“Angels come in here,” says Antoinette Alcazar, owner of the Edgewater coffee shop Last Kiss Cafe. “By angels, I mean people who are spiritual beings.” As if to illustrate her point, one of her regulars comes through the door holding a tiny plant she’s protecting from the cold. Another customer, an art therapist, donated the pastels that dot the cafe’s tables so patrons can sketch spontaneously. “For me, art is healing,” says Alcazar. “I work out my pains, my joys, my challenges, my doubts, my fears through art.”

In support of this philosophy, she books live music at the cafe about three times a month. “I give whoever comes and asks an opportunity to play–though I’ve had more Latin American music,” she says. Every two months the cafe opens a new exhibit of visual art. Four times a year it collaborates on events with the Cuentos Foundation, a social service agency whose offices are across the street. And twice a month on Saturday mornings, Last Kiss offers free art workshops; recently participants made masks from milk cartons, paper plates, paper bags, boxes, yarn, leaves, twigs, and bottle caps.

Alcazar–who also hosts poetry readings at the cafe–has self-published a slim volume of her own poems. She paints, too; in a nude self-portrait that hangs in the cafe, she depicts herself with horns, angel wings, a crown of thorns, and a flaming heart, surrounded by demons. “My life has been touched by religion, both positive and negative,” she explains. “I see pain as a source of fuel. I’ve always been criticized for being too emotional, too sensitive.”

Born in Santiago, Chile, Alcazar was a young girl during the Allende regime, just before Pinochet’s 1973 coup. “I lived close to the Chilean White House. I saw people getting shot.” Her family left the country when she was eight, journeying first to Lima, Peru, then to Chicago. When she was ten they moved into a basement apartment in Lawndale. “I only had one suitcase,” she says. “I didn’t know English, but I was fascinated by its sound. So many words appeared to start with w.”

After high school she joined the army, where she spent eight months on active duty at Fort Dix and three months in the reserves. Then she studied economics at UIC. She worked for a time for a venture capital firm in Boston, got married, and spent a few years in Stamford, Connecticut, where she lived, she says, “like one of the Stepford wives–a very superficial, very materialistic life.” In 1992, Alcazar and her family moved back to Chicago.

From 1995 to 2000, she ran the Bucktown restaurant Empanadas Unlimited with her mother, who had been a caterer. But after her daughter Danielle was diagnosed with leukemia, Alcazar nursed her at home, supporting herself by making gift baskets and doing upholstery. When Danielle went into remission, Alcazar started planning for Last Kiss. She opened her doors in June 2002.

“My daughter’s getting sick is a large part of why I opened this coffee shop,” says Alcazar, now a single mother with two other daughters. “I’m trying to do something meaningful.” Though her special events are popular, she says it’s tough to keep the business going. She admits she could use “one-third of the people who hang out at Dunkin’ Donuts down the block. Our price is the same. Our coffee is good.”

In addition to sandwiches, mini pizzas, and breakfast items like hot oatmeal, muffins, and croissants, Last Kiss offers Chilean specialties including empanadas, a churrasco sandwich (broiled sirloin steak with avocado, tomato, and mayo), sopapilla chips (a crispy version of the puffy fried bread) with cilantro sauce, and mate–the traditional South American herbal tea, served in a gourd. The coffee comes from Chicago Coffee Roastery.

Alcazar took the name of her cafe from a surrealist painting by her brother David that depicts a large head blowing kisses composed of clapping lips and chattering teeth. “This place encourages people to share profound dreams, emotions, and thoughts,” she says. “There is a lot of empty talk and empty ritual in life, but we live by emotions and dreams. We’re standing on the precipice of logic and insanity–balancing.”

At 8 PM on Saturday, January 25, Last Kiss will host Argentinean guitarist Luis Jahn and poets Lito Barraza and Johanny Vasquez. On Friday, January 31, from 8 to 10 PM there’ll be an opening reception for “Cautivas,” an exhibit of paintings by fellow Chilean expat Fernando Gonzales; his subject matter is women held captive during the 1973 coup. The cafe is at 6326 N. Clark (773-381-5480). It’s open Monday through Thursday 8 AM to 9 PM, Friday and Saturday 8 AM to 11 PM.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Yvette Marie Dostatni.