Geri Lucero / Barelas

My name is Geri Lucero and I am the manager at the Barelas Coffee House. I’ve been working here twenty five years. I’m from New Mexico and from the Barelas area. I grew up by the zoo. Came by full circle back to the area. I moved to the South Valley when I was a youth in school and now I am back here as an adult. It was home, because this is where I knew most of the people. Went to school in the area. So for me it was a no brainer. My honey, which is the owner of the Barelas Coffee House, he also grew up here, he is a lifelong member of Barelas. And his brother and him started the business. And when I met him many years ago, that’s when I realized that he was part of this establishment, I didn’t know anything about it. The Barelas area is part of my youth, but as an adult I have been working here for so long. It has become a staple for me I guess.

This area here is one of the older areas… through the years Barelas has become one of the main areas, when the rail road moved in, that’s when houses in the area started to come up, because they needed workers. And of course everybody wants to live close to where they work. That was the main job in the area at that time. So Barelas is one of the oldest communities. Many of the houses were made out of rail road parts. It’s just very simple, very few people. My grandfather worked for the rail road, and they lived about three blocks away from the rail road station, where he worked. In those times it was the time to be, because of the rail road, and so through the years I guess it’s just grown and been part of the Downtown area. We are not too far from Central, which is a main area going to east and west. They say this was part of El Camino Real, so that is part of that tradition. I grew up here, I was really young when we moved here. My parents divorced when I was ten. But just the stories and the people that I’ve met and have known in the years, it’s very heart warming because you see, you see here in the restaurant, you see generations. And you know, they’ve grown here. Now in this year, the youth of that time are bringing their grand children here and their grand children are actually getting a tradition of coming to Barelas because this is where they have been bringing their children. And it is interesting because we hear a lot of the youngsters come and say, “I’ve been coming here for years.” And that’s basically how I grew up here in the area. Everybody knew everybody, everybody was social. If you needed help, they were there. So to me that is the essence of the area. That it is a neighborhood area. A lot of the people here now, there is some older people here that still live here for years. But mostly we are getting an influx of younger generations into these older homes and so there has been a revitalization, and that’s a good thing. A lot of the older people you know are soon not to be with us, and so we have to respect them while they are here, and we get to see them here all the time. They have their ways, it’s like clockwork, they have their favorite meals or their favorite person or favorite story of the area, or the building itself. Because before us, it use to be called Fito’s. And that was in the forties. And that use to be open at night, and everyone tells me that this was the place to be after you go to the dances. You come here to meet up. In those times my mom use to mention that also. And so it was a happening place even then. So we didn’t start here, we started across the street in the building that is the barber shop now, that is actually where Barelas started. Two brothers started, Michael and Jimmy Gonzalez and their sister later on came and joined them. The three of them managed it and took care of it for all the years. And Michael is still the original owner, and he’s really a good manager, good owner, caring for his employees, and the neighborhood. He’s a wonderful business man. He believes in community and in helping people, as long as they help themselves too. He won’t let people take advantage. He’s willing and able to help out when people are needing it and are willing to help themselves going.

We have people that come now… They came with either their parents or their grandparents and they are bringing their children and it’s interesting because they have the familiarity in their minds of what it should be and they will always come and say, “where is this waitress?” “I haven’t seen this person.” And it’s because when they grew up they had their favorite meal, their favorite person that waited on them. And the older generation that comes in they expect a certain caliber of business, of service… I should say. And they are treated very respectfully by our staff. Most of the girls that work here, and some of the guys, but mostly the women that work here they know what everybody wants to eat already. They walk, they see them outside, standing in the morning. On Saturday morning when we open at seven-thirty we have people waiting out the door. And that to me is amazing and I love seeing that. So everybody gets a hug when they walk in from me because I appreciate it. But the wait staff before I open the door, has been looking out of the curtains to see whose out there. They will set up their special tables, they will put their drinks on their table, they will start writing their meal tickets before they walk in. And when they walk in everybody has their designated table, and the wait staff already knows what they want to eat, they just verify it with them, and they put it up and get their food within a few minutes. Now that to me is like coming home. Because you go home and mom has food there on the table, grandma has food there on the table, and a lot of people have commented… old and young, that it’s like going to grandma’s house or to mom’s house. And that’s such a compliment. We don’t realize those tiny things that we do, the smiles, the gestures of, “where do you want to sit?” “What do you want to do?” We just kind of go out of our way. We try to do that. And all of those gestures have through the years, brought people back, and we get comments every day. I mean we get bad comments and people don’t like it, but if something goes bad with their service, whatever, that is normal. But the one’s that come are the biggest compliment that I think is that people keep coming for years. Because they have other choices, they keep choosing to come here. Whether it’s every Saturday, or whenever their day is, or wherever their time is, or for lunch you know we have a lot of business people coming in. Now that’s the middle generation because they come from downtown and they’ve working there and they make the trip fifteen miles from the center of town to come see us and they know what they like. They will tell me when it doesn’t taste the same, or if we have changed a product. It’s really interesting. They keep more track of what we do then we realize we do… so that’s quality control! You know other than inspectors that we have to have through the city, I believe that the inspectors that we get are our customers. It is very important too because they know they have eaten here so many times, so many years. So they know the quality, they know the value of stuff, and the most important thing is that they always tell me we are very consistent in our meals. It is another huge compliment after so many years. I’ve only been here twenty-eight, we will be thirty-eight next Valentine’s Day. And so that is amazing in itself.

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Well I know for a fact that the recipes that we use here are from aunts that the owners had. Their aunts, the family members that they knew, and they got their recipes. And they have stayed consistent through the years and we have tried to get the best possible food that we can. And through the years it has been a kind of a struggle because everything’s changed with genetics and all. But the vendors we have also been with us many, many years. And so that is another relationship that we’ve established. And they do try hard to keep us in the quality that we are used to. So for us the recipes that we have are very basic simple things. We do not over add anything. We use what our family used. I grew up with red chile, we always had tortillas on the table. A lot of people get upset that we don’t have the sopapillas, but we grew up with tortillas. Even bread was a treat. But everything went in a tortilla. My mom would make them everyday and that’s what we do, we make them everyday. We have all the same types of traditions that we grew up with. And that’s what the owners have always tried to strive for, to always protect. To always protect traditions of New Mexican food. We’re New Mexicans, we grew up with beans, we grew up with tortillas, and chiles… red or green. And some cheese, we always had cheese. And those things are staples of how we grew up, and those are the things that we build up around all of our food. Meat when we were growing up was sometimes far a few between, but we always had beans. We always had the chiles, always! And eggs, we always had eggs. So that is for us tradition, those are the things that we keep going. That’s what we want to keep going. Keep all those things, because those are the things we grew up with. And it’s more of a tradition for us, in our hearts and our minds of what we have seen all of our lives when we were young until now. And they (customers) grew up in this area, they are New Mexican, this is all we know. There are other places that add and, and they say you should do this and that, but we have added a few items but the basics are still the beans, the chile, tortillas, and eggs. Those are staples.

It’s not too diverse, we do have one African… he’s African, he came from Africa with his family. He’s been working here for a little over a year. So he’s probably the most diverse person working here, most everyone else is from the area. We have cook’s that have been here over thirty years. We have one Mexican, one New Mexican, both legally here so that’s… they have been here over thirty-three years. They started when they were very young and they have stuck with it. And we have stuck with them. And the others who have been with us, we have a wait person who has been here as long as I have for twenty-eight years and another cook that has been here for twenty-eight years as long as I have. And they live in the area, they have purchased homes, they have raised a family, and they are still going strong with their jobs, they are very consistent. And we just love them, and they are our family, we have a big family and we take very good care of our work family. We want them to strive and make it in this world, in this life and for them to be as comfortable as possible. And so that’s how our staff is, they are very loyal, and we are very loyal back because of that. And customers love them, they are very familiar with everybody, they will come out and talk to everyone that they know for years and their families. They get to know their new generations and babies. Little babies will wave at our cooks because they know who they are and they will look for them. It’s interesting that we have that family with ourselves, within our little realm of work. We do consider it more of a family. Their concerns are our concerns. We try to help them out with whatever they got going on. We have had births and we have had deaths, sicknesses, we have had all of those things, and we all try to stay together as our own little family and as a community in our building as workers. That is our staff. Our staff is really good and capable of doing the work, they have their good days and their bad days and we just help them get through it that’s all we can do. So we try to keep them as healthy and as happy as we can. This little building of a space that we offer.

The owner’s family was from the Barelas neighborhood. There is an older two story house on the side of us if you are going down on fourth if you look immediately were fourth and Barelas ending together, there’s a two story home. Well his family is from there, that’s where they were born, so they are from here. They are definitely from the area. My family also grew up from Cromwell and Fourth, which is right down the road from here that my mom was born and raised there and my father was born and raised in Santa Fe. And that’s just a couple blocks further, and that’s closer to the zoo. My grandfather was the first zoo curator when it first opened. And he was brought over by Mayor Tingley. He became the Mayor of Albuquerque. He brought over five of his workers from the roadways… like the highways; I don’t know what it was called. Yea, they were his workers, he brought five of them over and he gave them jobs as a Mayor and my grandfather became the curator because my father told me that he was meaner than any animal that was in the zoo (laughter)… so my grandpa was pretty tough! So that’s the reason they came from Santa Fe, because my grandfather had lived in Santa Fe. And that’s why he worked there with Tingley and other “roadwayers”. So both of our family’s are from here. Michael’s family owned the little… right here where the little gift shop is, his father had a store there for over fifty years. So he was a community, a businessman in the community and that’s how he made his living with his family. He had that for over fifty-eight years. They use to be a staple in the community, when it was good and bad. Fourth Street has not always been very… so his family lived in that two-story house so that’s what they did, they had a store on the bottom, it was also a grocery store. So it was these generations of businesses. The owner’s name is Michael Gonzalez and his grandfather owned a store but it was in the Sandoval area, and that’s like 12th and Sonner, going towards the highway there’s an area there called Sonner area. And that’s where his father had a Speakeasy. So it had a grocery store in the front and I guess in the back it had a Speakeasy. Anyways, that’s how the story goes; I’m probably getting it wrong. But that’s part of the history. And his father, his name was Charles, and they called him “Promo” Gonzalez. He worked and lived right behind this store, they had a little house, and actually he had three children, and they all lived behind the store in a tiny area but that was home until they can build a house in the area and get their family into a bigger home. But he was there for over fifty years, so he was a staple of the area.

When Barelas Coffee House opened, there was not a lot going on in Fourth Street. There were not many businesses. Within all the years that they have been in business, it really diminished, and I would say finally within the last twenty, fifteen to twenty years, it actually has been revitalized. You know when McDonald’s moved in, the Hispanic Cultural Center moved in, that was a huge because you know that is something that nobody anticipates coming to this area. But that was such a huge boost for the area, to bring more people here, to bring more businesses in here. Then McDonald’s moved in and that’s a big thing. But we have been here through all of that. And you know the owners Michael and Jimmy and Benito they really fought to keep it open because of our customers, they have helped us strive to keep the area and the business thriving. And we have just been trying to keep it afloat. Up’s and down’s of the economy, everything that has gone on you know. We have still have had enough people that has come to graciously enter our doors and help us maintain what we believe is such a vital business in the area. And so we have appreciated the help of the community, of the government, the different people that have helped us do things to the building, all the programs, and all the revitalization that they have helped us out with to keep it going and keep it lifted as far as the structure. And even the inspectors you know, the city inspectors, we have had such a wonderful relationship with them, they have helped us. We want them to come and make sure that we are keeping everyone safe, that’s a huge plus. And I think that’s important. So this business of us is our life and we want to keep it alive. And that’s basically what we are striving for. For us, for the community, for the workers, for the visitors… we get a lot of tourists. It’s really nice to have a place that has been recognized after all these years when it was never the intention. I have asked Michael what was their first intention and he says it was only going to be a coffee shop with maybe donuts, maybe a hamburger with hot dogs, and some chili. And that’s all they planned. And now they are a full fledge restaurant, which has been in business now for over thirty-eight years. It’s amazing! It is very nice.

He uses to have a band in the area (Martin Peña), and he has been a barber for the area. He recently got sick. But yea talk about a staple in the area! He’s been here forever, and he used to love the chicken enchiladas with green chile. That was his favorite. So we really do miss that, he was a really nice man. He had a really cool looking vehicle that he used to show it at all the car shows. So that is a sad thing that we will miss that from him. So he was here forever. He was a character, and it was very nice to have known him. My mom always told me that if you know life than you have to know death, and so that’s her truth. I totally lived that, and it’s interesting to see that so many of our people have been coming to see us forever and we have seen them go. We see families come, and some families will come after funerals, they will have a dinner here in memory of them. Maybe after a year or so, when they can do it, some can’t, they say it’s difficult because their parents were coming so often but there’s some that do it to honor them. It’s really nice to be a part of that, you the memories and of honoring of any family member that is someone’s heart.

I believe that everyone should try and find their spot in the world in their true heart because it’s not easy with all the distractions. And I am very honored and pleased to be here in this realm of business with the people that I work with and talk to and play with I guess I should say. But for me it’s very huge to be here, and I pray everyday that everyone that comes in here is happy and satisfied, content in whatever they are doing and that we can keep this place striving forward and keep the community coming in and enjoying themselves.

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