Story and photos by Jason Keil
Chef Silvana Salcido Esparza has not sat down as the quarantine continues to drag on.
“It’s been nothing but work 24/7,” says the 2020 James Beard Award finalist. “When you’re on the rollercoaster, there’s no time to sit idle. You’re just holding on for dear life doing whatever it tells you to do.”
And like almost everyone else, the last several months for Esparza have been filled with difficulty, loss, and renewal. Earlier this year, when her restaurant Barrio Café, located on the southwest corner of 16th Street and Thomas Road, was forced to temporarily shut its doors due to health concerns stemming from the coronavirus pandemic. As she waited for the curve to flatten, she gathered a group of volunteers and prepared free meals for the community.
But in April, COVID-19 claimed Barrio Café Gran Reserva, the intimate restaurant housed inside the Bragg’s Pie Factory building along Grand Avenue. Filled with stunning work from local artists such as Lalo Cota and Angel Diaz, among others, the loss of her beloved establishment was especially hard on Esparza.
“It meant something to me,” she explains. “It was personal.”
But this historic moment has allowed the chef to make improvements to her original space. Dubbing it “Barrio Café 2.0,” visitors can expect more than a new menu and a fresh coat of paint. And like she did with Gran Reserva, she continues to make room for local creatives with the petite new art space named WG WALKby Gallery, which also shares its initials with Esparza’s business partner Wendy Gruber. As its name suggests, those who want to view the art inside can see the entire space outside when they stroll or drive by, making it accessible 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
“It brings some vibrancy to the block,” says Esparza. “I was surprised that there really is nothing like it anywhere in the country. We should all have window space to encourage people to walk and encourage art to continue.”
Making art available to the public has always been a priority for Esparza. When she was growing up in the early ’70s, she remembers how the murals in the village where she grew up in Mexico or saw when driving through downtown Los Angeles influenced her.
And the raising of strong and creative voices continues to have an impact on her life. Ten years ago, she transformed her love of culture and community into space known as Calle 16, a gallery of murals painted in response to the controversial immigration law SB 1070.
“I don’t do it to be cool,” she says. “Everything I do is to be genuine. It’s all about the art and retaining that culture and pride.”
The gallery’s first exhibit is named Chingona, a collection of portraits of Esparza from her private collection from artists whose work she has loved and supported over the last 18 years, including Abe Zucca, Pablo Luna, and Debra Jones.
“At first I was like, ‘This is weird. What am I supposed to do with this [portrait]? Put it up in my dining room,'” says Esparza. “I wanted to show this collection because [these portraits] are done by so many different artists over so many different periods of my life. And you can also see the early work of some of the artists. A few have done two different portraits of me, and you can see the difference in me and the difference in their hand. It’s an immense honor.”
While the work from Chingona is not for sale, sales of work from future showings will go entirely to the artist, continuing Esparza’s commitment to elevating the culture of the neighborhood.
But the renewal of Barrio Café may be short-lived. Esparza says that the restaurant is “on a respirator right now,” and it would devastate her to lose all the magnificent artwork inside and outside Calle 16.
“If I lose the building or rent it to somebody else, chances are the art isn’t going to stay,” she says. “There’s a lot of love, heart, and spirit that went into it.”