A trio of artists descended on Barrio Café last Thursday night, ready to bring fresh life to the restaurant owned by Chef Silvana Salcido Esparza. Pablo Luna sat painting inside a tiny bathroom, while Tato Caraveo began painting near the bar. Lalo Cota looked at the blue walls he’d painted inside a different bathroom, listening to '80s music as he pulled a fat round brush from his canvas bag.
The restaurant, located on 16th Street south of Thomas Road, looks far different now that it’s temporarily closed due to COVID-19 public health guidelines. Chairs sit stacked atop tables once inside the dining room that’s been transformed into a giant prep area where volunteers have been working with Esparza for weeks to feed hospital staff and community members in need.
But one thing hasn’t changed: Barrio Café is still filled with art. Cota’s paintings, which feature his iconic imagery of skeleton figures and cars, dot the restaurant’s white walls — and works by other artists abound as well. He’s envisioned creating an underwater scene inside the blue bathroom and incorporating imagery that reflects Esparza’s love for lowriders.
Esparza and her business partner, Wendy Gruber, launched the restaurant, which has long been a hub for Chicano artwork, in 2002. After Arizona passed SB 1070, an anti-immigrant bill many decried as racist, Esparza worked with artists to launch the Calle 16 mural project that still gives expression to Mexican culture and pride. Artists who’ve participated include Angel Diaz, El Mac, El Moises, and many more.
When Esparza boarded up Barrio Café in mid-March, she hired artists to paint the temporary wooden façade, adding text that reinforces the need to stay home and stay safe. While Esparza works on transforming the restaurant, eager to show off her new take on Barrio Café once public health conditions allow, artists are working right alongside her.
The alley behind Barrio Café is getting a fresh series of murals. Esparza expects to have five or so by the time it comes together, but she’s having them painted one at a time, so artists can design work that creates a cohesive flow. “Artists can paint whatever they want,” she says, “but sometimes I like to share ideas.”
The back of Barrio Café sports a desert-theme mural by Dual Hem, a Rosarita-based artist who has done significant work on Esparza's home in Mexico. To the left, Caraveo painted a woman set against a backdrop that’s nearly turned the color of refreshing orange sherbet after being awash in the sun. Soon, La Morena will start painting the center of the wall, in a spot where Esparza has imagined having a fresh twist on the renowned World War II Rosie the Riveter image.
Esparza hopes to open this fresh take on Barrio Café in June, which will mark the restaurant’s 18th birthday. In the meantime, artists are coming and going from the space, sporting masks that serve as a reminder of the pandemic in their midst. Luna wore a mask decorated with his own art Thursday night, painting around bathroom wall elements ranging from small ceramic lucha libre masks to a mosaic-framed mirror.
Caraveo was busy painting the bar area, starting with a wall where Esparza once displayed plaques recognizing her culinary achievements, including her nomination for the prestigious James Beard award. The plaques are stacked on a table now, being slowly replaced by a vivid orange wall where Caraveo began by sketching out a lily in bloom. He’ll paint the bar’s ceiling as well, plus portions of the dining room.
More painting will happen in the coming days as Diaz, an artist whose anti-SB 1070 mural graces a cement block wall behind Barrio Café, joins the creative effort. Pablo Luna is already planning to paint a new design over his existing mural facing the restaurant’s parking lot. The front of Barrio Café will get fresh murals, as well.
Moving forward, Esparza and Gruber plan to transform the south portion of the Barrio Café building into an art gallery and add additional elements including a stage for live performances, although Esparza says that could take a year to come together. Several of her favorite artists have already filled the walls with mural art, and more art will follow.
For now, it’s all about transforming the existing restaurant space — and helping artists weather challenges posed by COVID-19. “I look out for these artists,” says Esparza. “They’re my family.”
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