponsor communication and coordination, @ryanlerma plans logistics, set up and take down and I (w/ a massive assist from @lizardyouth) coordinate the marketing. • I’m so thankful for all the amazing vendors who participated!!! You guys are so cool and it’s so awesome to be able to hang with so many friends! Spring 2018 is up next! • Full film and digital photo album by @cristian.sigler is now live on FB, to view ?? @laissezfairtx
Oliveira said she and fellow fair founders, April Onebane and Lerma, brainstormed the event after selling at various pop-up shopping events in town. The market offers mostly clothes but homegoods are also available.
“This helped fill a gap because Austin, in my opinion, is the second-biggest vintage city in the U.S., besides LA,” she said. “The next market promises to have the best selection of vendors yet.”
It is slated for May 6 from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. at Space 24 Twenty.
But from vintage fashion to her and her roommate Erika Ramirez’s 2 Brown Girls Book Club, yet another endeavor to empower her community, immigration is at the core of everything that Oliveira does. That’s why she started the DACA Renewal Fund, a fundraiser she heads with Lerma and Ramirez, and recruited Latina resistance graphic designer Yocelyn Riojas of Jolt, an organization building political power and influence of Latinos in Texas that Oliveira often works with as well, to make artwork for her event flyers.
Soooo excited to have partnered with artist, illustrator and activist @Yocelyn.Riojas for our Laissez Fair Vintage Market Spring 2018 flyers and visuals. Riojas is a prolific artist whose colorful work centers around themes of feminism within the Latinx community, immigration, and DREAMers. @Yocelyn.Riojas's resistance posters have been seen across the country and featured in national publications. @Yocelyn.Riojas will have a booth set up at our Spring Market, you will be able to shop he prints, tees and tote bags and chat with her! ✅ LAISSEZ FAIR VINTAGE MARKET, Spring 2018 Sunday, May 6th 11am – 4pm ? @space24twenty Shop from 20+ vintage vendors! Vendors and activities being announced soon! RSVP via link in my bio.
“It costs $495 just for the (DACA application) fee. People don’t have that kind of money. This touches me really deeply,” Oliveira shared.
More than $5,000 has been raised so far, which has helped 10 DACA recipients send in their renewal applications. Support from local women entrepreneur groups, like craftHER Market and BossBabesATX, were instrumental in raising funds, which are directly dropped off at Equal Justice Center on South Congress.
“The circle of people who own boutiques in Austin is very white. It’s not diverse. That’s why I have to have these outlets where I am with my community,” Oliveira said.