A “cafecito” is a gathering with friends to gossip or catch up, or simply enjoy each other’s company, usually over coffee. Here in Tucson, where the population is made up of many who are familiar with these cafecitos, creating a bilingual one to join two communities in the learning of each other’s culture is a beautiful idea.
Amy Smith, owner of Exo Roast coffee, has worked for years to create spaces where the many cultures of Tucson can be celebrated.
Smith moved to Tucson from Oregon 20 years ago to pursue her master’s degree in education. Since then, she has integrated herself into the community by helping launch Exo Roast, which began as a small-batch roaster in 2009 and in 2012 opened its doors as a cafe, but also as an advocate of education and languages.
She taught ESOL (English to Speakers of Other Languages) at Pima Community College for many years and ran an education space through Exo Roast where they held language classes.
“In some way or another we’ve hosted Spanish conversation sessions or classes for the past five years,” Smith said about Exo.
The sessions took a pause thanks to the pandemic, but recently have restarted, and the cafecitos have taken over the location at 196 W. Simpson St. for a few hours each month for the past few months.
“I do want to reach those who feel marginalized in their Spanish speaking and English speaking,” Smith said. “I want to bring a fluency between the two languages and create an environment where we’re sharing in the language so we can share in this place.”
Smith has been volunteering and working with Iskashitaa Refugee Network for many years, and the relationship she’s formed with Barbara Eiswerth, founder of Iskashitaa, has led to collaborations between the two organizations.
A few months ago, Chris Destiche, an intern at Iskashitaa Refugee Network, went to one of Exo’s bilingual cafecitos in hopes of practicing his Spanish. He sat at Smith’s session, laughed with friends, talked about food with strangers and realized it could be something Iskashitaa worked into its programming.
He brought up the idea of the cafecitos to Eiswerth and together they agreed Destiche would run Tuesday sessions in Iskashitaa’s new office.
“Amy (Smith) had been wanting to expand the cafecitos but didn’t really have the bandwidth,” Destiche said. “The connection between Iskashitaa and Exo was a natural shift, so now we do them at our office, as well.”
So far, the Tuesday sessions have included refugees, volunteers and Iskashitaa interns, but the doors are open to anyone from the community who wants a little cafecito, a doughnut or an orange, and who is looking to improve their language skills.
Destiche is a grad student at the University of Arizona getting his master’s degree in development practice, which he said is basically, “how to systematically make the world a better place.”
“Ideally, it’s about how to raise the standard of living for people who haven’t been given the same opportunities,” he said.
He’s working on his master’s with the help of a scholarship he received through the Peace Corps, which requires completing 10 hours of community service that he does at Iskashitaa, working with the garden arts program, the bilingual cafecitos and other tasks throughout the week.
For the cafecitos he usually creates a lesson plan with a fun ice breaker and then an interactive activity to help both Spanish language and English language learners bounce off each other.
“You can do exercises in a workbook, but sometimes that’s like pulling teeth, so I’m trying to make it fun,” Destiche said. “It can be nerve-wracking to start, so before the first class I shared my experiences when I was living in Guatemala for two years in the Peace Corps. I made every mistake imaginable, and I told them all, ‘you can’t make a mistake worse than me.’ That seemed to help.”
And so, a little bit of Smith’s big dream is being fulfilled.
Smith has seen how equally the Spanish and English languages are used in the city, and how important it is for people to have a good grip on both. Maybe especially for refugees and those working with them, who are communicating with a more diverse population than most and see both languages as useful to their every day.
“We hope that this continues to grow,” Smith said. “We would love to see a lot of places holding these types of events. Instead of trivia night maybe there can be Spanish/English cafecitos.”
Bilingual cafecitos are held Tuesdays from 10 a.m. to noon at the Iskashitaa office at St. Mark’s Presbyterian Church, 3736 E. Second St., and every third Saturday with varying times at Exo Roast at 196 W. Simpson St.
Smith hopes to soon begin bilingual “mezcalitos” one Wednesday a month for those who prefer an evening session.
For more information, visit Exo's Facebook page and Iskashitaa's website.