Downtown Los Angeles' Homegirl Café
At age 15 she began abusing crystal meth after her father committed suicide. In high school, she was kicked to the streets of southeast Los Angeles where she lived a ruthless, gangbanging life. And last August, she was released from prison. Now she’s bussing tables and serving customers with her fellow “homegirls” at a local eatery. Pamela Herrera is just one out of the 40 former-convicts who have turned their dark pasts into bright futures by working at the Homegirl Café.
At a bus stop, Herrera might garner looks because of her piercings and tattoos. A passerby crossing the street may veer to the opposite direction because of her fierce gaze. But under the cover of this book, is a story of redemption.
Herrera, 26, spent the majority of her life dependent on drugs and in and out of jail. She tried to turn her life around by working two jobs and attending massage therapy school; but her attempt to change was ill fated.
“I thought I wanted to be different, but I got back into my old ways,” Herrera said. “I was a functioning addict. I had more in me. I wasn’t done.”
In Aug. 2010, she faced her last, yet gravest run-in with the law. She served eight months in prison for three charges – grand theft auto, receiving stolen property and violation of parole.
Herrera was released in April 2011. She has been living at the Walden House in El Monte, a behavioral correction facility for parolees, but is scheduled to leave on Dec. 28. She hopes to move to an apartment with her boyfriend and be an exemplary mother to “the family there always should have been.”
Herrera is dedicated to her job. She wakes up at 4:10 a.m. to clock in at 6:30 a.m. She catches the 194 Bus in El Monte, to the Silver Line, to Union Station. After her eight-hour shift, she does it again.
“I was tired of living the life I lived for 11 years,” Herrera said. “I thought to myself – I haven’t got nowhere and I’m 26 years old.”
But now, Herrera, like her other homegirls, is serving people – not jailtime.
The corner of Bruno St. and Alameda boasts the 4,500-square-foot restaurant.
The modern, mustard-tone building sticks out like a sore thumb amidst the battered stands and shops of Chinatown. But the boldness of the building from the outside is merely a representation of the strong spirits within.
“Oftentimes, people view [the homegirls] as garbage or disposable members of society. This is the space where we eliminate those walls,” Homegirl Café Manager Erika Cuéllar said. “There is no us and them. It’s just us.”
Inside the restaurant, homegirls are flipping machaca con juevo, not fingers, and they are smoking carne asada, not drugs. At the cash register stands a chicana, and next to her, a black woman. They work together. The only dividing things in sight are the shelves in the pastry display – not the fact that the women were involved in rival gangs. And it’s only fitting that War’s No. 1 single Why Can’t We Be Friends plays in the background as “homegirls” and “homeboys” exchange their morning greetings: high-fives, fist-bumps and back-pats. The restaurant is full of dichotomies – from co-working browns and blacks, to the pink and blue walls, to the motto on the back of the girls’ uniforms: “jobs not jails.”
“As important as a job is to meet our human needs, it is important for our homegirls to understand that they are loved unconditionally and they are exactly what the world needs,” Cuéllar said.
Homegirl Café is a subset of Homeboy Industries – a non-profit organization that offers rehabilitation programs to those who have criminal backgrounds but chose to redirect their lives. The restaurant, tucked away in Downtown Los Angeles, is completely operated by these individuals.
In 2004, Father Greg Boyle, founder of Homeboy Industries, approached Chef Patty Zarate about training ten homegirls to work at her restaurant in Boyle Heights. An existing business was then transformed into a formal homegirl job training facility in 2007 when Homeboy Industries opened its headquarters and the official Homegirl Café. Chef Zarate is now the head chef of the restaurant.
“We have hundreds of women on our waiting list hoping to get in," Zarate said. "Almost everyone here has children, and they are truly motivated to improve their lives."
The restaurant is opened from Monday through Saturday from 7 a.m. until 3 p.m. Breakfast and lunch are served daily and brunch is served on Saturdays. Each dish featured on the menu is crafted with “contemporary Latina flare.” It’s like Mexico meets Whole Foods – with a farro and poblano pepper salad and tacos that can be wrapped with grilled nopal (cactus leaf) in place of a corn tortilla.
The restaurant strives to reincorporate these individuals into society by providing a one-year training and employment program focused on the culinary industry.
“Because the demand is so high, we can’t take everyone on,” Manager Cuéllar said. “To receive employment, there is a process.”
The process is as follows: All prospective homegirls and homeboys must first apply at Homeboy Industries. To be hired at Homeboy Industries, individuals must have a history of incarcerated, gang activity or drug addiction. To participate in the programs, they must pass a drug test and attend various life-skill and work-readiness programs. Homeboy Industries also offer free services like Alcoholics Anonymous, GED tests and tattoo removal. These services are offered to help eliminate some obstacles the participants may encounter while trying to reintegrate into society or seek employment.
After the participants are interviewed and accepted as employees at the Homegirl Café, they are trained in all areas of food services – from greeting at the front door and working the prep line, to managing the cash register and tending the on-site back gardens, where they grow all of the restaurant’s herbs, produce and spices.
“We have a twofold mission called Grow, Prep, Serve,” Cuéllar said. “We grow, prep and serve the highest quality food and the women grow and prepare themselves to serve their families and communities by working at the café.”
But homegirls aren’t restricted to just working at the restaurant. Homegirl Café is an umbrella enterprise with other business extensions. Some of these other operations include: edible landscaping and garden training sessions, where one can design his/her own garden alongside homegirls; catering services, which have been used by people like Jane Fonda and Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa; and purchasable “Marketplace” products, like home-made granola, mixed juices and organic jams that are made from their garden products.
These restaurant additions give more girls a chance at a better future. For Ivy Navarrete, the Farmer’s Market extension has given her hope, stability and longevity for life outside of jail. Like many other homegirls, Navarrete’s tattoos and criminal record have stood in the way of her employment outside of Homegirl Café.
“I burned all my bridges and no one wanted to hire me,” Navarrete said. “I have hope that someone will hear my story and give me a chance.”
Navarrete, 30, started on dishes at the restaurant. She was charged with robbery and was incarcerated for 2 years alongside the women of death row at the Central California Women’s State Prison in Chowchilla, Calif. Navarrete has been working at Homegirl Café for eight years and is now a Farmer’s Markets Lead Coordinator – the first homegirl to lead all five markets. She has a two-year-old son and a family to care for. Unemployment doesn’t fit into her life.
“I don’t think non-profits get enough credit for giving people job opportunities,” Homegirl Café customer Robert Zardeneta said. “This place has an entrepreneurial spirit to help young individuals with employment who are hard to place and its remarkable.”
On the periphery, Homegirl Café is run like any other restaurant. But the training ground is meant to prepare the homegirls to independently take on the realities of life.
“The hope is that most of the women will be able to stand on their own two feet after the one-year training program, but its tailored to individual needs,” Cuéllar said. “The restaurant is essentially a launching pad for what’s next.”
For some, it means advancing in a position at the restaurant. For others, it means moving on to work for a new business. For Navarrete, it means attending school and becoming a paralegal. And for Herrera, it means being an inspiring tia to her one-year-old niece, the best hija to her supportive mother and a loyal homegirl to her new “family” at the Homegirl Café.
Reach Erika Ostroff here.