What is the Cafecito?
The Cafecito is a community space for students to be able to hear the voices of the Latinx community, mainly in Chicago but also outside of Chicago. My objective with the Cafecito is really to listen to the community, to have a space where students can hear about what is going on in the community. It's all in Spanish, so they will learn from the community; at the same time, they can listen to and practice Spanish.
Linguistically, they will also hear different accents from Paraguay, from Ecuador, from Spanish Chicago. I have one guest who is Mexican American, and she asked me if it's okay to speak Spanglish – she called it broken Spanish – and I told her that's not broken Spanish, that's just Spanish from Chicago. Another guest showed us around the murals in Pilsen. He was like, “I'm Puerto Rican, and I’m going to show you the Spanish I learned growing up in Chicago.”
There's not only La Villita [Little Village] and Pilsen. There are lots of Spanish-speaking communities in Chicago – close to the airport there's a large Mexican community. When I used to live in Hyde Park, I went to this store, Hyde Park Produce, and I realized everyone working there was Mexican. So I told my students to go to Hyde Park Produce and ask someone to show them around in Spanish, and they had fun and had their Spanish corrected. People are happy to help, and they are happy to hear that you are trying to speak Spanish. You want extra guacamole or extra chips? Just order in Spanish. Just try your best.
What inspired you to start the Cafecito?
I was inspired to start it in Spring 2020 because I knew the students – and I knew I did – felt insecure. At that moment, everyone felt uncertain about the future, people were suffering. And I thought, “What can I do to create this sense of community and bring joy, as much as I can?” So I started this cooking class called Sabia Eñe [it tastes like “ñ”] and I brought a friend who taught us how to do nopales, the [cactus] salad.
That's when everything started, and I realized I could do this every week, and eventually for the next academic year – which was also online – I thought about creating a brand. I talked to a designer friend of mine, and we came up with the name Cafecito [little café].
I began to promote Cafecito on Instagram, and everything started to come together in the summer of 2020. I was only going to cover Chicago in the first quarter, but I ended up expanding to more countries with different guests, and since it was over Zoom, we ended up being able to bring people from all over.
What is your favorite part of hosting the Cafecito?
I'm learning too, from the community, and I love to listen to the community. I'm forming bonds with the guests but also with students, and I love to give to the students and share my culture. That's my favorite part, to have a space where students can feel comfortable outside the classroom, where they're still learning and listening.
For example, I love to go to Pilsen, or talk to people in the streets or go to the bakery, and I invite people to come to Cafecito: “We're having this conversation here – let's have this conversation with students.” I tell them, “Maybe they don't know what you're going through, or all the work you do for Pilsen, or how often you do this pan de muerto [bread of the dead], or how much work goes into it.” It starts in the community, and I think it's very important to bring the community to the university. Of course, we’re also bringing the university to the community, but I think the community wants to be heard by the students.
The owner of Panadería Nuevo Leon, for example, graciously opened their panadería [bakery] to show how to do pan de muerto. I saw him the other day on the streets of Pilsen, and we were talking about gentrification. They're the last panadería on 18th Street. He told me, “Your students should know this kind of information, about what we’re going through,” and I said, “Yeah! Just come to the Cafecito and talk about this situation that is happening in Pilsen.” Because that opportunity to practice Spanish is difficult to find – you have to form those bonds with the community before you start to go out [and practice Spanish], so I ask people for their contact info and keep working or volunteering at the panadería as an option. It goes both ways.
From the community perspective, there's also this idea of, “They are college students at the University of Chicago, they would never think about us…it’s not my place [to talk to them]," so some of the guests are pretty nervous. They worry they’re going to be challenged by the students and I always tell them, “Just relax! They want to learn from you!” They also can see how UChicago students really are – there's this sense of an expensive school and smart kids – and the kids are smart, but there are all these myths about the UChicago bubble. So we’re breaking that barrier from both sides. I think that’s important.
What has your favorite Cafecito activity been?
For February 14, I invited a friend who does tarot readings, and everything was in Spanish. There’s also a cultural aspect because in Mexico people are very spiritual, are more open to those kinds of spiritualities. And it was fun, because people could ask about their love life or, more often, their essay grades!
I also had fun doing the Frida trivia: this was a trivia game, and I gave tickets to students to visit the Frida exhibition that came to Chicago during the summer, featuring Frida Kahlo's famous works of art. It was so fun because she's such an important symbol of Mexican culture. One of our former Romance Language PhD students came and he knows someone at a major museum in Mexico, so he gave us a bit of insider information. What I like about Cafecito is that not only college students, but former students can also show up to events. It’s a good way for them to be connected with the program and the department! So this was an unexpected consequence of the Cafecito, to be able to reconnect with former students.
What's something you look forward to hosting later in the year?
I want to collaborate with the English Language Institute with a series on what words mean in Spanish and English, and the different nuances of linguistic meaning in both English and Spanish. I also want to hold a piñata workshop with a friend who makes piñatas for a living, to have students design their own piñatas.
What has been your biggest takeaway from running the Cafecito?
Seeing my students happy and coming back and seeing the community lining up to talk to students, that’s all that matters to me. I like having interactive stories and holding Instagram polls, and when people comment or privately message me! Once, I went to a restaurant and asked to film them making pupusas [flatbread], and the woman was so happy to have me share it on Instagram. And this is my community, too – I want to bring my community to the University of Chicago and bring the University of Chicago to my community.
I remember inviting a social activist from Pilsen who fielded very tough questions from students and he was okay, he was comfortable responding. The students also felt comfortable asking, to have difficult conversations outside of the classroom. And I do try to be sensitive and careful and objective. It’s a lot of responsibility sometimes to be as objective as possible, to be very sensitive to the community and students also. Every post I make goes through a thoughtful, clear, and objective expression, also in terms of language and linguistic differences across countries. Of course, I’m the one posting it, so it has a “Verónica mark,” but I try to be as objective as possible. For example, I want to bring someone in from the Philippines to talk about Spanish colonization, and I’m also thinking about how to do that in a sensitive way, to be aware of students and community members. So I try to be mindful of that.
What do you hope students get out of it?
I’m a social worker, and there’s a phrase we use: “cultural humility.” I think that is the best takeaway, of different perspectives and cultural humility, to feel no culture is better than another. When you are teaching, you are in a position of power, language is in a position of power; I want the community and the students to feel equal. Because when I’m teaching, I curate what I want the students to learn; the book is curated…I don’t want to be in a position of power when I run the Cafecito, I want the students and speakers to share that power equally.