By Russell Contreras
In a different time, at another place, and under other circumstances, you might have run away from Latisha Valenzuela and Glenda Alvarenga. But at Homegirl Cafe, a Los Angeles breakfast and lunch spot with a Latino twist, the two waitresses welcome you with smiles and friendship.
“You alone?” Valenzuela asked when I recently visited. “Don’t worry. We’ll keep you company.” After seating me, she tells me, “you’ll want our cinnamon coffee. We make it ourselves.” She says it as if we’ve been friends since middle school.
Here, in the City of Angels, Homegirl Cafe offers a unique dining experience with food prepared by former gang members gaining new skills. It’s a haven for them, to be sure. But the popular cafe in the city’s Chinatown is a special place for visitors, too, providing carefully crafted meals along with inspiration from ex- inmates who willingly tell stories about how they are seeking a better life.
And where these hands once hurt others, now they are steering their energies to serve pleasurable, satisfying dishes made with love and perseverance.
The hip cafe is an offshoot of the Homeboy Industries social enterprises founded by Jesuit priest Greg Boyle. After working in one of the city’s poorest and most gang-plagued regions, he quickly found out that businesses wouldn’t hire former gang members and inmates, even when they had marketable skills. So, he formed nonprofit businesses aimed at giving jobs and training to the “least of these,” as the poor and vulnerable are described in Scripture.