Swinging smiles

Uncle Antonio and his crew

How easy it is to ask for a coffee! In Buenos Aires we make the typical gesture of the index finger and the thumb together to the waiter, and according to how close or far away those two fingers are, the waiter would know if it is a small coffee or a large one. Here in “Smiles Coffee” –in Granada, Nicaragua– we can also ask for coffee like that, only if we wanted it with milk we would make the gesture of milking a cow, though. It would be fun to try that mimics in the coffee shop around the corner, right? In this oasis our words are not useful at all and we feel happily useless wishing a simple coffee with milk. Of course, we could simply point at the menu, but learning how to say it with signals is a whole new adventure in itself. Rodolfo, Irma and Douglas, the ones attending customers, have fun because they have already overcome the initial dread phase; now they understand us with just one look and wait patiently for us to finish clumsily the ‘Thank You’ sign that we repeat nonstop. Surely, we must look desperate not knowing how to communicate.

‘Uncle Antonio’, like he is called, is the founder of the Smiles Coffee and the Hammocks Workshop. He is also the adoptive father of 9 young Nicaraguans with different disabilities. He is a Valencian chef with a lot of personality, sometimes a bit crude in the good sense; he says the things exactly the way he thinks them, fast and not mincing words. The expected thing would be to say that a deep feeling made me do all this and that I came ready to get into action; that one day I sent all to hell because when facing an unjust reality I couldn’t turn my gaze down and changed my life; but in truth it is all because of a storm, that simple and complicated at the same time.” He came to Central America 8 years ago, looking to open a restaurant in a touristic place, but the paths of life mysteriously took him to Nicaragua where he fell in love with the picturesque city of Granada, reminding him of his childhood in Spain.

Just before settling down there, he wanted to visit Guatemala, but he never made it; this ‘storm’ kept him in the house of a low income family where he started to live the other side of the ‘nica’ (Nicaraguan) reality in the worst house and bed of his life. The storm was no less than hurricane Esther, incessantly whipping the area for 9 days. By the second day there was no more food left and the roads were all flooding, so using his own savings, he managed to survive buying a rickety chicken from the neighbour hunting it with lemons. As the days passed by, the kids would gather around the chef, obviously waiting for him to cook for them, and they would wake him up extremely excited at 4am asking for breakfast. “I stayed 37 days that changed my life, my order of priorities turned around 180 degrees and I made two decisions: stay in Nicaragua and help out some guys whose only sin was to be poor.” Cano, the 13 year old son of the family who was lodging him, was nicknamed: ‘the crazy boy’, inexplicably instead of hiding like he used to do, he became Antonio’s shadow. “Our link was food, he liked eating and watching me cook”. With the certainty that this kid was not crazy and with the permission of his parents, he took him to Managua to make a good assessment and they discovered that the only problem this kid had was that he only had 10% of his hearing. With his savings he purchased him the hearing aids he needed and slowly with the help of Sign Language that Antonio was learning on the internet and the intensive training provided by the speech therapist, Cano started to communicate with others. This is how Cano became the first of his 9 children.

Antonio started to get deeper into the Nicaraguan reality, imitating it, working close to the Special Education professor and getting to know the reality of the neighbourhood and other kids with hearing deficiencies. “Something started to change in me. My world crumpled down! At home I had 7 TV sets –even in the bathroom– and would change my computer every 6 months. Suddenly I was living in a place with no electricity and no water; I felt again things that I hadn’t felt since I was a kid, I became aware that I was slave to so many things and how weird it is: I had better quality of life sleeping in a miserable mattress than in my house in Spain! All this dismantled my life completely. It happened that 3 months later I didn’t have a restaurant, but I was cooking for 100 kids. My goal was still to change the life of this kid, Cano, and behind him came many more. I like to say that I have provoked a fire; I turned it out with gasoline and the same fire kept pushing me further; even if I wanted to stop it I couldn’t. To the first phase I went through I call it: Mother Teresa of Calcutta, I came to the point that I wouldn’t buy a drink in a pub, because I didn’t like to spend the money that way, or about to buy a new pair of slippers and instead ending up sewing the old ones in the market. But you can’t move from white to black in one day, the grey is a beautiful colour, it has a lot of shades, it is a precious transformation,” he emphasizes with his deep Spanish accent.

Uncle Antonio never imagined this life; “The maximum I had done was to be a member of international amnesty! I’m a person who gets compromised, but nothing like this was planned!” Being a 41 year old Chef in Manhattan, 8 years ago, he flew to Central America with all his savings ending up, ironically, in a city with Spanish footprints. So vertiginous was his path in this continent that slowly his savings were depleted, the few rooms he was renting were now expensive and he had invested a lot in the Workshop and the schools of the kids he was helping out. The sum didn’t add up, he owed lot of money to the store who had sold him milk, diapers, medicine and food. In a few hours after a cybernetic request he made to his family and friends informing them of his situation, they sent through Western Union three thousand Euros. Those who are givers don’t know how to ask for help. Once some tourist gave me USD 5 and I didn’t know what to do! I put a money jar because I don’t want them to give me the money.” This was the beginning of the Spanish NGO Uncle Antonio, who is still supporting the working inclusion of so many young people with disabilities.

With the arrival of his children, his dream of owning a restaurant in the Caribbean was left forgotten, turning into a concrete action of providing these young people a place in the same society which so often would hide them away in the corners of their houses. He started by helping them economically covering their studies, but when they finished no one would employ them. So he created a Hammocks Workshop, facing the incredulous gaze of those who would say it was a crazy idea because: “The hammocks are from Masaya, do you think you can make them in Granada? It won’t work!” The hammocks are very popular in Nicaragua, and Antonio brought someone who would teach them how to make them to start making them professionally. The hearing incapacity of the young ones didn’t turn off their wish to learn and work in a dignified way. This is how the Hammock Workshop started making artisanal hammocks, and slowly it incorporated other young people, all together accomplishing very good quality hammocks. Today the Workshop employs around 20 young people with hearing, visual or mental disabilities, being the only condition to assist to school, which allows them to rotate their work schedules. Antonio admits that when he was told that Jimmy, a young blind man, wanted to work in the Hammocks Workshop, he said in an angry Spanish: “’Cojones’ How will a blind man make a hammock?!” thinking someone was making a joke. Naturally, soon after he became the victim of his own words, sincerely apologizing to him for what he had once thought about him in a dinner made in his honour. It was Jimmy who made a special hammock for Pope Francis for which they received recognition not long ago.

After creating this Hammock Workshop, Antonio founded the Smiles Coffee Shop, employing only young people with hearing disabilities, inviting the guests to immerse themselves in their silent world for a while. “The Coffee Shop was born because I asked myself why they wouldn’t hire these kids and I said to myself, there is a lack of good examples! I need that the person who leaves the shop does it with a full stomach but also with a full soul; you have to go away with a new concept facing disability. This could be much more profitable if I stepped in when there are more guests, but the magic would be broken. This way they can interact with the guests, exchanging silent signals, sharing their world.” They always remember the stress felt before opening, the fear of not being able to communicate with the guests, so they designed a very didactic and simple menu to make the exchange smoother. Since then their lives changed, giving them the certainty and conviction that they can interact and manage themselves in this world in which they usually felt left behind. Their initial terror was transformed into an energy that pushes them towards a future full of possibilities, a dignified job and a life project; today the conversation topic is the upcoming wedding of Irma and Douglas, 2 waiters from the Coffee Shop, next December. Today the Coffee Shop is self sustainable, being the right time for Uncle Antonio to decide making these 7 young people become owners next January 2014.

It is very hard for this Valencian who fights tirelessly for the rights of the disabled, to make others appreciate that this Coffee Shop is not a business, but a job outlet for so many young people who are rejected, showing everybody that they could be good employees in any business. He even tells the people who work in hotels: “They are the best employee you could have, they will not stay all morning chatting on the hallways! My theory is that if at least 10,000 people know of the existence of these Coffee Shop, there could be 100 business people among them who will leave with a good image of these kids working well, it is probable that they will consider the possibility of hiring someone with a disability, like a blind person, someone unable to speak and hear or someone with another type of disability. Unfortunately, he still isn’t able to get them hired, so he keeps on creating new examples: now he is working on the idea of a Bakery managed by disabled.

It is still surprising how many believe that he is there for the money; “People believe that I’m a crazy foreigner millionaire.” If only they knew that his salary is lower than the minimum, which goes away in cigarettes for him and candies for his grandkids! He provides economic help to different low income schools and he even celebrates his birthday in one of them, but instead of receiving gifts himself, he distributes presents for all the kids. Once a month they cook hundreds of meals to take them to the garbage dump of Granada and distribute them among the families who live there. He only has one good shirt for important meetings and interviews and confesses: “I don’t need anything else; there is nothing I want to buy for me or that I may need.” He also has 9 children to support, even though some are married, they all live together in the big house where the Coffee Shop is. They are 16 people every day, in each meal, together with his children, grandkids and daughters-in-law! He is a long shot away from making a big business for his pocket out of all this.

Almost at the same speed with which he talks, he lits a cigarette and the almost empty coffee cup is replaced with a full one. He says what he thinks, and his voice claiming for work and dignity for the disabled is heard without hesitation at the few conventions he assists in Granada. It hurts deeply to notice that after one year and a half since the Coffee Shop opened and 5 years since the Hammock Workshop started, there hasn’t been a raise in the job opportunities for so many young people with good qualities and eager to work. It is a small seed that takes its time to grow, but in the meantime, there are many young people who miss the opportunity, or get lost in the paths of life due to the lack of a hand who may invite them to a dignified work. Antonio tells us that there are many mothers who ask, when taking their kids to work there, how much they should pay him, and Uncle Antonio has trouble making them understand that he is the one who will be paying them for their work! They cry, not understanding that someone may give them an occupation and pay them too. He doesn’t stop, doesn’t give up, like his idol Bruce Springsteen in “No surrender”, not giving up, not quitting; and this is how with everything that is going on, he is still going further. In January the Bakery Shop will be open, also managed completely by young people with some disability, to keep on giving us good examples and continuing spreading the interaction of these young ones with a society that tends to reject them.

Like us, a lot of people from around the world come to the Smile Coffee Shop, moved and curious about ‘experiencing something different’ like Antonio says. He is the first observer from his strategic position located in the office up in the balcony overseeing the whole room, and knows exactly what each client asked for and how much they liked the food by looking at how empty the plate is returned. He tells us how frequently he sees people being moved or crying. Those who have been members of this silent world for ever feel at home; once a lady told him crying: “It is the only place, apart from my own home, where I haven’t felt in a hostile environment.”

We have faith that this generation of young people will be spreading their smiles, hammocks and bread around Granada, changing it with silence and good examples. “There is no more universal language than that of a smile”, he emphasizes, being ‘she’ the common denominator of the Coffee Shop; apart from the spontaneous ones coming from the waiters and the guests, there are many pictures of smiles of all the employees that hang from the branches of the plants, moving to the breeze in the colonial patio. Sometimes Joaquín Sabina is heard through the speakers, reminding Antonio of his native land. In the workshop, the smiles are mixed with the movements of those who work on the structures fixed to the floors for the assembly of the hammocks in a labyrinth of colours. Each one with our own ability enjoys to the maximum what we can perceive in the environment: some the colours, others the music, the air moving, a fragrance, a tap on the shoulder…

on the XXXL hammock with Irma, Douglas and Rodrigo

Smiles coffee and signs on the wall

learning signs

Cano knitting a recycled-plastic hammock

Smiles everywhere

knitting a huge nicaraguan t-shirt with recycled plastic bags

Hammock workshop, artists, guatemalan cotton threads in the back

Jimmy & company at work

crocheting borders

the whole team

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