Chef Silvana Salcido Esparza Blends Mexican Food, Art, and Culture

Harmony Cardenas

PHOENIX — Pristine white plates body the Mexican cuisine created by Chef Silvana Salcido Esparza, whose dishes infused with pops of color echo the artworks filling the partitions inside her Barrio Café. Opened northeast of downtown Phoenix in 2002, it’s a hub for arts and activism, where by Esparza counters colonizer narratives by cooking, society, and group.

For decades, she’s been commissioning largely Phoenix-dependent artists to paint interior and exterior murals that frequently center her Mexican heritage and imaginative passions past food. Driving the café, artist Lalo Cota paired taco imagery with lowriders, paying out homage to the chef’s immersion in local lowrider culture and her assortment of cars and trucks — such as one particular bearing Cota’s airbrushed impression of the chef’s beloved nephew who died, his head adorned with a golden crown.

A collaborative mural at Barrio Café that includes lowriders painted by Lalo Cota (picture Lynn Trimble/Hyperallergic)

For Esparza, who moved to Phoenix in 1995, the lowriders symbolize Chicano tradition and local community. But she’s also drawn to their aesthetic. “Lowriders are pure artwork,” she claims. “And art is component of every little thing I do.”

Little paintings and drawings by artists whose topics vary from lucha libre wrestlers to mariachi skeletons bring warmth and attraction to the café. Inside of an business office room the chef shares with Barrio Café co-founder and company associate Wendy Gruber, there is an space identified as WalkBy Gallery, where rotating exhibitions are obvious via large home windows flanking the sidewalk. For a time, a trio of artists operated Por Vida gallery in an adjacent room now it is home to Frida’s Garden, a further venture to increase from the chef’s artistic family members.

One of numerous lowriders in Chef Silvana Salcido Esparza’s automobile assortment (picture courtesy the chef)

Barrio Café anchors a component of the town dubbed Calle 16, a identify referencing one particular of Esparza’s most impactful contributions to the location. In 2010, she collaborated with area artists to launch the Calle 16 Mural Undertaking as a protest towards Arizona’s SB 1070. Nicknamed the “papers please” regulation, the laws (which has given that been mainly gutted by the U.S. Supreme Court) was extensively criticized for advertising racial profiling and anti-immigrant sentiment.

Angel Diaz’s anti-SB 1070 mural in an alleyway guiding the café critiques American history from chattel slavery and Indian reservations to navy lifestyle and the prison pipeline. Extra not long ago, Diaz up-to-date the piece to include things like visible iconography from Trump’s “Make America Great Again” motion, complete with figures in white KKK hoods and crimson MAGA caps.

Tato Caraveo’s portrait of Chef Silvana Salcido Esparza for light-weight rail station in Phoenix (photograph courtesy Valley Metro)

Nowadays, the Calle 16 location features parts by renowned artists this sort of as California-dependent El Mac, Oklahoma-based Yatika Starr Fields, and Hong Kong-based Caratoes. And the front of Barrio Café serves as a changing canvas where by artists like Douglas Miles generally handle social justice difficulties of the working day — producing Calle 16 just one of the ideal spots to see mural artwork in Phoenix.

In the meantime, Esparza’s impact is apparent in other imaginative hubs, where artists she supported early on have obtained considerable commissions. For Cota, the commissions include a huge mural on a new ability substation in the Roosevelt Row arts district, exactly where a skeletal determine donning denims and a white T-shirt floats in excess of the city skyline at sunset. For Tato Caraveo, they involve an expansive mural painted along one particular aspect of the Arizona Opera making that sits across the avenue from Phoenix Artwork Museum, the place a few performs with bubble wands although sitting back-to-back on a lush environmentally friendly lawn.

Turns out, there’s one more artistic enclave wherever Esparza has married food stuff and society to masterful outcome. It’s a strip of Grand Avenue recognised for arts and historic preservation, in which artist Lucretia Torva painted a mural exhibiting Esparza in a white chef jacket, her arm thrust ahead with an outsized spoon as if she’s ready to feed the full town.

Lucretia Torva’s mural portrait of Chef Silvana Salcido Esparza (photograph courtesy of the chef)

When Esparza opened her good eating concept Barrio Café Gran Reserva on Grand Avenue in 2016, she commissioned Diaz to fill the ceiling and partitions of a smaller rest room with black and white imagery calling back again to early 20th century revolutionaries Pancho Villa and Emiliano Zapata. “It was a cry to the Mexican revolution, and the recent revolution that proceeds these days,” she describes.

Just outside the bathroom, margaritas painted in dazzling pink and inexperienced played on mainstream perceptions of Mexican society. Inside the dining space, subtler shadow-like imagery of immigrant farm employees in the fields, painted underneath desk-peak, quietly channeled the chef’s far more subversive aspect. “There was an class and elegance in the eating place,” she suggests. “But if you truly analyzed it, it was a critique of social course.”

Esparza shut Barrio Café Gran Reserva throughout early Covid-19 days, determining to aim her electricity on the initial Barrio Café, exactly where artists which includes Pablo Luna, Thomas “Breeze” Marcus, and Lucinda Hinojos developed fresh new inside murals through a pandemic pause the chef utilised to make foods with a smaller crew for health and fitness care workers and neighborhood customers in need.  

In Oct 2020, presidential candidates Joe Biden and Kamala Harris frequented Barrio Café on the marketing campaign path, a further indication of Esparza’s relevance to the region’s discussions about food, art, and politics.

Detail of mural by Phoenix artist Lucinda Hinojos painted inside Barrio Café (image Lynn Trimble/Hyperallergic)

That confluence of food and lifestyle is reminiscent of Esparza’s childhood, and the sensorial touchpoints carved into her memory and feelings. Raised in a multi-generational household in California, the chef recalls her father smelling like bread right after performing the evening change at a area bakery, and the time she put in cooking with her grandmother. During outings to Mexico, she’d marvel at the mercados loaded with foods and artwork, and the web sites where by her father discussed that frescos painted by Diego Rivera and other artists had been a type of storytelling meant to preserve their cultural heritage.

Now, Esparza is the one particular telling the stories.

The 61-calendar year-old chef is crafting an autobiographical cookbook, in which she’ll deal with discrimination she’s confronted as a lesbian chef and issues wrought by fluctuating sarcoidosis signs or symptoms. She’s still creating contemporary menus reflecting her family traditions, the classical French delicacies she analyzed in culinary school, and unique regional cuisines explored during a yr of backpacking by means of Mexico. 

A single of Chef Silvana Salcido Esparza’s culinary creations (photo courtesy of the chef)

Though incorporating Indigenous homages and influences, the chef wears a political lens. “I look at mole from a political eye,” she states of the sauce which is an critical ingredient of Mexican cuisine. “Their countrywide dish is mole poblano, but that is a colonized model of an Indigenous dish that’s been Martha Stewartized.” 

As her hybridized tactic to creative activism evolves, Esparza proceeds to attract inspiration from the artists and group users who assist give it lifetime. “We’re familia,” she suggests. “That’s all the things.”

A person of Chef Silvana Salcido Esparza’s lowriders parked at a culinary celebration in Phoenix (image courtesy the chef)

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