When Antigua Cultural Coffeehouse closes its doors, more will be lost than a morning cup of joe

Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

Forget short, tall and venti, that strange code for ordering Starbucks. The sizes at Antigua Cultural Coffeehouse are ce, ome and yei, the Mayan words for one, two, three. Somehow, that’s easier to follow.

Sadly, though, today will be the final day to place an order in any lingo at the colorful cafe in El Sereno, the blue-collar barrio nestled in the hills between downtown L.A. and the San Gabriel Valley. No more Chango Mango fruit drinks or Aztlan Dream espresso brews, named for the mythic Aztec homeland but made with white chocolate, the concoction of a satirical barista. Customers say what they’ll miss the most is the stimulating atmosphere that filled a void in this unassuming neighborhood. “I helped [promote it] because I believed so much in this place,” says East L.A. College psychology teacher Joanna Aguirre, 27, who spread the word about Antigua when she was a graduate student at nearby Cal State L.A. “There’s nothing like it here.”

The coffeehouse, a gathering place for activists, artists, students, writers and even a few fans from the Westside, lost its lease at its location on Huntington Drive, the neighborhood’s main thoroughfare. Yancey Quiñones, who started the business three years ago with a college friend, Cuauhtli Roura, says Antigua was squeezed out by the same economic pressures that are transforming other once homey barrios, such as Echo Park, on the fringes of a reviving downtown.

“We’re getting gentrified,” says Quiñones, who also owns a roasting business using coffee beans grown by his family in Guatemala. “We’re getting thrown out because they’re developing this stretch.”

El Sereno has been standing in the path of development for years but has managed to retain the low-key, lowbrow residential character that lives up to its tranquil name. It joined neighboring South Pasadena to fight the proposed extension of the Long Beach Freeway and most recently rallied to block a planned subdivision of some two dozen upscale homes on Elephant Hill. The project is now in the courts.

Commuters heading downtown from Pasadena and Alhambra breeze down Huntington Drive as it changes from a lush, tree-lined boulevard to a hardscrabble street lined with medical clinics, small markets and a 99-cent store. Already, some see change in the works.

“Oh, this place is coming up pretty good and pretty fast,” says Eddie Solis, who has owned the auto body shop across from the cafe for 26 years. “We got a new cleaners, a new library and a new councilman’s office down the street.”

Councilman José Huizar, a regular customer at Antigua, calls its closing “a great loss.” More good things are coming to the neighborhood, but the councilman doesn’t call it gentrification. “We’ve got to keep the character and integrity of El Sereno and keep that small-town feel,” says Huizar, who led the fight to block the new subdivision. “The question is: What type of development do you want to see?”

Across from Antigua, construction is almost completed on a two-story commercial building expected to house a book store, martial arts studio, banquet hall and -- you guessed it -- a new coffee shop, possibly a Starbucks, the developer says. In the rear, a planned sound studio with film editing equipment is being built for use by independent filmmakers.

Development was not on the minds of Antigua’s founders when they opened the coffeehouse in 2005. “For me, it was never about the money,” says Roura, who makes a mean breakfast sandwich. “We deliberately came to this neighborhood because it was an under-served community. We wanted it to have a warm feel, like you’re stepping into an indigenous sanctuary.”

Roura met her partner while they were students at Cal State, a culturally land-locked campus located between railroad tracks and two freeways. A cafe with a progressive political vibe and free wi-fi seemed like a natural for a student community with a shortage of local hangouts.

Along with their spouses, Faviola Ruiz and Juan Villegas, the pair saved for two years and bought a grinder, an espresso machine, a fridge. They acquired some things on EBay and others, like a couple of comfy armchairs, at second-hand stores.

Coincidentally, Antigua opened the same day as the restaurant next door, Taste of Brazil. A few doors down, another new business, El Exorcismo, is currently celebrating a grand opening, offering spiritual cleansings and consultations (“limpias y consultas”) in a spic-and-span storefront.

Five years ago, the building that houses the cafe was abandoned, according to Martin Camacho, whose mother owns the place. Camacho, who also studied at Cal State, says he fixed it up and was the first to open a cultural coffeehouse at that location, called Café Tico, using a nickname for people from Costa Rica, where his family is from.

Today, the landlord is locked in a complicated dispute with Antigua’s owners. Camacho denies forcing them out. As of July 1, both sides are parting company with a bitter taste in their mouths. Quiñones is planning to open a new cafe in Cypress Park; Roura is going her separate way.

On a recent afternoon, Aguirre, the psychologist, worried that she would cry at a farewell party set for tonight. She’s just sentimental that way. “I don’t believe in marriage, but I cry at weddings,” she says, curled up on one of those armchairs.

Sitting nearby, artist Vincent Valdez worries where his next meal will come from. He lives nearby but doesn’t cook at home. “It’s a shame because I don’t know where I’m going to eat after this,” says Valdez, whose latest work is on display at LACMA. “It’s good, it’s affordable and it’s organic.”

Just then, a man walks briskly into the restaurant and steps up to the counter. Before he says a word, the owner places the order for him.

“Can you make him a yerba mate tea?” Roura tells a worker.

I catch up to the man on the sidewalk as he rushes out. He’s Salomon Zavala, an attorney who tells me he represents the charter school up the street, Academia Semillas del Pueblo. He orders the Argentine tea, he says, because it was a favorite of Che Guevara. “I come here religiously, right after lunch,” Zavala says. “I’m definitely going to miss this place.”

Then he hops behind the wheel of his silver Audi and whisks away.

Antigua farewell concert, featuring Pachamama, Ollin and Las Cafeteras, 7:30 tonight, Antigua Cultural Coffeehouse, 4836 Huntington Drive South, Los Angeles. Call (323) 539-2233 or go to antiguacoffee