In San Antonio’s West Side, a Coffeehouse Has Become a Space for Women Entrepreneurs to Thrive

Apr 30, 2018
4:52 PM

SAN ANTONIO — When you walk onto the long front porch of the Sabinas Coffee House in San Antonio’s West Side, you’re not sure if you should open the front door or knock. It looks like someone’s home. Beyond those doors, however, is a space open for community building and for local residents to support one another in their current initiatives.

“I’m very blessed,” she says Marylou Castillo, about getting the space for the coffee shop, “When I put it out to the universe —this is what I want, this is what I need, this is my vision— it kind of falls into my lap.  And then I’m like,” she goes on nervously, “ ‘OK, I gotta make it work. I did ask for it.’”

In the fall of 2016, Castillo, executive director of Latinas Unidas Por El Arte, an Austin-based nonprofit with arts programs for women and children, opened Sabinas.

Castillo could have gone to a trendier and more trafficked area of San Antonio to open this nonprofit coffeehouse. But Castillo recognizes that she probably would not be able to afford the rent. And, as an organizer, she recognized that those parts of town don’t need this initiative.

“We want to be in a place where we can make a difference,” Castillo told Latino Rebels.

The coffeehouse’s front door. (Photo by Ray Salazar)

While about 19% of San Antonio residents live below the poverty line, in the community where Sabinas operates, that number rises to almost 41%, according to U. S. census data.

As executive director of LUPA, she knew that after the presidential election, cuts were in the pipeline for the National Endowment for the Arts, which funded her arts programs.  She needed a new funding source to supplement the decreasing dollars. A coffeehouse, doubling as a space where she could run some initiatives, could provide the answer.

Bringing an Idea to Fruition

The idea for the coffeehouse came to Castillo after an Austin student suggested her organization offer a culinary arts class. The student didn’t want to do sports—to this student, cooking was an art So Castillo began with simple cooking tasks. “Some students had never sliced a pineapple before,” Castillo said.

After Castillo organized a tamales contest, where competitors needed to create non-traditional versions of the Mexican classic, she began to think, “Maybe we should open up a coffee shop and venue for the arts and help bring in some money.”

The founding of the coffeehouse took several steps. Castillo’s organization helped an artist find a warehouse space where he could repair some of the art that got damaged while in storage during one of the city’s flood.  Her organization helped him rebrand himself and market his work. In early 2016, Castillo walked over to the Mexican American Unity Council, MAUC, the organization that lent the artist space.

“I went to turn in the keys to the warehouse, and the executive director said, ‘Sit down.  I have this proposition,’” she said.

They walked across the street from MAUC headquarters on San Antonio’s West side and unlocked the door to a two-story building. It was the building where Sabinas operates today. MUAC asked Castillo if her organization could do the work they were doing in Austin in this struggling San Antonio community.

Marylou Castillo (Photo by Ray Salazar)

Creating Healthy Initiatives Beyond

When the coffeehouse opened about a year and a half ago, Castillo networked with local artists. However, she wanted this effort to focus on health, too.  She wanted to encourage local residents to grow their own food “or at least their own salsa,” Castillo explained. “What you don’t find in this corridor is a lot of food that you can eat every day and it’s OK.”

The coffeehouse menu raised some eyebrows at first.

“People asked, ‘Where are the tacos?’” she said. Castillo noted that they did have tacos but the pork was steamed, not fried.  Instead of being soaked with sodium, this meat tasted of carrots, celery, and Sabinas’s homemade seasoning. “For us,” according to Castillo, “it’s less fat is good.”  She wanted local residents to realize healthier food can be tasty.

She hired San Antonio native and local resident Ruben Jimenez to cook. He first walked into the coffee house as a vendor. Owning an extensive record collection stored in crates, Jimenez asked if he could sell them there.  Today, in the back of the second floor’s performance space, R&B, Tejano, classic rock, pop, and so many kinds of vinyl albums are for sale (except for a prized Selena album; you can only look at that one).

With culinary training from a downtown hotel, Jimenez accepted this opportunity and created his own menu.

“I wanted it to be my grandma’s house on a Sunday,” he said,  “It’s very chill. We’re not fast-paced here. Even though we are close to the hustle and bustle of the city, we want you to feel more at home.”

As a native resident of this area, Jimenez, 37, recognizes that this area hasn’t changed in the last 30 years. He sees the potential of this coffeehouse to uplift the community, without replacing it, keeping the “West-Side feel.”

Ruben Jimenez cooking. (Photo by Ray Salazar)

Another Sabinas partner is My Tea Soul, bakers of gluten-free, plant-based desserts. Michele Hernandez and her daughter Keziah met Castillo at a market and would deliver their goods to coffeehouse initially. When they needed to relocate their business, they partnered with Castillo and now bake in the coffeehouse’s kitchen on Mondays when the place is closed.

“Even if people don’t have dietary restrictions, we want them to eat our items and not even realize they’re different,” said Michele, who describes herself as an “accidental baker.”

She began baking these desserts when her daughter hosted tea parties as a child for a vegan friend and an aunt who cannot digest gluten. Keziah says she appreciates how she can provide for people with dietary restrictions.

A Space for Arts and Entertainment

Sabinas is a versatile space that has provided a platform for many locals, whether that be for Jimenez’ cooking and record collection to find a home, or Hernandez and her daughter to relocate their business.

In addition to offering meeting space during the day, on many evenings each month, Sabinas hosts events to support community members and to encourage the arts. Still, despite the partnerships and progress, Castillo recognizes that a coffeehouse in this part of town cannot survive by itself.

On the “Ladies Night Out,” for example, Sabinas rents display tables to female vendors. Admission for any women who’d like to attend is free.

A wall in the meeting space where people can play records, too. (Photo by Ray Salazar)

“What’s more important,” Castillo explains, “is to educate the women to network and help them if they are entrepreneurs.  This gives them an opportunity to pass out their cards and flyers. If you’re a plumber, you can help us with our plumbing.  If you sell cosmetics, you can help us with our makeup.”

Recently on one of these nights, Castillo booked a fashion stylist. The women brought in clothes they didn’t want anymore. The stylist collected it as they walked in, paired up the items in new ways, and the women walked out with “something not so new, but new,” Castillo says.

For Shirley Bratton, a civilian working in the Air Force, who moved to San Antonio almost two years ago, Sabinas provided a space where she could network and socialize, especially because she didn’t have family there.

Aside from her full-time job, Bratton takes interest in fitness and motivational speaking. In a conversation with an Uber driver, Bratton found out about the “Ladies Night Out” events. In January, she helped Castillo organize a vision board class to help women set goals for the new year. “I had just had surgery, couldn’t drive, couldn’t carry anything.  I was surprised at how many people showed up. Afterwords, through social media, people told me I have no idea the impact my words had on them and how much they appreciate the encouragement and inspiration.”

“For a lot of those ladies who, like me, were starting out a new business,” Bratton explained, “it was an opportunity for you to get up on your feet and have a place to go and showcase your business in a safe and welcoming environment.  Through that, you’re able to make sales, create networks, make connections that you might not have had the opportunity to make.”

Bratton says she’s known of anywhere from 30 to 75 women to attend the event each month. She’s also returned on the spoken word nights. She remembers that one evening she sat talking with Castillo and a woman approached them. “And the lady is like ‘Oh my gosh! Someone bought my painting!’ And I looked at the painting and it was beautiful,” Bratton continues. Because of Castillo’s encouragement, Bratton figured out, the artist realized her worth as an artist.

Another artist who displayed and sold her art at the coffee house is Sarah Cisneros. Overnights, she’s employed as a home care provider for the elderly.

“Art has been with me all my life. This is something I did on my own,” Cisneros said.

She draws with pencil and paper and enjoys that more than painting. “It’s easier to erase,” she added. “I’m more of a cartoonist. I try to do stuff in real life but it doesn’t come out that way. It comes out as more a cartoon, especially if I’m sketching real life.”

Cisneros, whose parents live near Sabinas, stopped by shortly after the coffee house opened. She talked to the staff who told her about the opportunity for artists to display their work there.

Soon after she brought in her work, three pieces sold.

Art in the hallway at the coffeehouse (Photo by Ray Salazar)

“Marylou contacts me by text message or email. She tells me it sold.  I don’t remember exactly what she wrote, but I had a big smile on my face,” Cisneros said. If it weren’t for Sabinas, she wouldn’t have a place to display or much less sell her art.

Cisneros says she finds happiness in knowing “that someone likes my painting, that somebody knows me.”