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


PHOENIX — Pristine white plates body the Mexican cuisine produced by Chef Silvana Salcido Esparza, whose dishes infused with pops of coloration echo the artworks filling the partitions within her Barrio Café. Opened northeast of downtown Phoenix in 2002, it is a hub for arts and activism, exactly where Esparza counters colonizer narratives by means of cooking, tradition, and community.

For yrs, she’s been commissioning mainly Phoenix-centered artists to paint interior and exterior murals that often middle her Mexican heritage and creative pursuits over and above food stuff. Guiding the café, artist Lalo Cota paired taco imagery with lowriders, paying homage to the chef’s immersion in community lowrider lifestyle and her selection of vehicles — which includes one bearing Cota’s airbrushed graphic of the chef’s beloved nephew who died, his head adorned with a golden crown.

A collaborative mural at Barrio Café showcasing lowriders painted by Lalo Cota (photo Lynn Trimble/Hyperallergic)

For Esparza, who moved to Phoenix in 1995, the lowriders represent Chicano culture and group. But she’s also drawn to their aesthetic. “Lowriders are pure art,” she says. “And art is portion of everything I do.”

Smaller paintings and drawings by artists whose subjects variety from lucha libre wrestlers to mariachi skeletons provide heat and allure to the café. Inside an workplace space the chef shares with Barrio Café co-founder and business husband or wife Wendy Gruber, there’s an place known as WalkBy Gallery, wherever rotating exhibitions are visible as a result of massive home windows flanking the sidewalk. For a time, a trio of artists operated Por Vida gallery in an adjacent room now it’s house to Frida’s Backyard, yet another undertaking to rise from the chef’s imaginative family.

1 of numerous lowriders in Chef Silvana Salcido Esparza’s motor vehicle assortment (photo courtesy the chef)

Barrio Café anchors a aspect of the city dubbed Calle 16, a identify referencing 1 of Esparza’s most impactful contributions to the region. In 2010, she collaborated with area artists to launch the Calle 16 Mural Task as a protest in opposition to Arizona’s SB 1070. Nicknamed the “papers please” legislation, the legislation (which has considering the fact that been mainly gutted by the U.S. Supreme Courtroom) was commonly criticized for selling racial profiling and anti-immigrant sentiment.

Angel Diaz’s anti-SB 1070 mural in an alleyway guiding the café critiques American record from chattel slavery and Indian reservations to military culture and the prison pipeline. Far more not long ago, Diaz up-to-date the piece to include visual iconography from Trump’s “Make America Great Again” movement, comprehensive with figures in white KKK hoods and purple MAGA caps.

Tato Caraveo’s portrait of Chef Silvana Salcido Esparza for mild rail station in Phoenix (photo courtesy Valley Metro)

Today, the Calle 16 place boasts items by renowned artists this kind of as California-dependent El Mac, Oklahoma-based mostly Yatika Starr Fields, and Hong Kong-based mostly Caratoes. And the entrance of Barrio Café serves as a modifying canvas where artists like Douglas Miles generally handle social justice troubles of the working day — generating Calle 16 just one of the most effective destinations to see mural art in Phoenix.

Meanwhile, Esparza’s affect is obvious in other imaginative hubs, in which artists she supported early on have obtained substantial commissions. For Cota, the commissions contain a massive mural on a new power substation in the Roosevelt Row arts district, the place a skeletal figure donning jeans and a white T-shirt floats over the metropolis skyline at sunset. For Tato Caraveo, they contain an expansive mural painted alongside a single facet of the Arizona Opera setting up that sits across the road from Phoenix Art Museum, where by a few performs with bubble wands even though sitting down back-to-again on a lush eco-friendly lawn.

Turns out, there’s another resourceful enclave where Esparza has married meals and culture to masterful outcome. It is a strip of Grand Avenue known for arts and historic preservation, wherever artist Lucretia Torva painted a mural showing Esparza in a white chef jacket, her arm thrust ahead with an outsized spoon as if she’s ready to feed the whole town.

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

When Esparza opened her high-quality dining idea Barrio Café Gran Reserva on Grand Avenue in 2016, she commissioned Diaz to fill the ceiling and partitions of a little rest room with black and white imagery contacting back to early 20th century revolutionaries Pancho Villa and Emiliano Zapata. “It was a cry to the Mexican revolution, and the recent revolution that carries on right now,” she clarifies.

Just outside the house the lavatory, margaritas painted in vibrant pink and environmentally friendly played on mainstream perceptions of Mexican tradition. Inside the dining room, subtler shadow-like imagery of immigrant farm employees in the fields, painted below desk-peak, quietly channeled the chef’s additional subversive side. “There was an magnificence and elegance in the dining place,” she claims. “But if you really analyzed it, it was a critique of social course.”

Esparza closed Barrio Café Gran Reserva during early Covid-19 days, choosing to focus her power on the first Barrio Café, exactly where artists which include Pablo Luna, Thomas “Breeze” Marcus, and Lucinda Hinojos established fresh interior murals through a pandemic pause the chef used to make foods with a tiny crew for wellness treatment personnel and local community members in want.  

In October 2020, presidential candidates Joe Biden and Kamala Harris visited Barrio Café on the campaign path, an additional indication of Esparza’s relevance to the region’s conversations about foodstuff, art, and politics.

Depth of mural by Phoenix artist Lucinda Hinojos painted within Barrio Café (photograph Lynn Trimble/Hyperallergic)

That confluence of food items and lifestyle is reminiscent of Esparza’s childhood, and the sensorial touchpoints carved into her memory and thoughts. Lifted in a multi-generational home in California, the chef recalls her father smelling like bread following operating the evening shift at a regional bakery, and the time she expended cooking with her grandmother. Through outings to Mexico, she’d marvel at the mercados stuffed with food stuff and art, and the web pages where her father stated that frescos painted by Diego Rivera and other artists were a form of storytelling intended to preserve their cultural heritage.

Currently, Esparza is the a person telling the stories.

The 61-calendar year-previous chef is crafting an autobiographical cookbook, exactly where she’ll tackle discrimination she’s faced as a lesbian chef and troubles wrought by fluctuating sarcoidosis signs and symptoms. She’s nonetheless building contemporary menus reflecting her family traditions, the classical French cuisine she examined in culinary university, and distinct regional cuisines explored in the course of a year of backpacking by Mexico. 

1 of Chef Silvana Salcido Esparza’s culinary creations (image courtesy of the chef)

While incorporating Indigenous homages and influences, the chef wears a political lens. “I appear at mole from a political eye,” she states of the sauce that’s an crucial aspect of Mexican delicacies. “Their countrywide dish is mole poblano, but that is a colonized variation of an Indigenous dish that’s been Martha Stewartized.” 

As her hybridized solution to artistic activism evolves, Esparza carries on to draw inspiration from the artists and group members who assist give it lifetime. “We’re familia,” she says. “That’s every little thing.”

One particular of Chef Silvana Salcido Esparza’s lowriders parked at a culinary celebration in Phoenix (photograph courtesy the chef)


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