Mermaids Make Magic On Edgewood Avenue

Lucy Gellman | May 15th, 2023

Mermaids Make Magic On Edgewood Avenue

Black-owned businesses  |  Books  |  Economic Development  |  Swimming  |  Visual Arts  |  Whalley/Edgewood/Beaver Hills  |  Illustration  |  Possible Futures

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From left to right: Illustrator Jean Marie Sanchez, Mermaid Margo Jones, Tierra Soap Co. maker Addy Reyes Ramos, and the YMCA's Erin Kelly. Lucy Gellman Photos.

Addy Reyes Ramos sailed past bookshelves and into a pool of light, her dress a starburst of color. I wanna be where the people are, she sang, and the room was all ears. She sashayed around Sugar, the big-eyed bookstore dog, and spun toward the windows. I wanna see, wanna see them dancin! A shell-colored tiara glittered on her head. Walking around on those - what do you call 'em? She pulled a bottle of fruit juice to her lips as if it was a microphone. Oh! Feet!

Last Sunday, Reyes Ramos joined forces with illustrator Jean Marie Sanchez, Possible Futures’ Lauren Anderson, and the New Haven YMCA for “Part of Your World,” a celebration of Rob Marshall’s The Little Mermaid that doubled as a fundraiser for young swimmers in New Haven. The movie, which hits theaters on May 26, features musician Halle Bailey as Ariel. With the role, she makes history as the first Black princess in a Disney live action remake. 

From now through the end of the month, 35 percent of sales from a soap-and-illustration collaboration will go towards supporting swimming lessons at the New Haven YMCA on Howe and Chapel Streets. In all, that’s enough to cover lessons for seven kids over eight weeks. The collection, titled “Part of Your World,” featured blue-and-white lotus, magnolia, and sea salt soap and a handheld scrubber nestled inside a bag illustrated with Black mermaids. 

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Addy Reyes Ramos, with a jar of JuJu's Juice as her microphone. 

“For me, Ariel was so willing to take these chances,” said Reyes Ramos, who runs Tierra Soap Co. with her husband, Richard Reyes. “I loved her because she was unafraid. She was like, ‘I’m gonna risk it all and swim to the surface.’ She was a visionary, right? I love the fact that she saw herself in that world.”

“It’s such a beautiful song,” she added of the collaboration’s musical namesake. “Like, I belong here. I can explore my horizons. Halle can be the mermaid? I can be a CEO of this company? It speaks to how many things we can be.”

The fundraiser grew out of that original love for the movie, and particularly for the longing and grit Reyes Ramos could hear in the song “Part of Your World.” When she first learned about the remake last year, she began thinking about an event that could both celebrate the new film, showcase their artwork and give back to the community. The soap, which takes months to cure, was just a platform to do it. 

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Sanchez, who runs Little Feet's Opus from her home in Hamden. 

The soap alone didn’t seem like enough, she said. Her mind went to Sanchez, who runs the Hamden-based illustration and card company Little Feet’s Opus. Last year, the two met at a sun-soaked CT Folk Fest in Edgewood Park, and kept tabs on each other via Instagram. The theme fit Sanchez immediately, Reyes Ramos said: the illustrator has a whole line of greeting cards and tote bags dedicated to Black mermaids. 

Sanchez, who for years worked at the YMCA in Hamden, said she was excited to jump onboard. For as long as she can remember, she’s loved mermaids, and often bases her mer-drawings on people who have inspired her. In 2019, she formally launched her business from the Jacob Javits Center in New York City. 

As a mom, she also sees the importance of aquatic education firsthand, she said. Sanchez’ sons both learned to swim at the YMCA in Hamden, and she’s remained an advocate for pool- and water safety for years. In part, she said, that’s because she knows the painful and still-recent history of segregated swimming pools and exclusionary spaces.

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When she was still working at the YMCA, she heard about a family that had lost multiple people at a single gathering, because they did not know how to swim. It drove home for her the urgency of making sure her friends and family members knew what to do to remain safe in the water. 

 She’s also a lifelong fan of The Little Mermaid, which she described as “very, very special to me.” During her first year of college in New York, Sanchez lost her home in a fire, and lived with her sister and young nieces for a year. It was the 1990s, and the kids watched the movie “every day,” singing along to it as Ariel’s journey unfolded note by note. 

Years later, one of those nieces has three daughters of her own. ”It’s amazing” to think about their reaction when they walk into a theater later this month, and see an Ariel who looks like them, Sanchez said. During Sunday’s event, she channeled that wonder as she read from Maya Cameron-Gordon’s The Mermaid Princesses, her voice a balm as it floated over the room. 

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Jackie Russell, Amelia Gray, and Margo Jones.

Throughout Sunday’s event, young readers bounced around the space in dresses, tie-dye and tank tops, many rocking face paint and sequins at the corners of their eyes. At one end of the bookspace, story time unfolded in soft, giggle-laced tones as Black mermaids made their way through the cool ocean depths, working their underwater magic along the way.

At the other, a table featured individual bars of soap, each finished with a different maritime flourish. Somewhere in between, Babz Rawls-Ivy transformed into a new Ursula, there to empower young voices instead of steal them. 

There with her six-year-old daughter Amelia Gray, Jackie Russell said that she’s thrilled for the remake. “I just think it’s great to have representation where children of color can see themselves on screen,” she said. 

For her, it’s personal. For years, Amelia asked if she could have her hair chemically straightened, a process that conforms to white, European standards of beauty and can damage natural hair follicles. It took a series of books with Black protagonists to help her love her curls. When Russell sees the new Ariel rocking locs, it’s a reminder that Black women and girls are beautiful, exactly as they are.   

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“As a girl mom, I want her to feel confident in her skin,” Russell said. “I didn’t want my daughter to idolize one race over another.”   

“They look cool!” Amelia added when asked about Ariel and her friends, including Daveed Diggs as Sebastian. Moments later, she beamed as real-life princess Margo Jones welcomed her into the corner of the bookspace, and applied a gentle coat of pink face paint to one cheek.

Nearby, six-year-old Kylee Westry declared that she already loved “everything” about the film, but especially the brightness of Ariel as she returned to the screen. “She’s a magical princess,” Kylee said matter-of-factly before hurrying off to a coloring table strewn with crayons and mermaid cutouts. To the news that Bailey looks like her, she added a thumbs up and a wide smile. 

“This bookstore is amazing,” said her mom, entrepreneur and JuJu’s Juice founder Julia Cunningham as she watched Kylee finish a piece of artwork. “I love the fact that it’s a Little Mermaid theme and supports the community.” 

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Kylee Westry.

While Cunningham is “more of a Beauty & The Beast girl, a Cinderella girl” she plans to see the film with Kylee when it comes out later this month.   

She’s far from the only one. At a bench from artist Linda Mickens, Jones sat in a sparkling stone-colored dress and silver tiara, daintily painting faces and foreheads for young readers who walked through the door. An organizer for labor unions by day, Jones had taken Sunday to transform into Ariel, a character she has come back to “at every stage in my life.” 

When the Disney original came out in 1989, she was just a young kid, and remembered being delighted by Ariel. The older she got, the more she saw the princess for her bravery and search for independence. It was and is Ariel who reminds her to look for the enchantment even in a world turned on its head. 

Like Reyes Ramos, she said, it was always “Part of Your World” that encapsulated everything she loved about the mermaid.  Sunday, she was glad to bring that joy to a new generation of young viewers. 

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“That song is so powerful,” she said. “It’s her curiosity and her fearlessness. As we grow older, we start to lose our magic and our imagination—and then when you see it, you remember the magic. It lives in you.”    

She also pointed to the fundraiser as at the intersection of pop culture and public health. Currently, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that Black people are almost twice as likely to die from drowning as their white counterparts.

“I think it’s encouraging,” she said. “There’s still the stigma of Black children and water, and I love the way this is gonna change how Black and Brown children feel around water.”  

Erin Kelly, district executive director at the New Haven YMCA, said that the organization was incredibly excited and grateful for the collaboration. Each year, “we have a ton of demand” for swimming lessons, she said. While a grant from the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection has provided some support for the program, “this is a huge gift to get,” she said. 

BabzUrsulaAt the register, Possible Futures founder Lauren Anderson agreed. As a longtime educator, she’s seen how much excitement young people get from The Little Mermaid. This remake, she said, feels like it’s in a league of its own. 

“The anticipation of that is huge,” she said. “I feel that there’s a lot of anticipation, and a lot of joy.” 

To support “Part of Your World,” a collaboration between Tierra Soap Co. and Little Feet’s Opus, visit Possible Futures at 318 Edgewood Ave.