The Homeless Cafe

Lucina Rivera's cafe provides good food and camaraderie to the homeless and dysfunctional. It's not a charity. It's just Mama's Place.

"No. I know you," she snaps. "You nasty man--get out of here--right now!" She sends him away with a flurry of expletives in her native Spanish. He looks around for support, but he won't get any here. Mama has spoken.

It was not always this way for Rivera, this being Our Lady of the Homeless. When she and her then-husband opened La Esquinita 14 years ago, she wasn't exactly thrilled by an area teeming with the unpredictable walking tatters of society. For one thing, she spoke no English.

They'd moved to Arizona in 1978 from the Mexican state of Durango, and found a house on Durango Street in the Golden Gate neighborhood near 18th Street and Buckeye Road. When the city, anticipating airport expansion, leveled the barrio in the early 1980s, the couple figured to use some of the relocation money to go into business.

Rivera's husband knew Louie Pritzky, an aging goodheart who owned seveCR>n or eightlow-rent hotels downtown, including the Seventh Avenue Hotel. At one time, huge, painted letters outside the hotel read: "God Bless America and Louie for Helping the Unfortunate." Louie was known far and wide for letting the rent slide for a while if a guy couldn't pay, but so many people took advantage of his goodwill that he finally had the clerk paint the "Louie" off the sign. He died 11 years ago.

Louie offered them three months' free rent and utilities on a business location; it was too much for a hotel pastry chef and his dishwasher wife to resist, even if the location was the northwest corner of Seventh Avenue and Jefferson, at the center of downtown decay.

The couple remodeled the new building and called it "La Esquinita," or "The Little Corner Place." Lucina Rivera opened up and waited nervously. And then, just as she feared ... these unwashed legions, these odes to dysfunction and addiction, these products of hard times and poor education, began pouring through her door. She misunderstood orders; angry customers threw the plates back at her. She learned to recognize English swear words.

Little by little, she gained the customers' respect by welcoming their business. She gave free coffee or breakfast to some because she pitied them; others got free food because they scared her.

"Louie said, 'Be careful of those people,'" Rivera remembers. "'If you treat them nice, they will watch and care over you.' I just did what he told me."

Gradually, her maternal qualities emerged. She was the second oldest of 12 children and had five of her own. She knew how to scold someone if he--or she--needed it. She came home one day and told her husband, "I can't take it anymore, I can't take the people, I'm gonna have a heart attack. I'm gonna hit somebody." And the next day, somebody ticked her off; she took a broom and was about to let loose with it when the guy said, "You can't hit me. You're not my mom."

And she said: "Yes, I am."
"So from then on," says cafe helper Joe Villalobos, "they started calling her 'Mama.' And the name just spread. They'd come from all over the place, places like New York, and say, 'Our friends sent us to Mama's. Where's Mama?'"

Meanwhile, her ex-husband ran into trouble she's not specific about, except to say that her marriage went south. So did her ex-husband, home to Mexico, leaving her with the modest house they'd bought on Southern near Ninth Avenue in Phoenix.

Her family helps run the cafe. Rivera's 23-year-old son, Hector Cervantes, mans the place until closing, with the company of the kitchen's black-and-white TV; Rivera's boyfriend, Filemon Rios, sweeps and takes the morning's orders. Daughter Susy Cervantes, 21, works at B.F. Goodrich these days, but used to run the place four years ago when her mother traveled to Mexico. She, like her mother's brother and his wife, works when needed, especially during the holidays.

Then there's Lucina's 13-year-old daughter, Aurora Torrez, who has been putting in time at the cafe since she was born. When the labor pains hit, Lucina Rivera went straight from La Esquinita to the hospital; after Aurora was born, Rivera kept her under a table in the kitchen, unable to afford a baby sitter.

Now a seventh-grader at Phoenix Preparatory Academy, Aurora often helps out on weekends.

"I am happy to have a place," Rivera says. "When I take a day off, I really miss the people. They don't come here just to eat. Some say, 'I just want you to tell me off.'"

Despite the sign on the wall, plenty of them rack up credit, the figures duly noted in a tablet behind the counter. The policy has occasionally backfired; one lady ran up a bill of $200 and then disappeared. Sometimes, if someone is short of money, Rivera lets them sweep or help unload groceries in exchange for a hot meal.

She has come a long way since the days when those walking tatters and unwashed legions made her cower in fear. God help anyone she finds peeing in the parking lot, and if she catches anyone messing with her prized burgundy Chevrolet pickup, well, Vaya con Dios, hombre. "They're scared of me now," she says, laughing.

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