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Coffeehouse Culture

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Entering Cafe Jumping Bean Coffee House and Gallery is like walking into a Diego Rivera mural. The brilliantly painted cafe located in the heart of Pilsen brings together an equally colorful mix of artists, workers, families, cops, and students, all there to enjoy the specialties of the house: coffee, conversation, and art. And that's just what owner Eleazar Delgado intended.

Nine years ago Delgado spent some time visiting relatives in Monterrey, in northeastern Mexico. He liked the coffeehouses there ("People go to have an espresso and stick around") and returned to Chicago with the idea of starting his own. Then friends in Coyoacan, a neighborhood in Mexico City with a lively coffeehouse scene, started sending him suggestions.

When he told his family about his plan, his brother Guillermo, a visual artist who specializes in painting and printmaking, piped up with the perfect location--a turn-of-the-century photo studio on 18th Street, close to the Little Village neighborhood where they grew up. Recalls Guillermo, "I was working with a group of artists on a collaborative printmaking project in that area, and we realized there was nowhere to go to stretch our legs and get away from the smell of solvents." As it happens, "the building was also very famous for being a barber shop in the late 70s," says Eleazar. "It was always a gathering place."

In addition to an address, Guillermo also gave Eleazar's concept a creative angle. As a teacher at the Marwen Foundation and artist in residence at nearby Telpochcalli Elementary School, Guillermo envisioned the cafe as a place where people could see works produced by local professionals and budding artists alike. So in January 1994, on a budget thinner than a coat of paint, Cafe Jumping Bean was born. Eleazar supervised the remodeling, Guillermo decorated signs and tabletops, and their sister Sylvia coordinated vendors and service.

At first, neighborhood residents were less than welcoming. They were apprehensive of the new business, especially the name, which they felt played to ethnic stereotypes. Many stopped by to complain. "But when they saw the owner was Mexican and not some corporation," Eleazar explains, "they said, 'Well, the name is OK.'"

Then there was the matter of the menu. The Jumping Bean bill of fare features such white-bread selections as chicken salad and ham-and-cheese sandwiches, pasta and garden salads, and a "morning" bagel with tomato, cucumber, and cream cheese. Foreign influence is limited to focaccia bread, which can be ordered in sandwich form or as a personal pizza with pepperoni, cheese, veggies, or the works.

Where are the tacos and tortas? locals wanted to know. Eleazar told them he wanted to bring something different to the neighborhood, but added: "If you want Mexican bread, bring it yourself. Just drink my coffee!" (The Jumping Bean, Eleazar boasts, serves a signature blend of medium-to-dark roasted beans with a lot of body and a wicked kick.)

Eight years later, the Jumping Bean has become an integral part of the community. Its art shows are booked up to a year in advance, and even regulars have to move fast to get a table. Through the end of April, the walls feature prints and paintings by Rene Arceo, who often incorporates social and political themes into his work. And Eleazar is already starting to plan the Jumping Bean's biggest event, its annual Day of the Dead celebration.

Holiday festivities at Jumping Bean start mid-October, with a giant party to open the month's special group exhibition. On opening night Eleazar takes away the tables and chairs to make room for both entertainment and audience. Last year performers included the world-music group Sol Azul and Sonido Ink, a spoken-word and music ensemble. It's always free. "This night isn't about making money," he says. "It's just about the art."

But Jumping Bean doesn't disregard the solemn nature of the event. An important part of its celebration is an ofrenda, a ceremonial altar created to pay homage to a member of the community who recently passed away. Last year it was dedicated to Rene Villanueva, a musician from Mexico who succumbed to cancer. He'd often visited the cafe when he was in town performing.

After the Dia de los Muertos festival is over it'll be time to think about another Jumping Bean tradition--repainting the walls. Currently the cafe is decked out in red; last year, it was orange. It's one of the few ways Eleazar can change the space, since there's no room to expand and he refuses to relocate to nearby gentrifying neighborhoods. "I'm a community cafe," he says. "My focus is on the people who live here, giving them a place to show their artwork and a place where they can feel comfortable." And, of course, drink coffee.

Cafe Jumping Bean is at 1439 W. 18th, 312-455-0019.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Cynthia Howe.

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