Small Business

Eleven Years On, Mama Art Cafe Still a Premier Cultural Hub in the Excelsior

Since it opened 11 years ago, Mama Art Cafe on Mission Street has become an integral part of the artistic, cultural and social fabric of the Excelsior.

Proprietors Ed Ramirez and Paolo Acosta Cabezas wear more hats than the Stetson company sells in a year. Cultural ambassadors, patrons of the arts, social entrepreneurs, community activists and consultants are only a few of the roles they play in their efforts to serve the community.

Paolo Acosta Cabezas, a luchador and Ed Ramirez at one of Mama Art Cafe’s many events. (Photograph courtesy of Eduardo Ramirez)

Paolo Acosta Cabezas, a luchador and Ed Ramirez at one of Mama Art Cafe’s many events. (Photograph courtesy of Eduardo Ramirez)

Since it opened 11 years ago, Mama Art Cafe on Mission Street has become an integral part of the artistic, cultural and social fabric of the Excelsior.

Proprietors Ed Ramirez and Paolo Acosta Cabezas wear more hats than the Stetson company sells in a year. Cultural ambassadors, patrons of the arts, social entrepreneurs, community activists and consultants are only a few of the roles they play in their efforts to serve the community.

Founded by Cabezas, the cafe functions as a cultural exchange program as well as a venue for local artists, poets and performers and a clearing house and meeting place for providing a wide range of services to a historically underserved community.

“Art has been the very soul, and we have warmly welcomed hundreds of artists and musicians into our San Francisco venue,” Cabezas says. The bags of coffee sold by the café are adorned by selected artworks that have been displayed on the cafe’s walls.

Mama Art Cafe sells only organic fair trade coffees from many countries, including Peru, Mexico, Nicaragua, Bolivia, Brazil and Papua New Guinea. The cafe also offers its own signature blend of South American and Indonesian coffees.

“Coffee has been art’s soul mate for centuries, stimulating creativity and community,” Cabezas says. “Working with other small businesses, we offer organic and fair trade coffee beans delicately roasted to bring out the distinct characteristics of their respective origins.”

Cabezas says that when he opened the café in 2004, he wanted to honor his mother, Cruzita Acosta, and his great grandmother who died at age 114. “Mama was named for the women of my family who stand as pillars and who provided me with the values that helped form my character,” he says.

Born in New Eden, El Salvador, Cabezas and his family migrated to San Francisco in the 1980’s, during the height of the civil war in their native land. Paolo and Cruzita are writing a book on the family’s history.

Cruzita was the face of the cafe for 10 years, Cabezas says. Although he describes his mother as very nurturing, she was a strong personality who had no problem expressing her opinions. “She was known for her scolding skills,” Cabezas.

Mama Art Cafe has garnered an impressive list of commendations. These include the 2009 Small Business of the Year in California’s 8th Senate District; named the San Francisco Bay Guardian’s best cafe gallery for 2007; a 2011 San Francisco Chamber of Commerce Leadership award; 2010 Latino Heritage award; and the Salvadoran Chamber of Commerce Art and Culture Award in 2008.

In 2013 Cabezas was chosen as one of 12 community leaders (“fellows”) from the Excelsior by the Koshland Committee of the San Francisco Foundation to improve the quality of life in the neighborhood by collaborating with “a cross-section of government, community members and non-profit organizations” to uplift and revitalize the district.

Being a fellow entails a five-year commitment, and Cabezas says he is “extremely honored” to have been chosen. The Excelsior was one of five neighborhoods selected by the Koshland Committee for a fellowship grant.

The cooperative work between the fellows and other segments of the community is aimed at addressing the neighborhood’s most critical needs. The 12 leaders are chosen largely because of their diverse cultural and linguistic backgrounds, as well as for their demonstrated leadership abilities.

Ramirez, a retired U.S. Air Force Master Sergeant with 22 years of service, is the CEO of OneVet, OneVoice, which was formed to address the health, educational, employment, legal and housing needs of veterans.

He has been conducting the monthly SF Veterans Town Hall Collaborative for the past five years. The collaborative brings federal, state and local governments and community partners together for a one-stop resource for programs and services for veterans.

Ramirez is the founder of the San Francisco Veterans Film Festival. Mama’s has displayed art created by veterans.

The cafe offers a limited food menu, but Ramirez insists that the breakfast bagels “are to die for.” One of the cafe’s future projects is to install a garden in back of the restaurant so that neighborhood youth can learn about healthy eating and lifestyles, as well as developing job skills.

In May, the cafe celebrated its 11th anniversary and participated in the Excelsior Art Walk, when local merchants allowed artists to display and create their work in various venues along the Excelsior corridor on Mission Street from Silver Avenue to Geneva Avenue.

As part of the festival, Mama Art Cafe offered live Bolivian music on May 2. Art created by students from Monroe Elementary School in the Excelsior and artists from the Chinese Progressive Association were also displayed in the cafe.

Mama Art Cafe often exhibits paintings by 40 female Cuban artists, and has monthly live music performances. Various community and non-profit groups use the cafe for meetings.

The cafe also rents out the space for private parties, ranging from bar-mitzvah celebrations to Quincenaras.

Mama Art Cafe is located at 4754 Mission Street, between Russia and Leo streets.

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