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Mar-06-2013 12:13printcomments

The Magic Tree of Acapulco

For a long time, Café Astoria was a favored place for press conferences of all kinds.


(LAS CRUCES, NM) - Many colorful personalities have shared the shade of Acapulco’s Café Astoria. Mayors, politicians, artists, famous singers, writers, tourists, journalists, and revolutionaries of all stripes have all sipped the Guerrero-grown coffee that’s served under the canopy of the gargantuan amate tree embracing a corner of the city’s Zocalo, or historic plaza. But no "guest" has stood out like the bull that stormed into the café one day in November of 1990.

Seated at one of the café’s modest outdoor tables, owner Rosario “Chayito” Padua Hernandez showed off pictures and newspaper clippings of the burly bull that escaped from somewhere down the road, ran a good length of the bayside Costera Boulevard and, of all the possible places in Acapulco, chose the Café Astoria as its destination. Bursting into history, the beast barged onto the premises, overturned tables, broke glass and likely gave customers one of the biggest scares of their lives. Maybe the bull came for “the good coffee,” laughed Padua.

“La Pamplonada” of Acapulco, headlined a news piece, comparing the surprise rampage with the famous running of the bulls in Spain. Sifting through her pile of pictures, Padua retrieved an unforgettable shot of the bull captured for posterity as it stared into the eyes of the photographer. It was the animal's best and last pose, right before local cops shot the rowdy intruder and hauled off its body with rope.

“Poor thing,” Padua sighed.

Returning to the picture pile, the affable Acapulquena resumed her journey down memory lane of one of the city’s few cultural outposts. Different shots showed Padua’s quinceanera, or 15th birthday party, and a mustachioed young fellow she said was the graying older man sitting at a nearby table. Café Astoria, Padua added, has appeared in Mexican films and Elvis Presley’s 1963 movie "Fun in Acapulco."

Yet the cafe's real importance is layered deep below the headlines and Hollywood images. In a city where all-you-can drink specials and mind-numbing discos are the standard fare, Café Astoria is one spot where the brain prevails over the booty. And it’s a space where diverse cultures, political tendencies and popular tastes brew and stew in debate, reflection and proposal.

For a long time, Café Astoria was a favored place for press conferences of all kinds, whether significant or insignificant.

In the words of Padua, her business is a “neutral space” where people of different persuasions find camaraderie and companionship under the shade.

“They are all friends here-like family,” she mused. “Some shout louder than others, but they all leave in peace.” According to Padua, a double bond unites the faithful. “The majority of people are coffee drinkers and we have good coffee,” she said. “I think that counts a lot, as well as the big tree that protects us."

"It's not the same the set yourself to thinking in a Cafe Astoria as it is in one of the so-called chain cafes," writer Patricia Rosales y Zamora once penned. "There are the ideas of a coffee lunatic, and the purpose of the verse of the Mexican poet Oscar Oliva in which he reflects on what goes on in your mind while drinking a cup of coffee, which is remembering the roads one has lived."

A busy woman with an engaging greeting, Padua inherited the business from her mother, Bertha Hernandez Silva, who arrived in Acapulco back in 1961 as a 15-year-old migrant from the neighboring state of Oaxaca seeking a better life. In Padua’s recollection, Hernandez landed a job as domestic worker with the family that owned the café’s predecessor ice cream joint.

Hernandez soon found herself working in an evolving café and worked her way up to become the familiar face of the business. Later, when artist owner Ramon Arce decided to let go of the café, the customers actually petitioned the big boss to turn it over to Hernandez.

As if destiny was calling, Hernandez won a lottery prize and had cash to spend. When Hernandez passed away in 1997, her daughter took over the café in a transition that was not in the younger woman’s plans. Padua was studying to become a teacher, but finally decided to keep Café Astoria in the family.

“It’s hard. You have to deal with employees, with suppliers,” she admitted with a quick qualification. “It’s cool and it’s beautiful, because everyone knows everyone else. I don’t have a bad customer. Well, one or the other,” Padua chuckled.

If anything besides the landmark tree defines Café Astoria, it’s the clientele. In her time, Padua has met people from all over Mexico, Canada, the U.S., Russia, the world over. An older French woman who lives in Acapulco is so accustomed to “her table” that the regular once stared down a stranger who made the mistake of sitting in it, Padua laughed.

Although the business hosts people from across the globe, it's the regulars who keep it alive, especially in these tough times.

Despite its cultural status, Café Astoria ran into trouble by the end of the last decade. Even while foreign tourism in Acapulco was dwindling, the owner of the building housing the café decided to raise the rent anyway. Water costs shot up.

After battling to stay afloat, Padua decided she could no longer afford the rent. Once again, the regulars and sympathetic locals rallied. In a letter to Acapulco's municipal government, journalist Oscar Basave urged the city to preserve a vital part of the community.

"Cafe Astoria is not just another business in Acpaulco," Basave wrote. "Its space is of public interest."

Nowadays, Café Astoria exists as a handful of tables on the city-owned patio just outside its former building but still under the all-encompassing shade of the amate tree.

To survive, Padua did what countless other small Mexican businesses do. She turned to Corona for a taco-like booth and got a refrigerator from Coca Cola. For cooking, she brought her own stove from home.

Customers might not have a human-built roof, but they still are served the “100 percent Mexican” coffee from the Guerrero Sierra and the tasty food to which they are accustomed.

In adjusting to changed economic circumstances, Padua said she had to reduce the café’s workforce from eight employees to three.

Café Astoria is far from alone in its struggles. Padua quickly ran off the names of longtime Zocalo-area businesses which have shut their doors in recent times-La Flor de Acapulco, El Bar Chico and La Gran Torta.

The contemporary Zocalo is a very different place than the one Padua remembered when she was growing up. On weekends, the square is riveted by loud music and filled with cheap jewelry stands and walls of pirate DVDs.

And staking a claim on a chunk of the ground near the historic cathedral, a fair-like gambling game invites passerby to win pesos by hitting a target with other pesos.

The changes at Cafe Astoria and the Zocalo represent a microcosm of the transformations that have visited Acapulco, a city simultaneously engulfed by economic crisis, violent insecurity, gentrification, tourism losses, and plans for renewal.

Padua is determined to get over the hump, and is even eyeing adjacent buildings for a new indoor space. As the interview drew to a close, a customer was overhead talking into his cellphone. “Café Astoria. Where the big tree is.” Commenting on the stately amate tree that shelters a corner of Acapulco from the fierce tropical sun and the storms of woe, Padua offered this observation: “It’s a magic tree.”

-Kent Paterson

Frontera NorteSur: on-line, U.S.-Mexico border news
Center for Latin American and Border Studies
New Mexico State University
Las Cruces, New Mexico



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