The Granada that Rodolfo Sanchez knew has changed radically with the political crisis that’s shaken Nicaragua. Sanchez, a young man with a hearing disability, has worked at the Café de las Sonrisas (Cafe of Smiles) for seven years. When the city was left without tourists, he was nearly left unemployed.
“A lot of people used to visit us, but now everything in Granada is more difficult because of the political problems. Uncle Antonio had the idea of bringing the Cafe here to Managua and reinventing ourselves,” he states.
They call Antonio Prieto Bunuel “Uncle Antonio”. He’s a chef from Valencia in Spain, who came to Nicaragua to try his fortune some thirteen years ago. He never imagined that he’d be opening a coffee shop where only deaf people were working, nor that as the years passed it would have a great social impact on the city.
In the first house where Prieto stayed in Granada, he met a group of young people with hearing loss that made it difficult for them to find jobs. Over time, he had the idea of opening a hammock-making business to provide employment for these people. Later, it occurred to him that he could also open a coffee shop.
That’s how the Café de las Sonrisas was born, in a city that was one of Nicaragua’s most popular tourist destinations. That is, up until nine months ago.
Over a seven year period, Antonio Prieto’s project functioned because over 70 percent of his clients were foreigners. “With the crisis, we realized that few Nicaraguans came to the business,” the Spanish businessman admits.
The business model functioned, since in addition to other things they held the title of being the first coffee shop in Latin America staffed by deaf people. For that reason, Prieto notes that many similar projects began to be developed in the region, using his as an example. Students from Indonesia, Europe and other parts of America visited the locale with the goal of getting to know Prieto and visiting the hammock factory that the young people are in charge of.
But everything changed in April, when the protests began against the government of Daniel Ortega and Rosario Murillo. Granada was one of the cities that rose up in rebellion. The tourists stopped coming, and the specter of unemployment spread through the small locales. The workers at the coffee house believed that it was only a question of time before they too would be left without work.
“They would look at me and ask: “Uncle Antonio, so when are you leaving?” They believed that when I saw the business adversely affected I’d be heading back to Spain. But I still see Nicaragua as my country,” Prieto tells us.
The crisis led them to vary their business model, and both Uncle Antonio and his collaborators had to reinvent themselves. The Café de las Sonrisas had to close operations in Granada after seven years there. But now, they’ve moved to the capital where the principal goal is to maintain the business afloat in order to at least guarantee the workers’ salaries.
“The first time they told us that the cafe was going to reopen in Managua, it was a surprise to us. We came to see it, and we were surprised to see that we were going to have a new site. At first we felt strange, but we’re already adapting,” comments Rodolfo. Together with the other workers who are also deaf, he graces every arriving client with a broad smile.
The first week in January, when the coffee shop opened in Managua, Antonio and his team left Granada at four in the morning to be at the site on time to open at 7 am. Now they all rent a house in Managua, located ten minutes away from the new restaurant.
Antonio Prieto understood that the Café de las Sonrisas had become a product far distant from the national market. “Now, we’re trying to attract more local people to use our services,” he declares. “Several people have told us that they’re happy to see us over here, and that they’d always wanted to see the place, but it was hard for them to travel to Granada during the hours that we were open.
A new opportunity has unfolded for the cafe and lies before them: their new establishment is located across from the Americana University (UAM). “Uncle Antonio” wants to tap into a new market of young students.
“For us, students have always been important,” he emphasizes. When the Café de las Sonrisas was operating in Granada, he used to give talks there to the foreign students that came to the city with the goal of seeing the initiative first-hand.
“Along the way, we’ve learned some lessons. Now we want this to be a café for those who live in the capital. Before, ninety percent of our public were foreigners, but now all that has changed,” Prieto reiterates.
For his part, Rodolfo feels sure of himself. He says that he misses his native city, but he feels optimistic. He, like all his workmates, are hoping to return one day to the old home where they learned to be independent and not feel like they were being discriminated against in the workplace.
Note: The Café de las Sonrisas is located across from the front entrance of the UAM – the Universidad Americana and opens at 8 am. On Saturdays, classes in sign language are offered. For more information, contact them through their Facebook page.