How Uptown Artists Are Using Café Bustelo to Combat Gentrification

We talked to artists and the writer Junot Díaz about the significance of this iconic coffee to the Latinx community.

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Last summer, a UPS worker knocked on the door of M. Tony Peralta’s apartment on 207th Street. When Peralta answered, the postman asked if he could hold a package for his next door neighbors, a young white couple, who weren’t home at the time. Peralta was happy to help. He wrote a note letting them know he had their delivery and stuck it to his neighbor’s door and later gave them their package. Then, the next day, when he stepped out of his apartment, he saw the couple had left a note on their door for UPS. On the slip of paper, his neighbors asked UPS not to leave packages with anyone in the building. They’d prefer multiple delivery attempts instead.

“That’s not neighborly. I grew up in a time when neighbors say hello to you,” Peralta, who has lived in the area his entire life, said. “What I dislike very much is that people move here and they do not engage with the community. I do not understand that.”

Peralta, 43, is a Dominican-American contemporary artist and graphic designer. In 2005, he founded the Peralta Project, an online store selling apparel and art he designs along with “La Blodega” featuring news and events related to his work. Because his uptown neighborhood has changed dramatically since his childhood days of breakdancing and playing baseball with friends in front of his family’s apartment on 187th Street, his art has a nostalgic feel to it.

“Before it was kinda like neighbor helping neighbor. It was very family-oriented,” he said, recalling his childhood in the Heights. “If my mother didn’t have any sugar, she’d get me to ask our neighbor for a cup of sugar. I’ve lived in this building for 17 years and no one has asked me for sugar once.”

Pulitzer Prize–winning author and Dominican-American Junot Díaz, who lived in Manhattan from 1999 to 2008, agrees. He wrote in an email that when young and/or wealthy professionals infiltrate neighborhoods like Washington Heights, they’re almost always followed by “biased housing politics, ridiculous rent prices, the destruction of the local community fabric, skyrocketing prices for all sorts of things and criminalization of our neighborhood practices.”

In 2010, Peralta noticed how some folks, particularly those who had only lived in the neighborhood for a few years, were geographically dividing the neighborhood via coded language by calling his side (the Dominican side) “East of Broadway.”

Elsewhere in Manhattan, 5th Avenue is the dividing line that separates east and west. But because there’s no 5th Avenue in Washington Heights and Inwood, Peralta realized, “East of Broadway” was a way for many to complain about the predominantly Latinx or Black parts of the neighborhood.

And that’s when Peralta started making Defend Uptown stickers, T-shirts and hats to display pride for those living “East of Broadway.” He plastered the stickers all over uptown. He continued paying homage to the Heights and his vibrant Dominican-American upbringing by using household goods like Café Bustelo’s bright yellow and red imagery for his art. He’s turned the iconic coffee can into pins, prints and T-shirts to sell online. In 2015, his friend and award-winning Broadway playwright Lin-Manuel Miranda proudly sported a Peralta-created Café Bustelo pin while hosting the Kennedy Awards Show.

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To Peralta and Díaz, Café Bustelo symbolizes the Latinx immigrant experience. Because Café Santo Domingo (a Dominican coffee brand) wasn’t sold in New York City when Peralta’s family settled in the Heights, his mom, along with many other immigrants from Spanish-speaking countries, gravitated toward Café Bustelo—a finely ground coffee sentimentally prepared with a greca, or stove-top espresso maker.

“The first thing you hear when you go to somebody’s home in the Dominican Republic is ‘quiere un cafecito?’” says Peralta. “My mom used to drink her coffee, then she would put a little coffee in a saucer and give me some.”

Díaz says the saddest part is that even this symbol has already been co-opted by the same forces it is being mobilized to resist: In 2011, Smucker’s Company acquired Café Bustelo. (The company declined to comment for this article.) To Díaz, the irony is that Bustelo has been corporatized, but what it means to Latinx communities, how it draws everyone together, is something else altogether.

“Café Bustelo seems to be an excellent rallying point for a Caribbean Latinx community that is being threatened by gentrification,” Díaz said. “Bustelo becomes metonymic for what we are and what we will lose.”

Peralta, who is opening Taller Peralta, his brick-and-mortar retail store and studio, next Saturday, was one of the first artists to depict Café Bustelo in his work in order to symbolize a unifying force for Latinx communities. Peralta says the only uptown-based artists to look up to while he was growing up were anonymous graffiti artists, which is why he hopes to offer art classes for the youth as well as host exhibits and community events at his store. He welcomes everyone in the community to stop by.

And now, there are more artists turning to the Cuba-inspired coffee can. Last year, Dominican-American Jessica Martinez, 24, started movement and brand Save Uptown after getting dirty looks from transplants for talking too loud with her friends at expensive coffee shops or parks in their neighborhood.

“They make us feel like we were intruding in our own home,” Martinez said. “I feel like the newcomers don’t really try to accept what’s there. They create safe havens within themselves and alienate themselves from the community instead, and it just further divides all of us.”

While working at the Our Lady of Martyrs Church on Dyckman, Martinez is seeing how older generations of Latinx immigrants face displacement. She says there have been several cases of people coming in more frequently to ask for the church’s help with rent prices spiking, drastic changes in lease agreements and landlords demanding them to leave.

“We’re not against change, but we are against displacement,” she explained. “We want nice things, too, but not at the cost of people’s livelihoods.”

After attending rezoning and community board meetings to better understand the effects of redlining, Martinez put together the money she earned from babysitting and working at the church to create stickers that said “SAVE UPTOWN,” intended to create conversations with her peers, elders and even newcomers about displacement.

Café Bustelo–inspired stickers allowed her to incorporate Spanish and a familiar symbol for her Spanish-speaking elders so they could join the dialogue about rapid changes happening around them. A portion of her profits go to Process of Change, a local nonprofit that provides care packages and light lunches for the homeless in the neighborhood.

The Café Bustelo boom didn’t end there. Perico Limited, an uptown-influenced streetwear brand started by 28-year-old Francis Montoya three years ago, creates shirts that say, “Stay Out of Uptown.” In one Instagram post, a model poses in front of a backdrop of stacked Café Bustelo cans.

“With the whole ‘stay out of uptown’ concept, we knew that our supporters will get the message we were trying to convey,” Montoya said. “[Considering] everything that ‘stay out of uptown’ represents and Café Bustelo’s cultural impact, the match was perfect. We just had to. It screams Latino. It screams uptown. It’s us.”

For the Latinx community, enjoying each other’s company over a cup coffee is not only a ritual of love, it’s a spiritual one.

“In a dominant culture that stigmatizes our language, our culture, our bodies and our communities,” Díaz said, “every instance of community and solidarity, every ritual that helps you reconstitute yourself—such as getting a cafécito exactly how you like it—is absolutely essential.”

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