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.
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 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.
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.
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.”