I am consolidating. I am pivoting. I am dizzy!
First, I want to say thank you to all of the folks that donated funds for the Cafe. I will be updating more about that but... let's reflect:
This time last year I wrapped up the Great Social Enterprise Pitch and had started working on a lease with SACA Development for a space in Plaza Centro. I had big plans to open doors by the late Winter or Early Spring. Everything looked like it was good to go.
But then, my fiancé and I bought a house! We had to put my application for a small business loan on hold until March and well, the rest is history?
See, at the same time as we were making these big plans to open a business, we had even bigger plans to get our own place, get married in September of 2020, and make some big career moves. For us, the Cafe felt like a space, a physical space, where we could keep doing the work we were most interested in doing: Community Based Art. We both felt like we were one of very few artists in this city doing work for our communities and with our communities artistically. We had Art Pop (more on that soon) but that depended on working in a park with granted funds. We both felt like the only way to do meaningful work was to stop depending on permission to use spaces or report to granting agencies for art supplies and projects. The only folks we wanted to answer to was (and still is!) our community.
For me, running a Latinx Arts and Cultural Center has been a dream of mine for as long as I could remember. So how did we get to a cafe?
Remember I mentioned Art Pop? We're going to follow the trail on how that happened. I promise it will all make sense soon.
So Art Pop was the first Community Based Art Project that Osmyn and I did together. It was big in the ways it should be yet small in the ways it needed to be and bold and beautiful at every turn. It married our skills perfectly and we loved it. My personal interests have always been about community based art. Prior to Art Pop I finished my degree in Arts Administration with a concentration on Creative Placemaking in the Latinx community. For Oz, it helped him realize another way to use his talent in portraiture and connect with his community in a way he had been craving. I was particularly interested in how my community never really had a space to practice placekeeping or art making or cultural preservation. I wanted to change that. In fact, I applied to Grad School thinking "And at the end I will be able to be the Director and Founder of a Latinx Arts and Culture Center." In all of these pit stops on my personal journey, Osmyn was there. Cheering me on and helping me stay focused. Art Pop showed us that we could actually do this thing together. That there were and are intersections in how our communities have been treated in this city and how we have had to borrow space to be creative for too-long.
Art Pop ran in the summer of 2018 and 2019. We took a break in 2020 because the park we normally worked in was under construction (Culliton Park) and then Covid happened. So much of Art Pop was tied into Culliton Park because of the way it started. Art Pop began purely as a community engagement program to get the word out about the park's reconstruction and get feedback from the community. It was initiated through my work with Lancaster Public Art. It quickly evolved into a necessary outlet for the community to talk about the changes that were happening rapidly in the area and the history of neglect in the South end of the city. Art Pop travelled a little bit but ultimately always stayed in Culliton Park. It's where our funding was tied to and where we were able to do dope things like the mural on Water Street Mission and the fence gallery. We are grateful for the support of local groups and LPA to make it all happen.
In the summer of 2019, while we wrapped up Art Pop, I decided to take this idea of opening a Latinx cultural center seriously. I knew I had some skills from my degree in Arts Admin, but I needed more. I enrolled in Assets Idea Incubator first with the idea that I would be opening Taller Pa'lante: A Cultural Center for Latinx and Diasporic arts. I had plans to mostly focus on programming. Basically giving a home to the work we did in Art Pop and expanding the scope beyond one geographic area to a diaspora of Latinx identities. I was taking cues from Taller Puertorriqueño in Philly and El Museo del Barrio in NYC. I liked the way they started small and eventually scaled up to include a tienda de artesanos and a cafe.
Somewhere through the idea incubator I realized that the models I was looking at weren't viable for me. First, many of my role models were non-profits. Some were subsidized by their cities, many had buildings donated to them. They had boards and structures that were so much bigger than what I was ready to do. I was encouraged to look back at my five year plan and seriously think through what might be a more sustainable way to open. I thought, "Oh! I can move the cafe up!". Coffee is another passion of mine. I just like good coffee and especially coffee made in a colador or cafetero (usually Bustelo) that's deep and rich and reminds me of home. And thus Café Pa'lante was born!
It felt good and right at the time. It felt like a way to make all of my dreams come true. Sell some coffee and a little food (I love to cook and used to work for my parents catering business as a kid) and use the profit to run my dream center. It felt like a full circle moment. Like the thing that sustained my ancestors and the thing that we still use to keep us together and the thing my parents did to pay for my schooling would ultimately be the thing that made my dream job come to fruition.
So we fundraised and got some winnings from the Social Enterprise Pitch! The community support was great. I could tell that folks were riding the dream with me. At times I felt like I was drifting further and further from the core of what I wanted. As I started to pull more material together to make this thing a reality, I found myself focusing more and more on things like what kind of coffee would I sell? or how many coladors to buy? Or negotiating how I would split my days to work my normal job at F&M, and Adjunct, and be a public art practitioner and scholar, and run a cafe, all so I could maybe pull some gallery shows and programming together for my dream Latinx Cultural Center. Do you see the problem? The dream kept getting pushed to the end of the list.
By March, I was already starting to feel a bit apprehensive but I grew up knowing that you have to make sacrifices to get what you want and so this felt just like that. Finally, I was able to submit my Small Business Loan application and wrap that up in April. We were settled into our new home and feeling confident. I signed the lease on the space in Plaza Centro. I started drafting a real brand with new logos and a menu. I started to make partnerships with folks and had a tentative groundbreaking date.
On March 13th, it all came to an abrupt halt. The state shut down. At work, we sent students home for Spring Break and never came back. I scrambled to hold it together for the students that use the Photo Lab I manage AND I was teaching a Design Thinking course at PCA&D that went fully virtual right as we were doing things like going out and interviewing community members and gathering data. AND AND I was co-teaching a Design Thinking course at F&M that also went fully virtual right when we launched our big assignments. The Cafe took a back seat.
By the time the summer rolled in, I was exhausted. I finally had time to reflect on the past year and a half. All signs seemed to point to 'pause' despite the pandemic. I realized that this pivot to put the cafe first just wasn't going to work. Oz and I signed up for co-running arts programming, never to co-own a cafe. We knew the financial risk of running arts programs. Not major, but still a risk. We were not really prepared to add the huge financial risk of running a cafe in the middle of a pandemic and a recession. Especially after buying a house. AND we were trying to figure out if we could still get married in the fall like we planned.
I would say that watching all of this slip through my fingers really put me in a funk. It put us both in a funk. We're artists and we're used to dealing with ambiguity and loss. We're used to hustling to get paid for our work. But this felt like an entirely different beast.
And so by July I knew I had to put the whole thing to rest. I was able to leave my lease unharmed and am so grateful that Evita and Solise will be able to bring A Concrete Rose Bookbar to the space! I've spent the last few months thinking deeply about what this all means. A good friend and collaborator encouraged me to tell the story of this journey honestly and openly and here we are! (Thanks josh!)
So the new plan is the old plan! It feels more in alignment with mine and Oz's vision for what our art practice could and should be. It also feels more in alignment with the world we're experiencing now. I see it as consolidating and making a sweet syrup of the work I've had scattered through various project and ideas.
Somos Lancaster (formerly Latinx Lancaster) lives here in the Somos: Oral Histories Project. Art Pop is woven throughout every bit of our Pop-Up and Visioning work. The cafe will eventually pop up in the form of a mobile unit.
Which brings me back to the funding. I am so so so grateful to the folks that donated to the GoFundMe and through purchasing the shirts from Foxduck. I am holding out hope that one day when I'm grown up and Taller Pa'lante is mature and has a brick and mortar space, there will be a cafe in the way I envisioned last year. But for now I think the essence of the cafe abides. When we're out of the fog of Covid and when we're able to sit close and eat and make together, I envision having an art truck with coffee on hand.
When I go back to the histories of places like El Museo del Barrio, I recall how they started: as a bus-museum program for New York City schools and I feel at home there. So the funding, for now, is going to seed the work for Taller Pa'lante. It is going to financing a truck and workshops. To paying for things like this new website and what community based practice looks like in a Covid 19 world.
We're still working things out but this is where we are and I'm so proud.
And so thank you for riding with us!
Y sigue siempre pa'lante!