Songs for the Struggling Artist

The Cafe Wall of Fame

On the wall at Café La Habana in Mexico City is a plaque that proclaims the previous presence of Octavio Paz, Ché Guevara, Gabriel Garcia Marquez and more. The rumor is that the Cuban Revolution was planned there. It is an inspiring place. The conversations of these public intellectuals soaked into the very walls.

Also, not a single woman is listed in its storied history.

It was founded in 1952. That means Frida Kahlo could have gone there in the last two years of her life. Remedios Varo and Leonora Carrington could have gone there. I know they didn’t live nearby but still, they could have. Laura Esquivel was two years old when the place was founded but I imagine she’s been there at some point in her life.

I mean – did no women come and plan there? Or they just haven’t done it yet? What if we planned the feminist revolution there? The Cuban one worked out reasonably well for the guys who started it.

I have a lot of questions about this particular place because it feels like a kind of magic to write in so potent a place. But I wonder if that magic has only ever applied to men. Did women not go there? Were they somehow unwelcome to the public intellectual’s realm? Or was it unsafe for women? Or were they there and then forgotten about? Or did they just have their coffee, conversations and revolutions at home?

As a woman who has spent time in coffee shops in many countries, I can confirm that public spaces like cafes are more male space than female. In some places I’ve been, I’ve been the only woman. On holidays I am almost always the only woman in the last open café.

It does feel as though despite our many advancements, public space like coffee shops still belongs to men. Soraya Chemaly gave one of my favorite TED talks on the subject of public spaces. The gist of it is, almost all public space is male space, in that it was designed by and for men. I can’t stop thinking about this. I’m fascinated by the architectural projects that are JUST beginning to address it. There is a movement coming, I think. But without the history, it’s very difficult. Show me the café that brags of all the women who frequented the place. (Seriously please show me – I’ll go there.) Show me the city that was planned with women in mind. (Vienna comes closest in that they made adjustments based on a survey of women’s needs back in the 90s.) All space is men’s space that others find our way through. All cafes are for men, for men’s ideas, men’s revolutions. The women’s revolution is in the house, I guess? Which maybe explains why we haven’t really had a revolution.

If women have no public space in which to gather, if we aren’t seen in public together (except for once a year at our march) then we have no public power. We try and claim space when we march. We chant. Whose streets? Our streets.
Now maybe it’s time for:
Whose café? Our café.

I’m not here to call out Café La Habana. Honestly, I can’t think of a single café in the USA that honors literary greats or revolutionaries of any gender on its walls. Café la Habana is way ahead of us in honoring writers, artists and intellectuals and I respect and admire them for it. I’m a fan.

One day in the future, I hope to make it back to that cafe, where I’ll drink another delicious lechera and on their updated plaque I hope to see many women’s names. Or maybe one of you will start a café with women in mind and we’ll all turn up to hang out and plan our revolution and someone will hang a plaque up decades later. I’d like to be on that wall with the rest of you.

Photo by Donna Shaunesey


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