Portland is often defined by its passions for, among other things, social justice and coffee. At the intersection of those two subjects lives Revolución Coffee House, a downtown Portland café with a Mexican twist, run by community organizer and entrepreneur Maria Garcia.
Maria Garcia’s story
Growing up in the bustling Mexico City metropolis, Garcia learned the rich histories and stories of her country’s food. She witnessed the gendered divide of cooking and cleaning, and understood that women were vital in keeping culinary traditions alive, generation by generation. After living in Palm Springs, California, for a decade, she moved to Portland at age 28 and found work with the Mexican Consulate. As she immersed herself in helping her paisanos (compatriots) navigate U.S. bureaucracy, she saw a need to share her culture with a wider audience.
“I realized how important coffee was here in Portland,” Garcia recalls. “I wanted to open a Mexican restaurant, but I couldn’t find a place big enough, so I saw this space for lease and thought of something smaller.” After careful consideration, she decided to pair coffee sourced from Chiapas, Mexico, with traditional Mexican beverages.
Traditional Mexican treats
While the café offers an assortment of Mexican staples, Revolución is best known for a trio of traditional drinks. Cups of warm, corn masa-based atole are sweetened with shaved piloncillo (unrefined cane sugar). Aromatic cinnamon-laced café de la olla is served by the pot. And thick, rich mugs of champurrado combine hot chocolate mixed with corn flour.
“I named it Revolución because of the products we sell,” Garcia explains. “I’m from Mexico City and in the morning [there], you see ladies selling tamales or atole or champurrado, but it’’ revolutionary in Portland.”
In the small coffeehouse kitchen, Garcia helps prepare crisp empanadas and desserts inspired by her mother and sister’s recipes. During Revolución’s early years, Garcia made everything herself. After four years in business, however, she has hired help to make more time in her life for herself and for civic engagement. This decision proved especially important when Garcia launched a political campaign in pursuit of a role as Multnomah County Commissioner for District 2. (Garcia was defeated in the primary election held on May 15, 2018.)
While some small business owners might shy away from the political, Garcia says her values are reflected in all aspects of her life. At Revolución, Garcia aspires to pay employees livable wages and takes the true cost of labor into consideration when setting prices. “It’s always considered that Mexican food is cheap, but nowadays nothing is cheap,” she says. “It’s a social issue.”
To counter the devaluing of “ethnic” food and to set a precedent for other Mexican women, Revolución’s tamales are large and priced at $6. But Garcia says that as much as they’re sharing food, they’re sharing history.
“In Mexican gastronomy, pretty much all dishes have a story behind [them], and that’s the beauty,” Garcia says. “It’s not just colorful or tasty — you’re eating part of history. A lot has had to happen in specific places to create a dish.”
Garcia offers the examples of atole and champurrado: “These drinks represent the fusion of two cultures,” she says. “They have been made since Aztec times because corn has always been the core of Mexican gastronomy. The difference is that now they’re sweet. Before La Conquista, there was no sugar, so the Spaniards brought it.”
“These drinks [are] very filling, and the families who are very poor have to make [ends meet] somehow, so this is a way of getting nutrition in the morning,” she continues. “They’re considered the drinks of poor people, but it’s part of our gastronomy … Mexican gastronomy is more than just tacos and burritos. Actually, you don’t see burritos in Mexico. We have other things to offer. I saw the value of that.”
A more equitable food scene
With the rise of other Latin-American-owned Portland coffee businesses like Sandino Coffee, Garcia hopes to encourage others to actively work towards creating social equity. She notes the grave barriers to education, economic capital and support that often leave people from marginalized communities unable to pursue their dreams in the food industry.
“Food and social justice go together,” she says. “Everything is social justice because everything is a social issue. Having a [business] doesn’t just mean being successful … As a business owner, you have to become committed to not just to make a profit, but to walking a different path. How can we influence things together?”