Walking down Calle Xalteva towards Parque Central, we were on a mission to find a quiet and cool spot to relax and enjoy a cup of coffee. By chance, we came across the perfect spot! A place that not only offered a welcome respite from the heat of the day and the loud and busy city streets, but also left us inspired about what can be done to promote diversity and integration in a city.
The place – Cafe de las Sonrisas. The city – Granada, Nicaragua.
Describing itself as the “first coffee shop in the Americas and the fourth in the world to be entirely run by deaf-mute people”, Cafe de las Sonrisas was established to break down the barriers that deaf and mute people typically face in integrating into the labour market.
Easily accessible and visible from one of the city’s busiest thoroughfares, the cafe is physically integrated into the city centre and well-placed to provide people living and working in the city with a coffee, breakfast and lunch spot or a meeting place for business.
The cafe forms part of the Tio Antonio Centro Social, a not-for-profit specialised employment centre based in Granada, Nicaragua. The centre aims to achieve two main objectives:
(1) create jobs for people who face difficulties integrating into the labour market; and
(2) provide quality products to customers.
The centre also includes a hammock workshop. Full of colour and creativity, the workshop designs, produces and sells high quality hammocks on a daily basis. Within two days, the workshop can produce a hammock that is made to your specifications!
In addition to the opportunities generated by the cafe and hammock workshop, the centre is able to provide social support to people who cannot hear or speak across four priority areas: education, healthcare, child care, the care and empowerment of women, and social interactions.
Drawn into the centre by the vibrant murals and colourful displays of hammocks for sale easily visible from the sidewalk, we walked off the noisy street into the quiet cafe for a cup of coffee.
Upon arrival in the cafe, we were greeted by a friendly waitron and given some time to soak up the peaceful ambiance and consult the menu.
Within minutes of walking into the cafe, I was impressed with the commitment displayed by the centre to accommodating the communication needs of its customers and its staff.
For example, each item on the menu (and its various ingredients) is simply but clearly presented using pictures and described in English and Spanish. There are sign language guides on each table, as well as a large and colourful mural on the perimeter wall adjacent to the seating area displaying some of the essential signs required to communicate with any member of the centre, especially your waitron. Using the pictures and some basic hand signals, it is easy to order off the menu and communicate any variation of a menu item that you may require.
After flipping through the easy-to-use menu and consulting the sign language guides available, we silently but successfully placed our order with the waitron: two coffees (with milk and sugar).
While we waited for our coffees, we explored the centre.
A quiet hub of creativity and empowerment immersed in the hustle and bustle of a city, the cafe hugs a beautiful indoor garden located in the open-air courtyard at the heart of the building. The garden is flanked by hammocks produced by the workshop team making the cafe a great spot to soak up some sun in peace with a cup of coffee in hand!
There are information boards in and around the cafe explaining the concept and purpose of the centre and inviting visitors in participate in the centre (whether this means simply communicating with the centre staff, having a cup of coffee, ordering a hammock or adding value in some other way).
The hammock workshop – easily accessible and visible from the street and from the cafe – offers you the opportunity to experience first hand more of the a different part of the Tio Antonio Centro Social. Colourful hammocks of various sizes are produced and sold by the workshop team. The team members are friendly and happy to engage with you as you walk through their workshop. We tested out one of the hammocks and can vouch for their comfort and quality.
Reflecting on my visit to the centre, I found the coffee enjoyable; the creative but quiet space energising; the staff friendly and service-orientated; and the opportunity to learn and use some basic sign language refreshing and enriching. I also felt good about supporting a non-profit organisation that is committed to improving opportunities for people who face barriers to participating in their city.
As we left the centre, I thought about what value a specialised employment centre like the Tio Antonio Centro Social can add to a city and what made my experience of it inspiring and memorable.
The founder of the centre, Tio Antonio, believes that it should not matter who made the hammocks or who prepared and served the meals and drinks on offer. What should matter is that those employed by the centre have work opportunities and can offer customers quality products (with a smile).
There is dignity in having work. And there is empowerment and creativity in partnerships. Well-located and easily accessible centres like the Tio Antonio Centro Social that are accommodating of the needs of their staff and customers and that offer quality products and services have the potential to promote the diversity of a city in a way that empowers and integrates. It is projects like these that break barriers sustainably.