Common Scents

photo by Jennifer Sung

photo by Jennifer Sung

Zorayda Ortiz–perfumer, owner of Pilsen Bike Tours, community gardener, and former medical researcher–stands in front of a mural by Alejandro Medina on the corner of South Blue Island and Cullerton. She hoists her bicycle in the air, laughing as I try to snap a picture of her. “I love this mural,” she says. It’s a portrait of Mexican history through the generations.

Her perfume company is Ajna Oils. She has many types of products, sold in different locations depending on their focus. Some are meant to heal the body and mind holistically while others pay tribute to communities or favorite foods, such as the Tamal Fresa from her collection “La Dieciocho,” named after the main street in Pilsen, which has garnered the most media attention. Coquito and Lechón Asado are homages to classic Puerto Rican dishes (eggnog and roasted suckling pig, respectively). She also makes custom blends by request. “I’ve been getting a lot of press about Tamal, but I do honestly feel deep down in my heart that that is just the tip of the iceberg,” she says.

Her interest in essential oils began after a nasty scrape on her right elbow while skateboarding. Her mother put apricot oil on it. She shows me the scar, a circular patch of crisscrossing white lines. It’s completely smooth. “I just thought it was amazing,” she says. She began to make perfume on her own, experimenting and doing research on the properties of essential oils in her free time and making gifts for friends and family.

Ortiz is originally from Humboldt Park, but after more than a decade living and working in Pilsen, it’s safe to say she’s a local. She originally started coming to Pilsen as a high school student in the AmeriCorps apprenticeship program and fell in love with it, moving there soon after graduating from college. Her sisters occasionally make fun of her for that–“Like, what about Humboldt Park?”, they ask her jokingly. But although she has an undeniable Puerto Rican accent when speaking Spanish and loves Humboldt Park, on this sunny day after tacos at El Milagro she seems blissfully happy in the neighborhood she has made her home. “Isn’t it great?” she asks me.

Like many young entrepreneurs, Ortiz has a varied background. In college she studied biology and women’s studies. After graduating from Northern Illinois University in 2004, she worked as a researcher at Rush University Hospital in the pediatric surgery department for nearly two years, studying biliary atresia and liver samples of obese patients undergoing lap band procedures. She also worked in community organizing and youth mentorship at places such as Imagine Englewood if…, where she worked on an urban farming program. She originally started Pilsen Bike Tours in 2011 as an annual event to raise funds for her personal garden, which is now open to the community. It went so well that the next year she decided to begin selling tickets regularly.

Ortiz says she wasn’t afraid to switch careers, although sometimes she misses the fast pace and discipline of the hospital laboratory environment. The transition has been gradual rather than abrupt. Many of the interests she’s exploring now through her bike and perfume businesses have been simmering for more than a decade.

“Pilsen is number one in the whole entire nation for murals per square block radius,” she says. They’re one of Pilsen’s most distinctive features, and a sign of the thriving artistic community she first noticed as a teenager. Although she also gives walking tours, she prefers to lead tours on bike, to cover more ground. She is also planning on starting a historical landmarks tour soon.

Her intention with the collection “La Dieciocho” was to capture the atmosphere of Pilsen’s Mexican culture and community through the specific smells and cultural icons that perfume companies often overlook. “I feel that it came out of me being a biker, me loving the community so much, me loving the people so much and also because perfumery is my art,” she tells me. For example, the “Día de los Muertos” series includes a pan de muerto perfume. It has a strong whiff of star anise with the light sweetness of pastry. Another, La Catrina, takes its name from the iconic female skeleton, with flowers adorning her stately hat, who roams the night looking for men to dance with and lure back to the grave. It brings to mind the smell of a man’s shirt.

Most of the perfumes are unisex. She would like them to be free from the gendered definitions commonly used to market perfumes. “I feel that a lot of male perfumes can be floral, but perfumers don’t admit it. You can have a hint of rose, a hint of jasmine. Jasmine’s actually an arousing scent for men. Or vanilla. But a lot of men don’t want to admit that. They would prefer to hear that their perfume has leather and tobacco and pepper.”

Why so many food scents, though? Sometimes it’s just pure enthusiasm. A self-proclaimed “coffee freak”, she made four coffee perfumes that will soon be sold at the newly-opened La Catrina Café on 18th Street. She also argues for the sex appeal of comfort food, scents that convey to passersby a feeling of instant familiarity. “And then if they strike up a conversation and say they like the way you smell, you say really? I’m wearing a new scent; it’s this scent that smells like tamales, have you ever had one? Yes or no, whatever, you know, you could either ask them to go eat some tamales, or you could say do I smell good enough to eat? If you’re bold enough to say something like that, you know?” She laughs.

Ortiz has a bike tour to lead at 3 o’clock, and our impromptu photo shoot is over. She climbs on her bike at rides off. One block away I hear someone calling my name. It’s Ortiz. “Bye!” she shouts. She waves as she heads into traffic.


This story has been revised to reflect the following correction:

Correction: May 2, 2013

An earlier version of this article incorrectly implied that Ortiz began making perfumes while working at Rush Hospital. She began experimenting with perfumes before joining the lab at Rush.