Las Hermanas Women’s Coffeehouse, located in a woodsy, shack-like little storefront on a busy corner of Wabash, is not just another place to go for a beansprout and avocado sandwich. It does have a natural foods type of menu, along with an abundance of green plants in macrame hammocks, but serving food is not the coffeehouse’s main function. Las Hermanas’ major purpose, as described by a volunteer identified as Debra, is to provide a place for women to “be secure by themselves,’’ without the company of men.
It is well decorated for this purpose. In addition to the greenery, Las Hermanas houses a few pieces of comfortable, somewhat elderly upholstered furniture, a couple of rough wooden tables and benches, made by the women themselves, a piano, large floor pillows, and a decorous looking carpet with a linoleum type of pattern. The total effect is rather homelike, an impression which is heightened by the practical children's corner, which includes marionettes, stuffed animals, and appropriate books.
The walls are crowded with notices, some outdated, announcing discussions about rape, abortion and lesbianism, “consciousness-raising" events, and other upcoming women's activities. The small library contains books (which can be checked out) and pamphlets on subjects fictional and nonfictional, ranging from gardening to abortion.
Las Hermanas was opened last December. It is owned by two women, who are no longer San Diego residents, and who, consequently, are not extensively involved in running it. This, at least, was the explanation provided by Debra. (She declined to disclose her last name, for reasons that she did not make comprehensible to me.) Despite her explanation, which continued at some length, I was left with an unclear idea of the coffeehouse’s legal status. Partnership attempting to become nonprofit corporation? Nonprofit corporation attempting to become something else? Debra concluded her somewhat contradictory description by saying, “Corporately that's how we are, but we don’t really run that way.” She apparently did not want to dwell on the subject of Las Hermanas’ legal status.
Nor does the coffeehouse seem preoccupied with making money. Although it is supporting itself now, it is turning no profit. It is staffed by volunteers with the exception of two paid employees. Still, if a woman can’t afford to pay. she needn't do so. Las Hermanas is singularly dedicated to its cause.
Despite its Spanish name, the coffeehouse is not directed specifically towards the needs of Chicana women. Although many of its patrons are lesbians, it is not directed specifically towards their needs, either. Nor is the coffeehouse affiliated with any particular organization, although NOW, the Rape Coalition, and the Women’s Coalition have all held meetings there. Las Hermanas is a place for all San Diego women to “learn their own culture,” hold discussions that they might be embarrassed to hold in the company of men, and to escape the role playing associated with the company of men. It is, in Debra's words, “A growthful space for women.”
What kind of woman utilizes this growthful space? According to Charlotte Hernandez, who is one such woman herself, the crowd is generally “intelligent and intellectual, compared to a local bar,” she added scornfully. (The conversation that I heard at the coffeehouse seemed more chatty and personal than intellectual, but perhaps I didn't stay there long enough.) Many are professional women, such as social workers, musicians and artists. “It’s very arty,” says Charlotte.
Charlotte, herself, could easily be said (by some, anyway), to fit this description of the Las Hermanas Woman. She is the mother of six daughters, (ranging in age from married to elementary school), a professional folksinger and songwriter, artist, student of bilingual education, and an occasional lecturer at sociology classes. Here from what I can gather, she comes, upon request, to describe the barrio from a Chicana point of view .
Charlotte seemed very proud and eager to inform me of her accomplishments during her association with the Chicano movement. Among these are bringing the playground equipment to Chicano Park, (“That was a labor of love”) and being the first Chicana to paint on the bridge.
Ms. Hernandez just fits all of this in as she can. She works in her schooling in intervals. “I’ve gone through it periodically, through all of my children ... I've been a perennial student forever and ever. I love it. I want degrees, not degree."
As for her children, “I just take them along and mother them as I go. That’s the best way.” She wants them to be strong women, politically aware. “They have to learn to make their own changes, because no one's going to make them for them.”
I heard two of Charlotte’s songs, “I'm Doing my Chicano Thing,” and another dedicated to the “modern woman." To me her songs seemed indistinguishable from the standard ethnic folk model. They had that familiar old campfire folksong strum. However, she has received a fairly impressive amount of recognition for them. She has performed in schools for students ranging from kindergarten to college age. She has also been featured with her songs on the radio and on television. Apparently she has so much fun doing this that she seldom gets stagefright.
While talking, Charlotte broke her train of thought to adamantly state that she has no desire to sing in nightclubs. “That’s not my goal. I don’t like to sing for a bunch of drunks.” She prefers to perform at Las Hermanas, because there people are really listening to what her songs have to say.
Charlotte likes to visit the coffeehouse as a non-performer. When she has time she finds it to be peaceful, relaxing and noncompetitive; a good place to unwind. “It’s a semi-vegetarian menu that they have there, and healthful drinks. It makes it peaceful.”
Sometimes Charlotte goes to the Sunday brunches. These are a regular feature, with the menu changing weekly, ranging from zucchini-cheese omelet to blintzes and bagels. She reports that the food is good. Often there is entertainment, such as singers or films. “Out of town people can come to try out their act. It’s very arty," explains Charlotte.
Ms. Hernandez has not spent her whole life in this Las Hermanas setting. Her lifestyles have run the gamut from three houses and an engineer husband to the women's collective where she now lives, with no husband, in fact, with no men at all. This new lifestyle, with its banging screen doors letting in flies, laundry on the floor, heavily liberated women and Sisters Share bumperstickers, is the one she seems happy with.
Even though she has no men at home, she, along with most of the others at her collective, still finds Las Hermanas useful and pleasant, and defends its women-only policy. “Men have always had their places to go and relax,” she explained.
It is to be hoped that they have such a place, because they are certainly not going to find it at the women’s coffeehouse. Las Hermanas’ policy regarding men who seek admission is to explain, politely and firmly, why they are not welcome. The men have reportedly been fairly understanding. Despite Charlotte's rationale, some respond that they wish there were a similar set up for them. Some jokingly accuse the coffeehouse of being sexist. Well, is it? “No,” explained Debra. “It’s more of a reaction to sexism ... it’s not like a negative thing towards men, it’s more like a positive thing towards women.”