By Raymond R. Beltrán
Having survived a troublesome dawning one year ago, the community-oriented Chicano Perk Café, lying in the midst of Sherman Heights, San Diego, has recently celebrated its one year anniversary this Sunday, June 6, with the presence of their most loyal patrons, children, artists and barrio residents.
The Chicano ambience of this coffee shop, built in opposition to an oncoming gentrification process with the construction of Petco Park, lies in its resemblance to its mother root, the prominent Chicano Park only blocks away. The café’s mesitas and chairs stand as art pieces alone, covered with miniature murals by some of the barrio’s most esteemed painters and muralists, Nuvia Guerra Crisol, Gerardo, David Collazo as well as local neighborhood children.
It is astonishing to know that in one year this particular lot, where a tire shop once stood, now has become a full throttle café and arts space in and of itself, being embedded in one of San Diego’s most visually appealing and revolutionary communities.
In 2003, owners Rene Guzmán and Ildifonso Garrillo battled with the misconceptions placed on the café by some of their suppliers, who argued that the Sherman Heights community, consisting of low income Mexican families, wasn’t an ideal location for a coffee shop to turn profit, but today Garrillo, still struggling to keep the place alive, will note that it was and still is not so much about the business venture as much as it is about the ideology behind its inception.
“Most importantly, it’s offered a valuable space for Chicanos to express themselves, a space to be creative and imaginative,” says Garrillo, who’s known simply by the nickname Ildi.
As a former elementary school teacher, Ildi has since laid down his teaching career to take on the responsibility of the survival of the café, full time. Even though it was built without the desire of gaining 501 (c)(3), or non-profit status, in order to be independent from government funds to remain unrestricted in its politically progressive theme, there has been a strong support base with barrio volunteers who work multiple shifts with little or no pay to keep the space alive and functioning.
Barely staying financially afloat, Chicano Perk Café strongly encourages and supports other independent businesses in the Mexican community. For instance, just around the corner at Paloma’s Clothing Store on 26th Street in Sherman Heights, a patron can receive a stamp for every ten dollars spent there, and after a customer accumulates a certain number of stamps, they can expect a free Chicano Perk cup of coffee.
And to boot, the guys don’t only sell coffee to express their compassion for the barrio, Ildi and Rene have been known to attend meetings with the San Diego City Planning Department and local residents to express their views about the future of Barrio Logan.
“One thing I feel as a coffee house [proprietor], and because of our politics, is that we’re against gentrif-ication,” says co-owner Rene Guzmán, who one day hopes to create a Chicano small business association in the barrio. “Even though its [process] is hard to stop, we need to do as much as we can to have our voice heard. As a business owner, as a community center, I feel it’s a part of our job.”
In the one year Chicano Perk has been open, it has created a home for such activists as DURO (Developing Unity through Resident Organizing), the Raza Rights Coalition, the Environmental Health Coalition, the Red CalacArts Collective and a whole generation of young Chicano/Chicana activists who find solace amongst a city saturated with the trendy Starbucks enterprise.
Currently, the café has an ongoing Wednesday night poetry slam, and beginning Saturday, June 12, local activist/artist Carmen Linares Kalo will be exhibiting her paintings, accompanied by a group of Aztec danzantes. The café always provides merchandise for sale by some of San Diego’s most active poets, writers and musicians, as well as a variety of local Chicano/Latino books and journals for coffee drinkers to peruse.
As Rene sits back reminiscing on the past year in one of the patio chairs, under an umbrella, he relays that one of the most memorable times was when jazz trumpeter Bill Caballero came to play with the Caballero Verde Quintet, and Ildi says his most memorable experience was when the Red CalacArts Collective celebrated their first annual Dia de los Muertos Commemoration. Although, both agree that those moments were special because they attracted community residents to come out of their homes and join the new café’s growing activism.
Having established their existence, with growing numbers of barrio patrons everyday, Rene and Ildi have already made future goals to acquire a Chicano Perk mobile coffee cart in order to expand its business to neighboring Mexican communities like National City, Chula Vista, and San Ysidro.
Ildi has also begun thinking about gathering together some investors who would be interested in establishing another Chicano Perk elsewhere in San Diego, but with the hustle of keeping this one standing, the fruition of that plan might be a little further down the road.
With this location proving a lot of people wrong, having been a success with everyone from progressive Raza youth to señoras and, surprisingly enough, San Diego police officers, the Chicano Perk partners might have paved the way for future Latino independent businesses who would otherwise be shunned by pseudo-business persons for wanting to build within their own neighborhood.
All in all, it may have not only created space for a network of various activists and artists that might not have met elsewhere, but a catalyst, a model, and ultimately a resource for those wanting barrio businesses to stay brown.
“The coffee shop offers the community a heart,” says Rene. “It allows people to come and sit and reflect on their community. It’s not just going to the taco shop and going home. It’s coming and saying, ‘I’m proud to be here.’ It’s a sense of pride, a place where you can go and meet other Chicanos on a regular basis, and for activists, it’s more like a community room.”