As many of you already know, Carlitos Café y Galeria is closing this month due to the end of its five year lease. Sadly, gentrification has made it impossible for this haven of live music, art, community activisim, film screenings, and just good old fashioned passing the time with the regulars, to stay open. Founder Eliana tells us how it all began, as well as her thoughts for a bright future.
Name: Carla Eliana Godoy Laguna
Occupation: Cultural worker and social entrepreneur
How long have you lived in NYC?
I was born in La Paz, Bolivia and moved to Massachusetts when I was 13 years old. A company I was working for in Boston relocated me to New York City in 1997. I have been living here ever since.
What sparked the idea for Carlitos Cafe?
I had recently moved to New York City and was living in Astoria. I had decided to quit my job to start a not-for-profit organization called Art for Change. As I was thinking of ways to fund the organization, I thought of opening up something that resembled a South American peña – a warm, community place where people could comfortably gather for music, theater, and just to connect.
How did you pick the location?
I have been living in East Harlem for the past eight years. East Harlem is where I started Art for Change and where I consider home while I live in this part of the world.
Who were the regulars of Carlitos?
Carlitos was frequented by neighborhood characters and other people looking for live music, art, poetry, and a cool place to visit. However, a lot of people came from all boroughs, as well as New Jersey, upstate, and from all over the world.
How did you come up with the name?
I wanted to name the small business after my grandfather who, with my grandmother, had a hostel and family restaurant in Uyuni – a little town in Potosi, Bolivia. In this little hostel, my grandfather, Don Carlitos, would host and entertain community members and travelers who would pass by the little town. He was very loved and respected in the town as he often helped out by giving food away to people and fixing problems in the community.
What would you say was the most popular Carlitos activity?
The most popular activity at Carlitos has been the Tuesday night “Open Mic.” It’s the longest-running event we have had, and it always features a wide range of talented artists.
Your favorite Carlitos memory?
There are just too many favorite Carlitos memories, the best ones are the times when, out of the blue, connections were made allowing people to share their heartfelt personal stories, their country’s social issues, and other topics that bring people together. Then, there are those times when everyone in the room went into a loving, groovy dance trance, really feeling each other and the music.
It has been challenging to work full-time at Art for Change and run Carlitos at the same time, which is also a full-time job.
Ideas for the future?
I am interested in building small cooperatives in East Harlem that provide job training and internships for youth, as well as provide job opportunities for young artists.
Last words for now…
Carlitos will re-open again somewhere in the world. For all of you who came to share it with us, I hope you experienced the magical moments of Carlitos and recognized the importance of venues like this have in our communities; places that give voice to people and capture the essence and beauty of their stories, struggles, dreams and aspirations.
We’re going to have big party on our closing day, Thursday, November 29, and we’ll be open every day from 11 a.m. (except Thanksgiving). Until then, we will be selling items at our new gift shop, and recording memories on video at night for people to share their experiences at Carlitos.
Click here for Carlitos’ calendar of events and last minute happenings.