It’s an art exhibit in Upper Manhattan, but it’s not the Met, and the patrons are a tad smaller. Up on Amsterdam Avenue, just past W. 135th, a flurry of 3rd graders are buzzing with an excitement only 8 year olds can emit. They jump at the sight of fellow classmates at La Pregunta Arts Café and tug their supporting families and teachers toward watercolor pieces and animal sculptures they created with their own hands.
Shortly after Genesis Sanchez, age 9, explains her half-bee, half-bunny creation (“I’m soft and gentle like a bunny but can sting like a bee.”), owner Yscaira Jimenez arrives. She greets the young participants and community organizers at the bustling eatery she opened in March. She stirs about the room, her curly, dark locks matching her fervor in bounce. She’s small but busy, and in control. Bunny, yet bee.
The After School Art Exhibit, celebrating the works of local elementary school children, is not an unusual one, considering La Pregunta’s tendency to focus on local artists through open mic nights, poetry sessions, and other events, no matter age or experience. In its four short months of existence, Jimenez, only 27 and new to business endeavors, has managed to establish a hub for a community that has been waiting on something fresh, inviting, and culturally aware – without having to travel downtown.
“I have people who come up to me and say, ‘Oh my god! We’ve been waiting over 20 years for a place like this,” says Jimenez of the neighborhood reception. Jimenez herself yearned for a space like this the six years she lived in the area. “There was a need for a house of culture,” she says, drawing out words to match her thoughts. “I was tired of commuting downtown, to the Lower East Side, to Williamsburg – everywhere but my own community.”
Born in the Dominican Republic and raised in the Bronx, Jimenez moved to Upper Manhattan when she began attending Columbia University, where she divided her time between switching majors (first, Economics, then Latin American and English Literature) and extracurricular activities like an entrepreneur club and a Dominican cultural club. Her career took off immediately following graduation, as she rose to senior program director at a company specializing in education programs. Unlike most graduates, Jimenez found herself at a job she loved with a salary, benefits, and responsibilities to match. She couldn’t complain.
So why La Pregunta? Even Jimenez’s mother thought her a little crazy to leave a comfortable career at such a young age to take on a risk bigger than her petite frame. The desire for a local hangout didn’t seem motivation enough.
“I did this more out of duty,” says Jimenez matter-of-factly. “Somebody once told me that I have a responsibility to my community. The easy thing to do is get a good a job and work for yourself, as opposed to building businesses with social value and giving back directly your community. I have to do this because I can.”
From this sense of duty, Jimenez gathers the strength to face daily challenges. She knowingly launched La Pregunta without enough working capital – her youth worked against her when she sought funding, and all her assets were in the business. She also makes sure the café only charges a cover when they must pay the featured artists; La Pregunta functions off of meager donations for all other gatherings. All this and the cloud of small business failure – most fail in their first year – always looming.
It hasn’t deterred Jimenez, who says if she dwelled on failure, she never would’ve opened a café, in which case she’d be a girl with a vision instead of a girl with a concept realized. Her original ideas can be seen everywhere – from the sketching nights with Latino models to the “street vendor meet Latin tapas” style menu, which will eventually incorporate every Latin American country.
“We’ll take something traditionally Latin American and add a twist to it,” says Jimenez about the varied offerings, which she compiled together with the chef of a high end Latin American catering company. Popular choices include the Mirabel Fries (yuca, sweet potato, plantain fries with chimi, mojo & salsa), Chimichurri (a Dominican burger with added flair), and the Churros (with a passion fruit mousse and strawberries). The Revolutionary Sandwiches, all named after famous rebels, keep orders coming (try the Brazilian Lula sandwich, a chicken with caitupiri and avocado concoction) as do drink choices. Argentine and Chilean wines and South American beer are available, or for those looking for a non-alcoholic fix, hand-blended loose leaf teas in unique flavors (try the Horchata blend) and in-house roasted coffee make delicious options.
Regardless of whether La Pregunta makes it through the decisive first year, it has already made its mark for the residents of the quickly gentrifying Washington Heights. “This is a godsend for the community,” says Nancy Restrepo-Wilson, Program Manager for the Say Yes to Education After School Youth Program at P.S. 161. “It’s funky and easygoing, and the best place for a light menu.”
Jacqueline Martinez, whose son Oscar and daughter Jacqueline participated in the After School Art Exhibit, is happy to see a supportive outlet for her children. “Me parece bien porque les hace sentir que ellos valen,” she says.
Jimenez didn’t foresee her clientele reaching beyond college kids and artsy community members. “I never thought my reach would be so extensive,” she says about La Pregunta’s impact. “I didn’t imagine elementary, junior high, and high school children. Students as patrons have been one of the most rewarding things.”
Perhaps that’s the true mark of success, no matter what the small business statistics might say.
For more information on La Pregunta’s many events, menu, location and more, visit lapregunta.net.