(photo from http://buyepongo.wordpress.com)

There was music in the cafes at night
And revolution in the air

—Bob Dylan

Let’s Google it. Café Cultural + Boyle Heights.

Hmmm. Nada.

But I remember. How can I forget the Mexican socialists that provided me with my first stage, my first microphone?

It was run by Norma and Rodolfo Barragán. They were in their thirties then, pleasant and plump and pumped with ideology.

The Revolution was at hand.

The Sandinistas had toppled Somoza and El Salvador was next, then Guatemala… in Mexico City there were more socialists than nopales. Ronald Reagan was right! The communist hordes were at the gates!

I was 22 years old.

Oh there was revolution in the air at the Café Cultural!

And I was… I was trying to grow in my goattee.

Okay, let’s try again. Café Cultural + Norma Barragán.

And the first result is the Sprout Café in Palo Alto.


How could Café Cultural not virtually exist?

Because it existed, to bursting, in 1984, when Prince’s doves cried and Bruce’s Vietnam vet howled that he was born in the USA.

Oh wait… I remember that I’m Facebook Friends with Norma Barragán!

Let’s message her right now:

Hola Norma te escribo para ver si podemos platicar sobre los viejos tiempos en el Café…

And soon enough we’re messaging back and forth and and the bones of the Café start taking on flesh again.

Café Cultural was at 2036 East First Street, on the southwest corner at the intersection with St. Louis. The building has a brick façade with elegant cornices of urns and vines and flowers. Inside the ceiling was tall, the space dark and deep, and there was a concrete floor.

This is where we made revolution—which is made with speeches and songs and poems and paintings, by selling books and magazines and buttons, with endless arguments over theory and praxis and strategy and tactics, lots of food and drink—ah, Norma’s famous chile rellenos. Jackson Browne loved them.

Yeah, Jackson was there all the time, and Guaradabarranco, those cute Sandinista New Song folkies straight outta Managua…

Sabiá, a crew of white solidarity girls who sang and spoke Spanish better than most of us halfies.

Marisela Norte, speaking her mordantly haunting word, classic pieces like the unforgettably titled “The Lady and the Ginzu Knife.”

Rubén Guevara, the Aztec god of Funk, growling “Con Safos.”

And Sesshu Foster, the Japanese-Anglo bard of City Terrace. I was always getting into arguments with him over theory and praxis and strategy and tactics…

And me, doing my best Roque Dalton imitation:

Creo que el mundo es bello,
que la poesía es como el pan,
de todos.

Our stage? The concrete floor. You do not use risers in a socialist space.


(photo from http://buyepongo.wordpress.com)

It seemed to me back then like there’d never been a place like it, but that was because I was 22 years old.

Of course there were others that came before.

There is a long line of red cafés in L.A. history.

In the 70s there was Magon’s, on Adams and Broadway, named after the great Mexican anarchist who spent a decade agitating in L.A.

In the 60s the Brown Berets had a place called Piranya’s on Olympic and Goodrich, from where Minister of Information Carlos Montes emitted his communiques— and was surveiled by the FBI.

We can go much farther back… to Restaurante Bohemia in the 1920s, just off La Placita downtown, where Latin American and European immigrants hung out and everybody broke their English.

And to the Italian Hall on Olvera Street: anarchists, anarcho-syndicalists, and Wobblies drank red wine, wrangled over their manifestos, were haloed by the smoke of their cigars and cigarettes.

Across the decades the red cafes were like mini-communes: communes with a coffee pot, chile rellenos, tobacco, maybe a joint out in the back late at night, you know, to help with the theorizing…

In them you talked your desire, you fought for it—arguing across the –isms, the most important of which is we-are-young-and-the-world-is-ours -ism.

They never seem to last long, the red cafés, but they are also eternal, because they keep coming back.

Galería Ocaso, Manazar Gamboa’s place on Sunset Boulevard in Silver Lake. Back when the Sunset Junction festival was free and long before the No Cruising signs went up.

Macondo, on 7th Street in Pico Union. One night Rubén Guevara, Elia Arce, Tim Miller, Guillermo Gomez-Peña and yours truly presented what we called performance art, which included playing a lot with walkie talkies and Elia literally riding through the doorway on the back of a Harley.

Regeneración on Figueroa in Highland Park. Rage, Ozomatli, and Aztlán Underground, a whole new generation of kids imagining, with the help of the Zapatistas, a continental commune.

Chicano-Brasilera couple Reyes Rodriguez and Marialice Jacob were regulars at Café Cultural and many years later they took over a great Art Deco building on Beverly Blvd., baptizing it Trópico de Nopal…

I was at Trópico just a few weeks ago for a cool jarocho show. I noticed this kid, his long curly black hair pulled into a ponytail. I was looking at the back of my own head in 1984. When he turned around, I saw that he was trying to grow in that goatee.

The bottom floor of the building at 2036 East First Street is emtpy and for lease today. It’s just down the street from Casa 0101, and Libros Schmibros, and Corazón del Pueblo, a block of Boyle Heights bathed in the wall of sound from the Five Freeway and steeped in a history far deeper than its concrete tomb.

Red cafes never die—they just move to a new storefront.

Rubén Martínez is an award-winning journalist, author and performer. He holds the Fletcher Jones Chair in Literature & Writing at Loyola Marymount University. His essays, opinions and reportage have appeared in such publications as the New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Salon, Village Voice, The Nation, Spin, Sojourners and Mother Jones. He is the recipient of a Lannan Foundation Fellowship in nonfiction, a Loeb Fellowship from Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design, a Freedom of Information Award from the ACLU, a Greater Press Club of Los Angeles Award of Excellence, and an Emmy Award for hosting PBS member station KCET’s Life & Times. His books are Flesh Life: Sex in Mexico City (with Joseph Rodriguez, Powerhouse Books, 2006), The New Americans (The New Press, 2004), Crossing Over: A Mexican Family on the Migrant Trail (Picador, 2002), Eastside Stories (with Joseph Rodriguez, Powerhouse Books, 1998), and The Other Side: Notes from the New L.A., Mexico City and Beyond (Vintage, 1993).