Oaxaca > East L.A.
While the city’s name is Spanish it’s often treated as if it’s in the English lexicon by many natives like myself. It’s a city that implies duality for the one living in it and the one who speaks its name, even if they aren’t bilingual. Los Angeles’ history reaches back to the Tongva and Chumas tribes and the Spanish Empire which spanned nearly 500 years. The city is a rich cultural and economic center. Today, it boasts the third-largest GDP in the world.
The word begins, includes and ends with a vowel. The nature of the word sounds complex with its movement like a diphthong. The word requires a mouth, open wide to pronounce it which might be a challenge for adopters of the language or those who aim initially to properly enunciate the word. Tourism is its main economy and its historic sites a main draw along with its museums, markets and moles.
Los Angeles and Oaxaca are the birthplace of Pilar and Marlon, partners, who find their way to one another across borders, coffee and chocolate. Neither grew up drinking coffee as a personal ritual. At best, it was their family’s ritual, – café con leche, for Marlon in Oaxaca, and merienda -night coffee with snacks – in East L.A. for Pilar – where they were introduced to coffee. When their worlds united one evening at a bar called Las Citas in downtown LA, it was then that what Pilar identified as “magic in his hands” started an introduction that led the pair to becoming partners in life and in business.
It is a bright and sunny Los Angeles day when I meet Marlon – Pilar joins us later – on the corner of a street along Whittier boulevard that has been transformed into a block of shipping containers known as Boulevard Market, housing Latin vendors and their concepts.
Marlon is sitting down in front of his cafe, in vintage brown pants, taking a drink while waiting for me to interview him about what I view as one of greater Los Angeles’ specialty coffee saviors: Café Santo.
I’ve frequented Café Santo at least half a dozen times before this interview, drawn in by its container concept, Oaxacan menu, intentional touches of fauna placed in oversized sandy pottery, which make the coffee container feel like an alfresco home where the coffee is the welcome.
What follows is a conversation between Marlon, Pilar and I about their origin stories – finding one another, finding coffee, chocolate and their saint: Café Santo, a contemporary Oaxacan coffee shop.
Marlon: When I moved to LA I was trying to find something different in my life. I had my sister living here. One day I called her and said you know; I want to go there and be there for a few months and see what happens. I didn’t speak English at the time. So, when I moved here, I felt a connection. Oaxaca is really a small version of LA, very rich in different ways.
Coffeetographer: In what different ways?
Marlon: I grew up with tourists from Germany, France and influenced by fashion. My hometown is one of the poorest states in the country but we’re also one of the richest. Economically we’re the worst, but on other side of that we have a very rich gastronomy, mescal, and music.
Narration Juan, a member of the Café Santo creative teams passes by, and he introduces us to one another before he rushes off all while musica de espanol plays in the background
When I came to LA, I really felt connected with the vibe, I could see myself here learning and doing things, but I didn’t know how. I went to college, and I learned English, and I was working in different places, you know, it was the classic dishwasher story for two to three years.
C: Is that the classic story?
Marlon: I guess, if you come from a different country, it’s the idea of working from scratch. I was working, learning the language and I was meeting people. I always had this idea to have a space to express myself and all the things that I like, music. fashion, food, mescal art.
C: In a way, you were looking for a container to hold all your interests.
Narration: We take a moment to pause our conversation as Marlon brings me a mocha – sixty percent cacao from tabasco with pomelo. Its citrus notes brighten the chocolate for me, its rich, but not too heavy. I’m seeing reds and browns and tasting peppery cocoa with a glazed pomegranate finish.
Marlon: I don’t create anything, but I really enjoy and appreciate things. So, I am here in L.A., and I know I want to save money, but I didn’t know how, and it was expensive. I was at a bar called Las Citas in downtown when I met Pilar, In 2016. Now, she’s my wife and partner in Café Santo.
C: What was that meeting like?
“He had magic in his hands,” Pilar said.
Marlon: When we met, I told her my story, I told her what I like, my goals and what I want to do. She gave me this idea, she said ‘if you want to do this, you should start with something small, like a pop-up and get an espresso machine and see if you like it.’
“I always say she’s the brain and I’m the coffee guy,” Marlon said.
Pilar’s background is in production, so we did pop ups, private events, and farmers markets. Then, I was doing Café Santo like a hobby on the weekends while still working my job in coffee shops. Soon, we were getting busier with more events and specialty coffee.
C: How were you feeling during this time as things started to pick up and you saw this idea, this goal, start to go places?
Marlon: It was an important time in my life. I was getting into coffee shops; I was like. if I want to do this, I must take it seriously. I became a certified barista, and I was like, I really like this.
C: What was the “this”?
Marlon: I like the connection I was having with this process of making coffee and meeting people. I’m very shy.
Note to reader: As we sit and chat in the beautiful warmth of the oncoming afternoon, Marlon seems far from shy. On the contrary, he seems like an open book and quite comfortable in his Los Angeles skin.
Marlon: Remember, I didn’t speak this English that I speak now, then. I was quiet. Coffee was helping me in so many ways to express and open myself, get involved with the community and meet new people That’s when I decided I want to do this full time.
C: How long into the dream did you quit your job?
Marlon: About two years in, I quit my job. I was like how am I going to pay my rent? My wife was very supportive and that was important. She would take care of the rent if needed. But I think it was super magical because as soon as I quit, like two weeks after, I started getting booked almost every week.
C: What did you take away from the timing of that, two years in, two weeks out?
Marlon: When you are passionate and focused on anything you like, or want, it happens.
We started getting busier with events, more farmers markets, private events, festivals – I was super busy.
C: It sounds electric, like a current was flowing through you and coffee was the circuit.
Marlon: Yea, I’m so thankful for coffee, it heled me grow personally, economically.
C: Coffee does have a way with us like that doesn’t it. We can think coffee is doing one thing, like waking us up, or serving as this neutral ground to make an introduction to something or someone and then we realize it is so much bigger than that: it can change our lives. Can we talk about your relationship to coffee?
Marlon: When I was in Oaxaca, I didn’t know anything about coffee. In Mexico, you drink café con leche with your family. It’s only in the last seven years specialty coffee is growing there. I used to work in a movie place, very artsy place where people rented DVDS’sIn that process I met our roaster Leo who is from Mexico and my friend who is a chocolate maker and she helped us create the recipes.
C: When did the idea of doing coffee and chocolate come together.
Marlon: When we started, we were just doing just coffee. My partner Pilar is a chocolate lover; she loves chocolate. One day she was talking, and she said, “tell me about your hometown, what do you have that’s important, something that you have every day?
C: Oh, I love this! Once again, a conversation between the two of you, and she elicits a wonderful part of your story out of you.
Marlon: It’s all those things you take for granted, the things you don’t really realize that is there.
C: When you begin to recall your hometown what did you see?
Marlon: I remember going with my family to the mercado and having nice mole in the market and we drink chocolate when your abuelita makes it from scratch, for me this is normal. But she was the one with the idea that we include into Café Santo.
A good friend of mine, her name is Flor, she’s a chocolate maker. We went to high school together. One day Pilar was looking through some Instagrams and she saw her brand and I was like ‘hey that’s my friend’. I called her one day, it had been twelve years, since we spoke, and I tell her I have this project and I wanted to highlight our roots in L.A. She helps us with the recipes and comes twice a year and talks about the process of the cacao and we get training. So now, we use Reina Negra and that’s how we decided to introduce it to the coffee shop.
The Cacao Reina Negra uses comes from unique origins from the Mexican states of Oaxaca, Tabasco, and Chiapas.
The espresso we use is 80% Oaxacan and 20% Ethiopian. So, the roasts and the blends we are looking for are the perfect balance.
C: When you started doing this. what were you tasting and feeling? Did it feel like home, remind you of abuelita or of an L.A. foggy day?
Marlon: This is a good question. Initially, we had two chocolates, one with almond and cinnamon. But Pilar and her family has been making chocolate for almost 30 years and they are playing with different recipes and different things,
Now, we have four different chocolates for different types of people; we have 80 percent cacao with walnuts, a chocolate shot that is 100 % cacao, and we have the Semiamargo, which is 60 percent cacao and its sweeter, and then lastly, our traditional Oaxacan mocha which is 40% cacao with cinnamon and almonds. The lower percentage of cacao, the sweeter it is.
While I usually have the traditional Oaxacan mocha, today, the Semiamargo, takes my palate away. I feel like my palate is graduating from something sweetest to less sweet with refined notes of darker cacao; I like it.
Marlon: Here we had to find a balance because the community knows café con leche. Some just want something sweet, others want specialty coffee espresso. So, we find balance for each market.
C: How much work did you do to find out about people’s palate before coming to the neighborhood?
Marlon: I am a Latino, so I know what we drink. But also, from doing pop-ups and going to areas like Monterey Park, West Hollywood, I can know what they like and that gave me a good idea because some like more flavor, and some like sweeter, things with vanilla, you know.
C: How did you go from a pop-up to a shipping container.
Marlon: We were getting busy. And the goal is to open a space, right?
C: Is it?
Marlon: I know some that don’t because it’s a lot of work. But the goal is to open a store. We were growing, and at some point, we were getting busier, and we didn’t have enough space. We looked for a space for a year and a half before the pandemic. We looked at East L.A. Boyle Heights, Glassell Park and we wanted something like 1200 feet. We couldn’t find anything.
Marlon: Then I went to an event and met the owner of a project who liked what I did, and he told me about this project, Boulevard Market. I live really close to here and there was nothing here. I was like I want to be able to get a cup of coffee in my neighborhood; so, I was so down. And then the pandemic hit, things became very challenging. Opening a shipping container that’s empty meant we had to build everything from scratch. And we weren’t just doing coffee, we were doing food to, burritos and chilaquiles, like small items.
We did pop-ups here, but it wasn’t the same and we had to pay rent. All the events were closed, the markets and music festivals and so it was really hard time. We did fundraisers, took a loan and it was sad to discover how hard the process can be with contractors and architects. It was our first coffee shop and we had to learn on the go. The next one will be easier.
C: There’s going to be a next one?
C: Wonderful. How did you decide on the aesthetic of this one, this container corner feels different, down to the placement of the planters, to the cacti.
Pilar: Our culture is colorful and vibrant but there’s also the cliché aesthetics that people think is all we are, like Frida Kahlo and Dia de los Muertos. We wanted to bring new artists from Oaxaca and show them. We wanted to have simple walls with a texture and a story.
C: It’s the details, simplistic and specific that can convey those decisions and feelings.
Pilar: Yes, even our cups are from TJ. from a Mexican ceramicist. Everything we do has a ‘why’ of how we do it. My business partner Juan, at the studio next door, he’s my other half of what we do with art and aesthetics. I’ll bring the idea and together we’re like ‘let’s do this!’
C: I’ve been in a lot of coffee shops, you can tell sometimes that you’re walking into a person, as if you’re seeing what they want to say.
Marlon: It is true. I see now that more people see that having a coffee shop is cool, and that it’s not just about having the money and the equipment, it’s about having the passion for it.
C: How did you decide what you wanted to offer for food?
Marlon: I use to work with a chef, named Freddy, in Oaxaca. I told him I wanted to do some small items and I’m a fan of you. I said would you be able to help me. He helped me in the beginning and developed a small food menu for me and he’s still with me today.
We decided to do something that was a balance. Our chilaquiles are famous now in the area. We wanted something people would like in the community. We have classic Latino items and some traditional American things like cheese melt – it’s always about finding a balance.
C: So how do you take your coffee?
Marlon: I like chocolate with water and drip. We’re a contemporary Oaxacan shop, something traditional and something American. The key is always having a balance.
Pilar: I love chocolate, I’m a fan of chocolate – the semi with the coffee is my favorite.
Marlon brings me a flight of Oaxacan chocolate – 40%, 60, 80% and 100% cacao – prepared by their lovely baristas and bakers – Ivy, Sally and Cindy. It is here that I taste each of the chocolates without espresso from the least amount of cacao to the most. They pair it with their famous chilaquiles: corn tortilla chips, refried beans, Oaxacan cheese, spices, salsa macha and topped with egg. I take a couple bites and I had experience what we Marlon calls ‘like a wet nacho’. I know that once this interview is over, I will devour this despite a small trepidation that the dairy cheese might be too much for me. It turns out not to be and I clean the container leaving no tortilla behind.
C: Now we’re in 2023 and you’re almost two years in. What do you feel like you’ve done well and contributed to the culture in L.A?
Marlon: As Oaxacano, people have a perception of how they think things look like. Mexican flags, Frida Kahlo. I feel like there is a cliché about Oaxacan restaurants, culture even Mexican culture. I was lucky to go to school and learn about art, music, and fashion.
C: I can tell by your Wrangler jeans, boots, beret, and aviator.
Marlon: I want to show a different Oaxaca, contemporary colors, different colors, even our graphic designer is from Oaxaca. I want to show that Oaxaca can look like something different than what we expect.
Marlon and Pilar and their entire creative ensemble have brought a wealth of Oaxacan culture to L.A and coffee is their container, pun intended. There’s duality in their Latin heritages which they can express side-by-side as partners in love and in concept. Their culture of the past and in the present is shaping the palate of what the people of Montebello and those from the greater areas of Los Angeles can taste, by nature of craft and creativity through a coffee saint, Café Santo.