Julio Revolorio didn’t open the Tres en Uno cafe to make a profit, which is fortunate, because he isn’t making one. At the end of May he was ready to close for good, but an impromptu silent art auction netted him $2,800, enough to pay three months’ back rent, gas, and electric bills. The cafe had to close one day this month because the power was cut off, but Revolorio was back the next day, using a generator.

Revolorio, former executive director of Casa Guatemala, a nonprofit group that aids Guatemalan refugees in Chicago, got the idea for the cafe in 1993, when he returned to his native country with his American schoolteacher girlfriend, Deborah Romano, and discovered coffee co-ops that were finally being allowed to operate after years of government policies that destroyed small-scale agriculture. But the government was still giving the farmers a lousy deal–only five cents a pound profit.

“I love coffee, maybe because it was put in my bottle as a little baby,” Revolorio says. “My mother couldn’t afford milk. I can drink ten jars of coffee a day. If at night I can’t sleep because of insomnia, I get up and warm a cup of coffee and go to bed. Maybe it’s so good because we make it with care. We pray that people like it, so they come back.”

A year and a half after Revolorio and Romano returned, they were living in Rogers Park just east of the Metra tracks and noticed that a glass-walled storefront across the street had become available. They persuaded the owner to let them open a cafe and obtained the promise of a loan, but on the night they signed the lease they discovered their loan had fallen through. With no capital behind them, they opened anyway, in August 1995, offering, among other things, coffee from the Guatemalan co-ops, muffins, homemade tamales, and Guatemalan chuchitos.

At first the cafe stayed open until 9 PM, but Revolorio soon cut back. Almost all the customers were Metra commuters, and they stopped coming in after 9:20 AM, when the last early-morning train ran. “After that it’s pretty quiet. One or two people will stop by wanting to buy something. It’s very rare that someone stops by. Sometimes neighbors who’ve been away on vacation will come in and play chess. After four o’clock there is nothing.”

It didn’t seem to matter that the place was brightly painted and cheery. Or that there was a permanent display of artwork by Guatemalan refugee Edgar Lopez and a variety of Guatemalan crafts. (“Tres” refers to the cafe, the craft shop, and the travel agency Revolorio runs on the side.)

But in April Tres en Uno began offering a Friday-night poetry series, “Voices of the Americas,” emceed by WZRD radio talk-show host Danny Postel. Each week the cafe had an open mike and a featured artist, including big names such as Ana Castillo, Luis Rodriguez, Carlos Cumpian, Susana Sandoval, James Yellowbank, and Chuy Negrete. The series has finally brought in more customers. “April was the first month that we broke even,” Revolorio says. “Chuy Negrete’s been here just about every Friday. Sometimes it would be just him and myself here, and my partner. But it’s getting better.”

Revolorio has always been glad to talk to customers about the struggle for a free and democratic Guatemala. A 17th-generation Maya-Cakchiquel Indian, he had to flee Guatemala in 1980 after organizing student protests at the university where he was an engineering student. He crossed the border into the U.S. on his 23rd birthday and did construction work in California until 1985, when he came to Chicago. “I decided that I wanted to see the Michigan lake. I had friends that had told me that there was a big lake here that looked like the sea, because you can’t see the other end. And I thought, no lake could be like that.”

He looked up an old friend from Guatemala when he arrived. “We had a problem, because he had changed. He had melted into the way of life here. He wouldn’t believe what I told him, that I had a job in California. I didn’t come to Chicago to look for a job. I had a construction contract signed for the next two years. “The first thing you gotta do,’ he said, “is cut your hair. Otherwise you’re not going to find a job.’ I said, “Fuck you, man. I’m not cutting my hair.’ I remember when we were in Guatemala we challenged the army in 1972. Carlos Arana became president, and the first thing he said was that he wanted the hippies out. The men had to have short hair. The women had to wear skirts and dresses. Just a bunch of crap. Many times we were chased by the army. We would wear winter hats and hide our hair. Here he was wearing his short hair. He was a working man, and he just wanted me to become like him. No way. Those principles that we established before weren’t just a youth rebel thing. I stick with them. Since I left Guatemala I never stopped being an activist.”

He was ready to go back to California, but then his backpack was stolen with all his papers and money and his plane ticket back to Los Angeles. He didn’t have a change of clothes, and he didn’t have a place to stay. He became homeless in the middle of winter.

Eventually he met other Guatemalans, many of whom were activists in Guatemalan Movement Otto Rene Castillo, a group named after the Guatemalan poet. “All the time I was in California I was looking to tell the story–my story–and no one wanted to hear it. Here there was a group of people that was already doing that. So I went to a meeting, and I decided to stay. They said, What are you going to do here? Same thing I had done before. Find a job and do this. This is basically how I lived in Guatemala. I was a worker, I was a student, and I was an activist. And here I’m not being persecuted.”

He helped start, then operate, Casa Guatemala and later became head of Atanasio Tzul, a Guatemalan refugee network in the United States. And slowly he watched the truth about Guatemala’s troubles begin to surface. He’s now finishing up his engineering degree at the Industrial Engineering College of Chicago, then he’ll wait until he can safely return to help rebuild his country. “It would be my revenge,” he says.

But for now he’s just trying to keep the cafe open. “It is an ambitious thing and that’s one of the reasons why we call it Tres en Uno. Because we believe in the struggle for life, peace, and justice. It’s like everybody has big dreams. I remember a song from Carlos Mejia Godoy, a Nicaraguan, from the Sandinista war. He said that to get our motherland we have to dream first–how we want our country, how we want our motherland. I remember that song. I think about it a lot.”

Tres en Uno, 1775 W. Greenleaf, is open 6 AM to 5 PM Monday through Thursday, 6 AM until everyone leaves Friday, and noon to 9 PM Saturday. “Voices of the Americas” starts around 7:30 PM on Friday; this week’s featured artist is Carlos Gonzalez. Call 465-2463.

–Neal Pollack

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Nathan Mandell.