The role of restaurants as a community space has shifted significantly in 2020. Amid a struggling hospitality industry and with continued health risks and restrictions on indoor dining in many states, restaurants have been forced to re-envision the communal experience of food. VICE asked chefs and restaurant owners: Over the course of the coronavirus pandemic, what has finding community through food looked like for you? These conversations took place in late July and early August, and the situation for the restaurant industry continues to change quickly.
Since 2018, Vincent Medina and Louis Trevino, members of the Muwekma Ohlone Tribe and Rumsen Ohlone community of the East Bay respectively, have run the pop-up restaurant Cafe Ohlone in Berkeley, California out of the patio of University Press Books. At the helm of the only Ohlone restaurant in the world, Medina and Trevino serve their traditional foods, as well as honor—and introduce to those unfamiliar—the culture of the East Bay's indigenous people.
On March 14, Medina and Trevino closed Cafe Ohlone ahead of the state's shelter-in-place order, and in June, the bookstore announced it would close permanently because of the pandemic. Despite the pop-up's current closure, Medina told VICE how he's finding hope by drawing on his community's history of resilience, and how Cafe Ohlone will continue on.
“We opened Cafe Ohlone in September of 2018. We did this because we wanted to be able to create a physical space within our homeland, where people have never left, where our family and our tribe still continues to live and thrive. We wanted to be able to create a tangible space for our community, to be able to eat our traditional foods and be around our traditional culture and have a safe space in our very urban homelands.
We also wanted this to be a space where we could educate the public about who we are as the indigenous people of this area: teach them that we've never left, that our elders are strong, and that our ancestors' strength has carried us through a lot of hard times that have come with colonization. There's much more to our story than just colonization. We believe that when people can learn about who we are—not in a museum setting or in a past tense setting, but as contemporary people that are keeping our traditional culture alive—then those people are more likely to stand with our community.
We closed early in the pandemic. Our community has survived through a series of extremely painful, very real pandemics that affected our ancestors directly. Even though we're young, healthy people, we know that we can carry something back home. We want to make sure that we are responsible about who we are and keeping our community safe—that means closing early, even if it means, of course, a financial loss.
After we saw that this wasn't going to go away after two weeks, we immediately shifted this work that we were doing at the cafe. Every week, we come together over Zoom for language classes in this beautiful multi-generational effort, where our language—which is heavily suppressed, along with our foods and every other aspect of our culture—is growing by the week. We feel it in a tangible way as we see young babies growing up with this language and elders in these Zoom classes.
We've also been doing some cooking classes over Zoom, which has been really exciting because so much of our traditional foods are gathered. Where I live with Louis and my community, and also where we gather so many of these foods, is where my great-great-great-great-great-great-grandmother was born. She was born before the missions, before colonization, and we're still right there in that area. To know that we're gathering in these places—that we're right there together in this super specific area—makes us have a lot of clarity in this time that's also very confusing in many ways. It gives us a lot of sanity and strength in knowing that we're home.
That was always the hope that our family had: that we would have these things forever.
We call ourselves the Virtual Verona Band. Today, our tribe here in the East Bay is called Muwekma, which means "the people," but before the tribe was reorganized back in the 1980s, all of our great grandparents that are alive today were once members of an older tribe over in Pleasanton called the Verona Band of Alameda County. That tribe existed right after the mission times, right after our family was enslaved in the missions and there was a lot of pain. Shortly after, Americans came in, and there was another big wave of pain with the genocide imposed against our people by the American government.
We look back to that, and we think about the conditions that our family was going through: the racism, the discrimination, the violence, how they banded together to look after one another and our culture for the common good, and how they survived those things. That's what gave us the idea of calling this the Virtual Verona Band—so really think about that time of coming together and protecting culture, just in a modern framework.
It's been so exciting to see the interest that's there and how it's growing regularly. You just hear so much hope right now, which is something that's contrasting a lot of what's in the national conversation right now. There's also a lot of challenges out there; we can't shy away from that either. But it presents us an alternative, which is that when we have culture, when we have these roots, when we have our families, when we know that there's these things that we could be able to tap back into, that we could have a second time back in our world. That was always the hope that our family had: that we would have these things forever.
I feel like both Louis and myself, we've known that our work has been good for our people. This is what our life's work has been about—to make sure that we honor those sacrifices and make the road easier for those future generations. That dedication is shared within our tribes, within our community. Right now, that's just really shown our strength. It's showing how much people care, how much people love our culture, and that includes us as well.
Our people have always been good at adapting to changes, when we wanted to, on our terms.
As a result of the pandemic, the bookstore that we were using the space from closed. It's a time of transformation. By late August, early September, we're going to be unveiling these carefully curated boxes that are going to be the next stage of Cafe Ohlone during the pandemic. These cedar boxes are going to be full of all of the components of our traditional meals.
You would open it and the first thing you would see would be this explosion of Ohlone culture. They would smell these herbs, which connect them to the landscape that we come from. They take off that first layer of herbs, and there will be all the components of what makes one of our meals special. They would see a password to a protected Vimeo link, where our community would be interpreting in English and Chochenyo the meal that they're about to eat, what makes this meal special, where these ingredients are sourced from, the connection to village sites and ancestry that we have, and the fact that our people are still living in these spaces.
We're thinking of it as a way to keep the story and our work moving forward in a way that's still intentional, that's curated, that's slow, that's cautious, that would be about how beautiful our culture is. This whole thing of the Virtual Verona Band and being able to be together with our people over Zoom: This is a new reality. Our people have always been good at adapting to changes, when we wanted to, on our terms. This is something that is on our terms.
We think about what our ancestors would think of us if they could see—which we believe they are—us together on Zoom, being together speaking our language in this modern way, and it's such a cool thing. It makes us feel connected together, it's productive and effective, and also, it's doing what we need to be doing, which is keeping our culture moving forward.”
This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.