Iran Brugueras, the owner of Hip Stop clothing and shoe store in Hartford, Conn., is going on a journey. Actually, Brugueras is on three different journeys.
Right now, Brugueras and his wife, Nora, are on a 40-day vacation, with stops in Australia, Bali, Thailand, Maldives, Egypt and someplace in Europe they haven’t decided on yet. Iran and Nora named their vacation “You Only Live Once.”
They’re on that YOLO trip as a result of a journey Brugueras started in the fall of 2021, when he was diagnosed with stage-four gastric cancer. The diagnosis led Brugueras to retire, to enjoy his life, family and however many years he has left.
Brugueras also is on a mission to help people speak openly about their physical and mental health. He “came out” as a cancer patient to open up to his community and give friends and customers the chance to talk about their own anxieties.
“I want to be transparent talking about cancer. I want to talk about the stigma of it. The stigma is why it took me a year and a half to come out publicly,” he said.
“I don’t want this diagnosis to have been in vain,” he said. “If someone is in a dark place, I want them to be able to talk about it.”
Nora, a longtime counselor for cancer patients, wants to help Iran break through those cultural stigmas.
“In our culture, Latin culture, people don’t want to talk about cancer. They don’t talk about feelings, especially men,” she said. “We want people to say, it’s OK to be scared. Whatever your feelings are, let’s talk about them.”
At first, his outreach was grassroots, talking to whoever came to his shop or ran into on the street, about his diagnosis, treatment and psychological state. Then he “came out” on social media.
“After that, a number of people, especially men, approached him to talk, whether about themselves or a family member struggling with a chronic disease,” Nora said. “It fueled him in a way you wouldn’t believe. It reassured him that this is his path.”
Now, he has created a website, hipstopcancer.com, where he plans to blog with updates on his health and wellness.
Iran and Nora are no strangers to mental-health initiatives. In 2020, the couple donated $25,000 to Hartford Foundation for Public Giving to start a fund to make mental-health resources accessible to young people in the inner cities.
The fund is called the S.P.L.A.S.H. Project, which stands for Special People Looking & Aiming for Success & Health.
It was created in honor of Iran’s son and Nora’s stepson, Iran Brugueras Jr. The hip-hop up-and-comer in Waterbury struggled with mental-health issues, which he referred to in his music, before dying in 2016 in a car accident at age 20. SPLASH was Iran Brugueras’ professional name.
Despite the stresses of the pandemic and Iran’s diagnosis, Iran and Nora have given some grants through S.P.L.A.S.H. Project. Recipients include Hartford’s Toivo Center, which offers alternative mental-health therapies, and the NAMIWalks, sponsored by National Alliance on Mental Illness.
Iran Brugueras Jr.’s motto was “no excuses.” It’s become his father’s motto, too. Iran Sr. used that motto, at first, to keep up his daily work grind despite his medical treatment.
“I didn’t change my lifestyle. I still came to work every day, same schedule, same hours. I’m a grinder. I thought to myself, I have no excuses,” Iran said.
Now that motto has motivated him to let go of Hip Stop — he sold it to his Park Street business neighbor, Roberto Luis Martir — and focus on healing and wellness.
Iran’s wellness and happiness used to be tied to Hip Stop. He started it in 1994 by setting up a mix-tape booth outside his mother’s Park Street store, Fiesta Time Florist and Party Shop.
“Ever since he was a little boy he liked to sell stuff. He went to New York and bought cassettes. In two days they were all sold,” said his mother, Maria Sanchez. “He went back and bought more cassettes, and CDs. He sold them all. Then he started to sell clothes.”
Iran worked on that spot for 15 years. “It looked like a hot dog cart, with an umbrella, with speakers playing hip-hop,” he said. He became well-known in the neighborhood, where friends and customers call him Pooch.
“I came to work on rainy days. I was outside at 5 below in the winter, all geared up,” he said. “That inspired me to work indoors.”
In 2010, he took a vacancy next door to Fiesta Time. Years later, both stores moved to their current locations, just a few hundred feet down the street, at 693 and 697 Park St.
Brugueras cut a hole in the wall, to build a door connecting the shops. While Sanchez chatted with customers buying flowers and decor for weddings, birthdays, quinceañeras and other parties, she could see her son through the door, selling his own wares.
In the shop, Iran’s merchandise expanded to what Hip Stop sells today: athletic apparel and shoes, jerseys, sports hats, backpacks, watches, sunglasses, neck chains.
Then, in mid-2021, about a year after launching the S.P.L.A.S.H. Project, with his business humming along successfully, Iran started feeling unwell.
“There was discomfort, a lot of acid reflux, bloating. I’d wake up in the middle of the night with a stomachache. From time to time I’d get a spasm in my lower back,” he said. “I went to the hospital a couple of times. They didn’t find anything. Later they thought it was H. pylori.”
He pushed to have a colonoscopy and endoscopy. The tests ended with a diagnosis of gastric cancer. He was 48.
“The symptoms are so common that most people with gastric cancer wait to get checked so they usually get diagnosed at a higher stage,” he said.
At first he was scared to ask about a “timeline,” Nora said.
“The doctor initially said, ‘we can’t cure you, but we will treat you. We’re just going to have to manage and balance your quality of life,’ ” she said.
“Based on the conversation, I did my own research. We thought, five years tops. Then he got up the courage to ask and the doctors confirmed that.”
Iran had 23 sessions of chemotherapy. “I saw the direction my body was heading, how fragile I was becoming. My immune system was weakening. I felt I didn’t have a shot if I continued to go down that road. So I decided to just continue without chemo and with immunotherapy,” he said.
He focused on meditation, yoga, working out every day and changing his diet. “I am pretty much a vegan now. I stay away from sugar and alkaline. No pasta. Nothing that comes in a box. Nothing too acidy,” he said.
He was feeling stronger and still working. Then Iran had an epiphany while mourning the death of his cousin’s husband, who died unexpectedly at age 63.
“On his property I observed his beautiful retirement home and all his beautiful vehicles and his boat. And he couldn’t enjoy it. All that hard work and he’s not able to enjoy it,” he said.
“He postponed retirement to save more money. That’s what hit hard. He was focused on working so he could live a comfortable life but you just never know when your time is up,” he said. “That’s how I was able to completely let go of the attachment I had to my business.”
New era at Hip Stop
Martir owns Hip Stop now, among his other businesses. Martir owns Celebrations At Wolfies, which rents party supplies such as bounce houses and rents out a storefront for events. In March, Iran had his 50th birthday party at Martir’s storefront. More than 100 people came. “Everybody loves Pooch,” Martir said.
Brugueras approached Martir about taking over Hip Stop. At first he hesitated. “He put in his sweat and dedication and built this store from the ground up,” Martir said. Brugueras finally persuaded Martir to buy the business.
Martir is now excited to put his mark on Hip Stop. A native of the North End, Martir shopped his whole life at Salvin Shoes, which opened in 1927 and was in business for 93 years, closing in December 2020.
“The atmosphere here is like Salvin,” he said. He even hired a longtime Salvin employee, Bobby Alves, to be the “face” of the store.
In a few months, Martir will expand Hip Stop when Sanchez, who is 74, retires and closes Fiesta Time. That door in the wall that connects the shops will come in handy.
“We’re going to use her space as a boutique for the more high-end shoes, Jordans, like that,” Martir said.
Time to retire
Sanchez, a native of Puerto Rico, came to Hartford for a two-week vacation to visit family when she was 21 years old.
“It was time for me to leave. They said, ‘please don’t go, stay a few more weeks.’ So I stayed. I stayed for 53 years,” she said.
Her small shop is jam-packed with a variety of decorations and supplies. Sanchez enjoys her place in the community, selling cake toppers, garlands, candles and flowers, making custom party favors with shiny satin ribbons, colored mesh and cute surprises inside. But she wants to retire.
“My son is not leaving me. We are leaving together,” she said.
Sanchez said “I know I will get involved with something else after I retire.” But first — like she did 53 years ago when she decided to stay in Hartford near her relatives — she is dedicating herself to her family. Like Iran, Sanchez’s daughter also has serious health issues.
“She needs me right now,” Sanchez said. “I have to be strong for them, but I know it is in God’s hands.”
When Iran and Nora come back from their YOLO world tour, they will focus on his health, their family, his blog and building up community connections to start conversations.
“It’s become part of my life story, talking about how I deal with cancer,” he said. “I want people to know that cancer doesn’t define you. It’s not the end of you and there is hope. You can heal.”
That can be hard for people to understand, Iran said.
“People hear the word cancer and they immediately tie it to death. People might not know how to act or what to say around me. It might make them feel uncomfortable to talk to me. They might feel sorry for me,” he said.
Iran’s most recent CAT scan was in February. The cancer has not spread. He finds strength in that. Now, with Nora by his side, he wants people to see him continue his health journey.
“Cancer is not a death sentence for sure. You have to do your work. You have to be committed to a healthier lifestyle for sure. You can have hope,” she said. “He has to be able to find that silver lining, regardless of the prognosis he has been given. He is eager to continue to live life to its fullest for as long as he can.”
Susan Dunne can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.