“Cafe Cultura: The Heart of the Denver Community” by Hillary Leftwich

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*All photographs by ghost lenz @ghost_lenz Copyright 2017.

What is Café Cultura?

Café Cultura (located at 910 Gallapago St, Denver) is a nonprofit organization focused on creating unity and providing opportunities for underserved youth by partnering with organizations and schools to facilitate workshop series, publish and showcase youth poetry, as well as coordinate a youth leadership program for indigenous youth.  They host an open mic on the second Friday of each month at 7pm (next up April 14th.)

Who runs Café Cultura?

Ara Cruz is the Executive Director at Café Cultura and is a Xicano/Indigenous (Mexica/Tiwa) spoken word artist, educator, and organizer. Graduating from the University of Colorado-Boulder with a B.A. in Ethnic Studies, Ara used the experience he gained in campus and community organizing to co-found Café Cultura.

Here is my recent interview with him…

Hillary Leftwich (HL): You’ve been active since 2004. How has Café Cultura stayed so strong over the past 13 years?

Ara Cruz (AC): The need. The classic “build it and they will come.” The dedication of the organization has kept it alive.

HL: What is one thing you would love to see Café Cultura teach or focus on in the future that isn’t happening now?

AC: It feels like we have built the programming that we see a need for. The challenge within the non-profit sector and challenges we face are sustainability and communities. At this point we want to be able to grow our staff. I’m the only full-time employee. People think we’re bigger than we are. It has to do with hustling and making the best of our limited resources.

HL: What are those limited resources?

AC: (Café Cultura) depends on individual donations for workshops and classes. We applied for a NEA and part of it is taking the risk. It’s challenging. I’m doing a lot of things; finances, programs, writing the grants. Being able to hire folks to help through that process. Working to build our donor base. We’ve gained a lot of support over the years. We’re trying to translate that to get more monthly donors to be able to get the sustainability we need to hire more folks to expand what we do.

HL: What do you want the community to know about Café Cultura?

AC: The range of what we do. When we started in October of 2004 we had open mic and have been known for it over the last fifteen years, but I don’t know if a lot of folks know about spoken word workshops we do in schools or the monthly workshops. We’re getting more exposure as we grow and so do the services and the opportunities to get involved.

HL: What things can people do to volunteer?

AC: The easiest way to volunteer is to show up early, clean the gym or set the chairs out for open mic. Other ways are open. Our 3rd Friday we have free workshops. We need volunteers during that time if folks want to help out with classes.

HL: What is your favorite memory or time that you associate with Café Cultura?

AC: People being able to find their voices.

Cafe Cultura’s Ara Cruz (photo by ghost lenz (c) 2017)

What’s it like at a Café Cultura event?

I attended Café Cultura for the first time on March 10th for their 8th anniversary of Rise Up!-a community-led event that is dedicated to HIV/AIDS awareness where they offer free testing as well as education on HIV. The event showcased Lyla June Johnston, an indigenous musician, poet and activist, Nizhonii & Simako (Sister Brother Power) with photographer Viki Eagle & Real Life Indian.

Walking into the stone building I was instantly greeted by a table seated with youth volunteers directing me where to go. As I entered the main stage room I noticed chairs had already been set up to seat 100 or more people. There were tables set on the side where local artists were preparing to sell their jewelry, artwork, and other goods. I made my way to the back of the room and made acquaintances with several people including an elder named Brenda and her granddaughter. Brenda told me she was there for the first time and was looking forward to the event. Everyone there, either attending for the first time or the hundredth time, were quick to share a smile and answer questions. There were families in attendance with very little ones, teenagers, young adults, and grandparents. It doesn’t seem to matter who you are, what your background is, your skin color, or your sexual orientation. The directors, staff, and volunteers running the event have a collective purpose: everyone is welcome.

The event was hosted by Café Cultura’s Tanaya Winder, a graduate from Stanford University and a finalist in the 2009 Joy Harjo Poetry Competition and a winner of the A Room Of Her Own Foundation’s prize in poetry. Winder also teaches creative writing at the University of New Mexico. The evening started out with a prayer followed by a community meal held in the downstairs section of the building. This was a time for people to share a meal and get to know each other before the event began. The evening kicked off with an open mic with readers from all different age groups. Some ranged from pre-teens to young adults to older adults. Although the ages all varied there was one thing every reader had in common: The message they were conveying had little to do about themselves and more about the bigger picture.

The first featured performers were young but incredibly powerful in their words. The sister and brother duo, Nizhonii & Simako, seemed to have an invisible thread connecting them to each other throughout each of their individual readings. Viki Eagle offered her photography and spoke about her project as well as her own personal experiences. The final performance was led by Lyla June Johnston, a Native Hip Hop artist from Taos, New Mexico and supported by a drum circle. June shared honest and personal stories with an easy-going manner of speaking making you feel as if you were the only person in the room. Her message about unity and power came through not only in her personal stories but in her music as well. Everyone in the room identified with her in some aspect.

It was natural to feel drawn to Café Cultura and its community. They make it easy. Everyone I met had a story to share or at the very least a smile and a kind word. There is a lot happening with Café Cultura. It isn’t one aspect or one person or one event. After experiencing just one night with these folks and the people in attendance, I have no doubt Café Cultura is the heart of this community. When Ara Cruz spoke about founding Café Cultura based off the needs of the community it was obvious to me that the relationship goes both ways. The people volunteering and directing Café Cultura seem to love their role, the people, and the youth they are helping.

How can you support Café Cultura?

To help support Café Cultura please consider a monthly donation or volunteering one of their weekly events. Information can be found on their website:


Who’s the author?

Hillary Leftwich resides in Denver with her son. She is co-host for At the Inkwell, a NYC based reading series. She organizes/hosts other reading events and fundraisers around Denver. Her writing appears online and in print.