Born and raised in San Francisco and now a resident of Brooklyn, New York for the last 10 years, Ava Sofia Zarich (Carić)-Jurkota has launched a Croatian-inspired body care line, turning traditional ingredients and recipes into skincare, haircare, and herbal medicine products.
A second generation Croatian, Ava is an MPH of Community Health Education. She is does anthropological and health research on traditional Croatian spirituality and medicine, is a certified herbalist, permaculture gardener and chef.
We caught up with her to find our more about her and her brand divlja.
Can you tell us a bit about your background.
I have lived in Brooklyn, NY since 2011, but I was born and raised in San Francisco, CA as the second American generation of an Istrian-Croatian family (and one Irish-Scottish American grandmother, but she more or less adopted herself into our Istrian culture when she married my grandfather.
Was Croatian culture a big part of your life growing up?
While many aspects of me reflect the places I have lived, from being a born and raised San Franciscan, to a longtime Brooklynite, Croatian culture was something that was always lingering in my being. It was in the way my family interacted, in our love for growing our own food, in the stories I would hear growing up of both the amazing and insufferable things my family went through, in our food, in the experiences my mother had of feeling “other” growing up around more American kids, in the way we approach life.
It was present in the way I looked just like a perfect blend of my Nonna Marija, my mother, my father, light olive skin, eyes and hair as brown as the earth, and don’t forget the strong Balkan nose and jaw; in the way my hands take so nimbly to the field and to the hearth, where cooking and gardening are the passion and necessity of so many of our ancestors.
Being Istrian, there are unique cultural influences beyond just being Croatian. During the 1920s, Italy invaded Istria and outlawed Slavic culture in the region, even outlawing our language, songs, and more. While this is deplorable and certainly had an impact on many in the region, there is also a natural flow of culture between Italy and the Croatian coast due to proximity; cultures and languages have flowed freely throughout Balkan history, disregarding borders for the more human aspect of migration, and sometimes, forced occupation and cultural pressure.
When my paternal Nonno’s family escaped Istria, they lived in Italy for 10 years before coming to the US, and my mother also lived there as a child. So the culture I grew up with is really quintessentially Istrian, a mixture of Croatia, Italy, and local culture.
While I have a fondness and passion for my culture, I think there are many things the older generations did not want to talk about, and traumas that caused a confused connection with the culture. In the face of the necessity of their emigration, and the mixed pain and fondness associated with their culture and background, they often understandably have a difficult, and sometimes broken, relationship to the culture.
So I witnessed and experienced this growing up, and as a woman, I had to do the work to forge a relationship to my culture beyond what my family could give me. There has also been in my generation of the diaspora a more newfound appreciation and connection to other cultures in the Balkans, and a pan-Balkan identity on top of more regional ones, and I have definitely embraced that. I have realized, especially when living away from the homeland, that across regions and nations, Balkan people have far more to share with each other than they do difference.
Do you still visit?
As a child, I would visit family with my parents somewhat frequently. However, they divorced when I was only 9. My father remarried another Istrian woman, however, so I continued to visit throughout my adolescence with my father. My mother’s father died not long before my parents separated, and due to additional familial complications, we did not visit with her as often after her father passed- although she has taken more to visiting lately.
Once I left home at 17, I did not go back to Croatia again until I was 24. In this time, I grew immensely as a human and woman, and healed from many difficult and painful experiences, including not being sure where “home” was. So when I returned to Croatia at 24, a deep feeling of connection to the land, and to my family, even where there were strained relationships or painful memories, was rooted inside me.
This was a place that could never be taken from me, even when it had been already when my grandparents became refugees, even when family relations could at times be bittersweet- this is where my roots lay. The trip triggered suddenly my realization that I needed to reclaim my culture, and that to unweave the pain and trauma in the tapestry of my family’s history, I needed to deeply reconnect to my roots. If our culture got us through this many thousands of years of empires, oppression, wars, and survival, carrying it on today could only serve to heal me, and the entire Balkan community as we carry it together.
How did you get into studying native spirituality, religion and history and what was the trigger for your business idea?
That year, my interest in native Croatian and Balkan spirituality, folk medicine, and folk culture really blossomed. In the US, Balkan and Slavic people and history are not represented in any way, socially or in education (except for in some small niches of big cities). When I began discovering the wealth of ancient history, spirituality, and folk medicine that exists in our region , and the deep connection it gave me to my roots, it’s just all sort of been a natural progression from there.
During the course of my academic career, I focused on a variety of topics in public health, mainly trauma, loss, food justice, and holistic healing. But as my career progressed and I entered my Master’s in 2019, I began increasing my academic studies of the Balkans.
Now, I have been studying Croatian and Balkan folk anthropology personally and academically for four years. I am in the pre-research phase of a personal project, Balkan Folk Medicine, where I will categorically collect information on Croatian, and later greater Balkans, folk medicine, including our system, herbal agriculture and land stewardship techniques, and herbalism.
What are some of the products you sell?
Generally speaking, I sell herbal medicine, teas, skincare, haircare, and natural body products (like toothpaste, deodorant, bug spray, and more!), all with a focus on Balkan-Slavic herbs which connect us to our land and ancestors. I also sell Balkan-Slavic Smoke Cleansing Bundles, with more home products coming soon.
To provide some examples, I have herbal extracts such as “Srce:Heart Medicine” for heart health and regulation, and “Živim”, which means “I live” and is anti-depression. Or my Balkan Beauty Hair Mask, which uses ingredients like olive oil, rose, kefir, date molasses, and more to nourish and heal the scalp, and provide amazing hair growth. Explore my website- there are so many amazing traditional Balkan ingredients hiding in my products, side by side with other amazing botanicals and skin-care ingredients, so that people can tap into tradition while getting amazing science-backed ingredients at the same time.
This year, I am planning several exciting releases. One is “divlja Soap Bars”, made purely with oils such as almond and olive, and various botanicals catered to cleansing the hair, face, and body. The second is my “divlja Beauty Care”, which is natural, low-maintenance beauty items such as Brow&Lash Serum (which I already sell), Lip&Cheek Tint, Brow Gel, Botanical Dye for brows and hair, and Effortless Contour. These products are low-maintenance, in that they are often things you only have to put on once a day and have a lasting effect, leaving pigment behind.
Down the road, most likely next year, I will be introducing my “divlja Roots” line, which will be solely products that are a result of my aforementioned Balkan Folk Medicine research project, utilizing 100% indigenous Balkan ingredients and folk medicine principles. The profits of this line of products will go 100% back to communities in the Balkans.
Can you explain the process involved of making them?
My process first involves research. I utilize my herbalism background combined with my Master’s health research background to find the best ingredients available. I also keep an eye on the conventional beauty market, to see what sorts of products people are buying, and how I can make a more natural, sustainable version of that.
It involves a lot of infusing and extracting herbs into water, oils, and non-GMO grape alcohol, mixing essential oils, botanicals, and active ingredients into products, getting things at the right temperature to melt with other ingredients, experimenting with texture. There is a lot that goes into each product, including not only research for best ingredients, but also experimentation to get the best smelling and feeling product while still staying true to the product’s purpose.
Finally, I also grow many of my ingredients and botanicals in organic soil, so that is part of my production process as well.
What is the story behind the name ‘divlja’ ?
It started as “divlja ruža” actually- which means wild rose. However, I shortened it to divlja, and from there the true meaning of my business came – “wild” beauty products. My products are wild because they are natural, harvested and grown in manners nature intended, by Balkan farmers and in deeply rich soil, and mostly because they respect the wildness of my customers’ beauty. The intention of my products is not to change you, but to bring out everything that is naturally beautiful in you already.
What makes divlja unique?
My brand is unique for three big reasons: folk culture roots, science-backed but 100% natural products, and community value. That I know of, I am one of the few brands that offers a full line of body care products and roots themselves primarily in ingredients and herbalism of the Balkan and Slavic peoples. Second, with my background in health research and my ongoing advanced certification in Herbalism, I research the latest-effective compounds for my skincare and haircare, as well as the most effective herbs for certain results, and I incorporate these extracts and oils into my products.
For people who want natural, sustainable/organic/fair-trade products in high quality amber glass jars and compostable packaging, my brand really has it all. It IS more expensive than say drugstore items, but I wanted these products to be affordable for people like my own family and friends, so I keep prices fair. And as an MPH in Community Health Education, I always keep the value of community in my business. Every year, I give an increasing amount of profit to community organizations in Croatia and the Balkans.
What are some of the main challenges?
The biggest challenge is lack of time combined with doing it all myself. I also have my first business which sells gourmet nut butters and local infused honeys (which I devote less time to but love equally) called Fog City Sundries (check it out @fogcitysundries), grow all my own herbs in my self-designed permaculture backyard, take care of my wonderful boyfriend and two cats, and work in seasonal gardening.
How have your products been welcomed so far by customers?
Well, it’s been about 2.5 years since I started this business and it’s been very popular with the local community at markets, being something that is made in a very sustainable way, affordable, and fresh- all with a fascinating cultural aspect. I began selling online this past August and it has been received quite well by the Balkan and natural communities alike. It pleases me to really connect with people over natural healing products, cultural preservation, and health promotion in a way that works to not only heal individuals, but the community and our culture!
Where can people find or buy your products?
My website is www.divlja.com. To stay abreast of all the updates, follow me on FB or Instagram at @divljabrooklyn
In person, I sell seasonally at farmer’s and vendor’s markets in North Brooklyn. Follow my page for all the updates on that.
And go favorite my Etsy store to stay on top of all the amazing products I release for bath, body, home, and mind- coming soon at Balkan Body Care by divljabalkanbodycare on Etsy
I would love to add that readers who are particularly interested in Croatian and Balkan herbalism should donate, share, or follow my GoFundMe: Fundraiser by Ava Zarich : Balkan Folk Medicine: A Project by divlja (gofundme.com) .
The fundraising I am doing is mainly to support valuing the interviewees and their time by compensating them. I will be doing a lot of data collection which is informal and brief in nature, as often people pretty much have one or two short tidbits of information to share, but I hope for some interviews which are lengthier to really bulk out the research.
I will also need funds to make the compensation happen as well as to support the purchases of related materials and potential travel expenses to meet interviewees. All profits from the products made as a result of this research will go back to the community, in the true spirit of giving back to the culture which made this medicine and knowledge possible.
I appreciate your reading, and I implore everyone, from those looking for natural products but unfamiliar with Balkan-Slavic culture, to those who want to explore their roots more, to come check out my line and reach out to say hello.