Against the Grain is a series spotlighting people who are underrepresented in the woodworking, carpentry, and construction space. We’ll speak with people working on projects from whole-home renos to intricate wood sculptures to learn what inspires them, how they’ve carved their own space (pun intended), and what they’re working on next.
At the heart of everything Monica Chavez does is her family. On her Instagram (@house.of.esperanza), TikTok (@houseofesperanza), and blog (House of Esperanza)—esperanza means hope—Chavez doesn’t just share her DIY projects and woodworking experiences. As the DIY CEO of her company, she also shares messages of inspiration—as a woman, a woman of color, and a mother.
It’s okay to make mistakes and to learn and fail forward.
“Growing up, my dad was the fixer of everything in our house,” Chavez says from her home in the San Francisco Bay area. “We grew up pretty poor with not a lot of resources. So he was the guy who was gonna fix it himself—he wasn’t gonna hire anybody to fix anything, build anything! So from a very, very young age, like three years old, I remember following my dad around with a metal hammer and nails. I would just mimic whatever he was doing, interested to see him fixing things and using tools and working with all of these different materials.”
“I don’t remember a time in my life where I wasn’t interested, because I grew up just watching him do that,” Chavez adds with a laugh.
It wasn’t just that she watched her father—she joined him. “He allowed me to participate when it was safe, and he taught me all the basic stuff,” says Chavez. “And that’s where it all started for me.”
Chavez recently spoke with us to share everything she loves about the world of DIY, building, and woodworking and how her role as a mother and the unexpected loss of her son fueled her passion for working with her hands and, ultimately, lead her toward the career she has today.
What project are you proudest of?
Monica Chavez: The project that I’m most proud of is our library—our 14-foot home library, that’s for sure. We tackled that one before I was even on Instagram doing anything. It was just for us. It took us over two years to complete because we did it on the weekends. I was pregnant. I was working full time. We just chipped away at it when we had the time and the money.
Right now, I’m working on a sort of … I try not to call it a cigar room—it’s like a speakeasy lounge [for my sister]. Very masculine, very adult, vintage feel. That’s what I’m working on right now. My sister lives next door, so I have access to her house for projects! I doubled the amount of space that I can work on.
Name a failure that became a lesson you’ll never forget.
MC: We put white tile with white grout in our dining room when we bought this house. Like, we brought up the carpet, and then we put in tile. And my biggest fail or regret—it was that tile. Never again. That was a lesson learned the hard way. Now on my list of projects is to remove that tile and replace it with something that is going to be more family-friendly and durable.
What is the first thing you ever built?
MC: I don’t remember because it’s been so long! It’s probably something like a shelf … or something really easy, but I’ve been working with my hands for so long that I don’t even know!
When did you realize that this was more than just a hobby?
MC: As an adult, I joined the military, right out of high school. And then I left the military and started working as a 911 dispatcher in the city where I was born. I loved each of those phases in my life. I threw myself into them, and I was great at my job.
But then, when I was working as a dispatcher, I had a son who passed away. And it was a very difficult time in my life. He was my only child at the time. I went from being a mom—that was my identity, that was all I knew. Then, when he was gone, I didn't know who I was anymore. And I had a really difficult time, doing a lot of soul-searching and coping, [going through] the grieving process.
I resorted back to creating and working with my hands. It kept me busy, and kind of kept my mind in a healthier place. But it also inadvertently reminded me that I love this. This is who I am, this is what I love about having a creative mind. And I dove into it. I started doing projects again. There had been a span of a few years where I didn’t make anything. So I dove into all kinds of making.
This is who I am, this is what I love about having a creative mind.
I learned more about woodworking, plus crochet—all kinds of crafty items. Anything I could make, I just dove right into it. And it had been really healthy for me. And then, we grew our family. When I got pregnant with my second son, I left my dispatching job because I knew I was going to want to dedicate more time to the family. And the only way to do that was to be at home. But I knew I was going to want to be creative and use my skills and talents. I wanted to work from home and be a mom and all of those things. So that’s what I did. And that was four years ago!
So I kind of threw myself into motherhood again, while also parenting myself and nurturing my creativity. I’ve been able to do both things successfully for the last four years. And then I accidentally became an influencer on Instagram, and then started to monetize. And that’s where I am now.
So you didn’t set out to become an influencer?
MC: I didn’t know this was a job. I knew this is what I wanted to do. But I didn’t know that it had a name. I didn’t know that it was a thing. And I feel like it’s so new that we’re still carving it out. And I love it! I love what I do now.
If budget and time were absolutely no constraint, what would you love to build?
MC: I would love to build a giant workshop, where other people—especially women—can come and learn how to build. If they don’t have the resources to get all the tools because schools are expensive, then they can come and use these tools. And if they don’t have the space in their homes to store things—a project that they’re building or are working on—they can keep it there. Almost like a co-op. That would be my dream—to have a place where people can come and learn and we can have events and workshops.
I love to teach people and empower people, especially women.
What do you feel has been the most rewarding part of learning to build?
MC: Watching progress. Seeing the very first shelf that I put up in this house, and then now seeing the library and how I’ve improved and how I’ve learned—by being self-taught, pretty much. That is probably one of the things I’m most proud of.
Is your dad still a part of your projects?
MC: Yes, he’s still here. He’s in his 70s now, and he’s still a grumpy old man trying to outwork me. He recently helped me with [a project]. I built an outdoor playhouse for my kids, and he helped me put that together and frame that because I’d never framed anything before. And I’m not afraid to say: I’m learning. This is new. And so I tell everybody on the internet, let’s learn this together.
I called my dad because I wanted to make sure I did this correctly and it was structurally sound, and he came out and helped me frame it. And that was amazing. We hadn’t worked on a project together in forever.
Favorite wood? Walnut.
Favorite tool or piece of equipment? Impact Driver? Impact Driver.
Favorite piece that you've built? Our 14-foot bookshelf in the library
Biggest goal? To start a workshop where women can come and learn.
Must-have accessory? Safety glasses. Good safety glasses.
Favorite step of the process? This is gonna sound so weird, but I like it when there are hiccups that happen along the way. Because on-the-spot problem-solving, I have a knack for that. When there’s a surprising problem that comes up and it’s like, “oh, no, I need to account for this … hold on. I can fix it.” And then that moment of immediate wheels turning in my head. I don’t know, it’s like a rush. I just really love the problem-solving.
Favorite assistant? My husband. I’ve taught him everything he knows and I love that he’s not afraid to say that.
Music on or off? On, always on.
Favorite band or musician? I love listening to Spanish music in particular. Aventura is a Bachata-style group. Latin pop.
Headphones or on a speaker? Speaker.
Any final words of wisdom?
MC: It’s okay to make mistakes and to learn and fail forward. I think a lot of people are intimidated even by the word woodworking, just by itself. They’re like, “Oh no, I’m a DIYer or I’m a maker. I’m a crafter.” They’re afraid to adopt the word: woodworker. Because it’s a craftperson’s word. But you can only do it by learning. You can only get better by doing.