Bridgeliner/ We Count: Latinx Portland 2020: Maria Garcia- Owner of Revolución Coffee House
“I want to make a comment about the term Latinx because I don’t agree with it. There is a misconception about the term ‘Latinx’- that it’s inclusive, but actually it’s not. I guess it’s generational, but me and my friends my age that were all born outside the US and we have very clear understanding of us not being Latinx. When you say the term we understand what it is and what is meant by it but we don’t identify that way, and why? Because I am a Mexican woman. When you’re talking about Latinos you’re not including Mexicans or people from Central and South Americas that don’t speak Spanish. So Latinx is inclusive but I prefer not to be included in that term. I am Mexican, and for me it is a matter of identity you know? When you say Latinx we feel like ‘all of you’ and I don’t know where you may be from. I think millennials and institutions are using this term trying to be inclusive but I found it to be not that way. I prefer Mexican” Maria states matter of factly.
It is a cold and extremely drippy Monday afternoon when I go to meet Maria to speak with her for this story. Even with my rain jacket on I get soaked to the bone, and happily duck into the coffee shop for a bit of reprieve. Immediately I am flooded with the comforting smell of espresso and warm baked goods. A few years ago, I used to work far out in Hillsboro and had to transfer buses downtown multiple days a week. Often the transfer always didn’t line up in a timely manner, my eternal curse of a lifetime. I can still remember the first time I discovered Revolución Coffee, on a cold and rainy day just like today, while I was just passing time until my next bus and in search of a good cup of coffee. At the time it was the only Mexican coffee shop I knew of in Portland, which both surprised but also delighted me. That day and many days after, it became my sanctuary. A holy place that I sought to continue fueling my unrelenting caffeine addiction and help guide me through my long and dreaded work days.
I unfortunately don’t spend as much time downtown as I used to, so I haven’t been to the cafe in many months. I feel giddy just walking through the door. However, it is just like I remember it. Beautifully bright colored walls covered in art, a fully stocked pastry case, people quietly tapping away on their laptops while their jackets slick with rain dry on the back of their chairs. And of course a cheerful Maria behind the register taking orders and making drinks for customers. While Maria has a small staff, she is usually here most days keeping things up and running and switching off from making drinks to the more logistical side of running a business.
Maria Garcia is the owner of Revolución Coffee House. She was born and raised in Mexico City, but later moved to Palm Springs, California before eventually settling here in Portland. She previously worked in the Mexican Consulate in the Community Affairs Department, but began to dream of owning her own Mexican restaurant. At first she was looking for the right location for her restaurant, but eventually thought, “why not a Mexican coffee shop?” After finding the space downtown, she opened Portland’s first Mexican coffee shop in 2014. To Maria, selling coffee and Mexican drinks in downtown Portland was revolutionary because of being the inaugural coffee shop to introduce these drinks to people…hence why she decided to name it Revolución Coffee. Maria saw the value in being new to the area and offering drinks such as champurrado (dairy free corn masa base drink with Mexican chocolate and cinnamon) and cafe de olla (Mexican coffee beans that have been ground and Italian roasted, added cinnamon and piloncillo or brown sugar) that reflected her Mexican heritage. She also knew if she wanted to attract all kinds of people she couldn’t just sell atole (traditional hot corn and masa-based drink with pecan or coconut flavor) or champurrado, and that she would need to sell coffee to at least get them interested and in the door. Being loyal to her culture, she wanted to offer Mexican coffee to her customers.
Opening the shop proved to be a big challenge for Maria, mostly because people weren’t familiar with the drinks she was offering. At first it was difficult for her to find the right provider, but she eventually settled on Cafe Mam after a friend recommended the company to her. Cafe Mam is based in Eugene, Oregon and they get their beans from Chapas, Mexico. Maria loved the concept of the Cafe Mam vision, along with their business being supportive of the Mam community, and she knew wanted to follow that path as well. Luckily the community was extremely open and supportive of her vision, to the point where she would offer free samples and customers would refuse and ask to be charged for them in order to help support her business. This was the moment she felt like she had made the right decision to take the leap of faith in opening Revolución, knowing that people would want to pay for what she was offering as a business, not just sampling her product and never returning again. “I am proud of who I am and I wanted to show that in my business. I wanted to express who I am through color and art and true Mexican culture and bring that to my business, not as propaganda or trying to capture a certain audience, it’s just who I am” Maria says. She believes since the name of her business is in Spanish, it’s obvious that the concept is Mexican and has helped her to understand how people perceive Mexican communities. “People who don’t like Mexican food or don’t want to support minority businesses…well don’t come in then. The name says it all, so if you don’t like it then don’t come in you know” she laughs. I am instantly aware of how much heart Maria has put into this business, and her direct way of addressing her unique contribution to downtown Portland in a no-nonsense way assures me that the two of us will have no problem getting along from here, mere minutes into our conversation. Business owners like Maria are the kind I meet when frequenting somewhere and hold up a long line behind me just chatting with because it’s obvious they have poured their heart and soul into making it stick around because they are inherently proud of it.
It’s at this point in our conversation that I ask Maria her thoughts about what it means to her to be Latinx living in a town like Portland. She pauses for a minute and takes a deep breath.
“5 or 10 years ago, and even growing up there was no such thing as ‘all you Hispanics’ or ‘all you Latinos.’ Even when I lived in Palm Springs where it’s pretty conservative, people would ask me where I was from instead of assuming, and I would tell them I am a Mexican woman. But when I moved to Portland I started hearing these concepts of Latina, brown people, communities of color, underserved communities, etc. And to me, all of that is a form of discrimination…and I learned that here in Portland and not in California where we are the majority. So to answer your question about how I feel about being Latinx or Hispanic- I feel like that. I feel it’s hard to keep your identity, and it’s been a double struggle in that way. To me it’s been important to be really firm about who I am, and to express that. I am a Mexican Maria, a Mexican woman. Identity to me is not how other people view you, but how you identify yourself. Growing up if you didn’t know where someone was from you would ask before assuming and categorizing them as Hispanic or Latino because you didn’t know what languages they spoke. So that’s why I have a problem with that.”
Maria and I talk about the concept of identity a lot for the next little while. I start telling her about my own struggle with identity, trying to untangle mine and my family’s complex identity. Being raised by two parents both born in the United States, but with Mexican roots on my Dad’s side of the family, a thing that was never discussed a lot when I was growing up. It was confusing to look in the mirror as a young child and realize my dark eyes, hair and olive complexion didn’t fully line up with classmates I had who identified as white. And the overwhelming feeling of not knowing which ethnicity box to select the first time I had to take a standardized test in elementary school. It’s at this point that something inside me breaks open, and I feel the immense feeling of being seen and understood by someone else who I’d never even spoken with before today. I tell her about approaching the feeling of my own identity less timidly and with more curiosity, embracing the feeling of not fitting into just one box and letting go of feelings of embarrassment, shame and confusion about who I am. I forget for a while that I’m interviewing her, and it begins to feel inherently like sitting with a friend over coffee and discussing thoughts that have been stirring deep somewhere inside me. I feel like we are two parallels at this moment, both Maria and I. We are on two ends of the same spectrum, only she is far on one side and I’m slowly inching my way toward her, which comforts me greatly.
Reinforcement of identity is a huge aspect of the work Maria continues to do through her business and within the community in Portland. “It is our responsibility to know about our own history so others don’t try to tell us who we are or where we come from, because we should know that. Especially as Mexicans, we come from a beautiful culture, one of the most powerful and biggest cultures and we are not going to stop existing. More than ever we should be aware of our roots, even if our parents didn’t talk to us about our heritage growing up we should be exploring that as adults. Where do I belong? That’s a normal question. Connecting to your culture is important, the sense of belonging in your own DNA,. I like to work on that idea, reinforcement of identity” she says. Maria notes that not everyone feels this way, however. She came to the United States when she was 18 years old, and already had her own cultural baggage, language…her everything. Maria’s (now) teenage son however, is half Italian after his Father and of course half Mexican. Maria remembers when he was growing up he was very proud to call himself Italo-American, which always hurt her to have to correct and remind him, “You are a Mexican!” Now that he’s older, she says he has embraced and is proud of being a Mexico-Italo-American boy. Maria begins laughing and says she was quick to let him know what an angry Mexican mother looks like though, and assures me he will never have a question about that.
In terms of community engagement and participation here in Portland, Maria is the former President of the social justice organization and nonprofit “Don’t Shoot Portland.” She became good friends with an organizer there named Teressa Raiford, who has been a big supporter in Revolucion Coffee and is now running for City Mayor this year. At the time, Maria was helping advocate for a friend who was incarcerated and their family and Teressa was within her network and was the only person who offered to help. Within this process of helping her friend, Maria began to learn about many issues, particularly racism within the black community in Portland. She understood and learned a lot through watching Teressa, and it opened her eyes to issues occurring and how to help. Maria and Teressa became involved in organizing many events together, and eventually Teressa helped establish a connection for Maria through the Portland Art Museum (Teressa was involved with the PAM helping coordinate exhibits and events about police brutality and racism within the black community.) Maria gave the Portland Art Museum a gentle nudge when she inquired why they didn’t have any Latina or Mexican exhibits or events. With her background and experience working and organizing events for the Mexican Consulate, Maria proposed an event to celebrate Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead.) The museum liked the idea, and Maria has now coordinated it for the past two years in a row. In 2018 there were more than 2500 people in one day, in just four hours. In 2019 the attendance increased to 3400 people, to the point where many couldn’t even enter the building and the line was wrapping around the building. To me, this brings a whole new meaning the name Revolución, because Maria is representing these revolutionary values of unifying her own community through more than just her business.
The event this year is slated to occur at the Portland Art Museum on November 1st, 2020 and will be given the entire Mark building for the exhibit. Maria is also organizing the exhibit: Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera and Mexican Modernism which will run at the Portland Art Museum from June 13- September 27, 2020 (this is now temporarily on hold, as the Portland Art Museum is currently closed due to COVID-19.) She is excited to talk about Frida as a woman and an artist as well as her lifestyle and how literal she was…as well as how it was like back in those days as an artist compared to now, as well as talking about violence against women as well. “People talk about how we need all this money to create diversity and equity and so forth, but I am proof that you don’t need to spend thousands of dollars to bring a community together. I’ve done it, only me…with the support of the museum. They have the infrastructure but I created the whole program, and all the people that participated were my friends, and then they brought others from within their own networks too. We created a great thing with no money!” Maria gushes. Working with the Portland Art Museum has always been a part of Maria’s vision, as she saw the need for cultural programming here in Portland. She firmly believes that having a business and being able to create community is what she likes and feels the most happy doing.
As we wrap up our time together, I ask Maria one last question: what would you like to see more of in the Mexican community to support and uplift each other? I can see the words coming together in her mind, and I know the immediate silence is because she is really giving this question space to be significant in her explanation. She takes a deep breath and replies, “I would like for us to change the narrative about poverty and suffering. It is true that there is a lot of it, but I would like our community to see the good side of those challenges too, that they are present but they make us stronger as we endure them. We are a strong, hardworking, vibrant community. I want progress for us. I don’t support others tokenizing our community, or when the story of our community members is being told just to get money because of funding purposes for organizations and people. I don’t like that. I understand it’s part of the system but I’m more in favor of acknowledging that it is happening but…we need to have cultural spaces where our kids can learn about our culture and who we are as a community, and right now we don’t have those places really. We have different organizations to serve the community but they refer to our communities as “underserved” and I don’t like that narrative because we are not under served. We are a very serving community, we just don’t have the right leadership that advocates properly and helps get those resources to the community in a productive way.” Maria continues on, saying “I think it is the responsibility of these organizations that are serving our communities to make sure we are growing stronger, not just getting funding and making more money. That’s what I disagree with and don’t like. We have barriers, we know that. The idea that those barriers don’t exist, that’s a big challenge but it’s not impossible. By reclaiming our narrative and empowering our community, reinforcing our identity in kids and their parents and being proud of who we are and where we come from, knowing we are valuable in society. You have no less value because you are a field worker or a cleaning person or maybe you don’t speak the language- you are valuable. Or even because of your immigration status, it is a big barrier but it doesn’t matter, it’s never stopped us. Grow roots where we are, bring our humanity everywhere and grow from there. We are valuable! Let’s change the way we move around.” Though she doesn’t go into detail about the specific leaders and organizations she’s referring to, I believe this remains a common sentiment among people within the community. There is the sentiment that non-profits and leaders in our local and national government are always attempting to connect and help what they perceive as underserved communities, but often these efforts come across as tone deaf, or just as another ploy to profit off of people of color- and I know personally it’s not hard to see when that happens.
After Maria and I depart I think about our conversation as I ride the bus back home across the river, and for many of the following days after. It stays stuck in my mind in large part because I know this is just one small, but significant story in a city like Portland. It’s an honor and a privilege to carry this forward and write about it…because even if I can’t tell everyone’s story I am humbled to be trusted to at least be able to tell Maria’s for now.