Bogota is well-known for its smooth and sweet coffee, symbolized by Juan Valdez. Yet at one time, Bogota was called the Athens of Latin America – and it was its coffee houses, not its coffee farms, that led the way.
From the 1800s until the mid-20th century, these coffee houses were known for their culture, intellectuality, and politics. They were the gathering places of artists, students, journalists, politicians and some of the most important thinkers of the period. From women’s suffrage to nihilism, these social movements all found homes in the humble coffee house.
But why did this change? And what role do these coffee houses play today?
Café Pasaje, 2017. Credit: Laura Mendoza, Despacio
Colombia’s Coffee Houses: A Male Haven
At the beginning of the 20th century, Bogota was a vibrant metropolis. Construction of the city was in full swing, while the people on the streets exuded elegance and intellectuality.
Men, dressed in formal attire, made their way towards their second home: their coffee shop of preference. According to Camilo Monje, these cafés functioned as a secular temple. Traditional centers of thinking, they were a meeting place that bridged the gap between the privacy of a man’s home and the public domain of the streets. Here, men could discuss the latest international news, political movements, upcoming artists, and public affairs.
The coffee shops were places of diversity – as long as by diversity, we are referring only to men. Strangers from vastly different backgrounds would converge here. Artists exhibited their work, critics and journalists gathered the latest news and gossip, and businessmen closed deals with a tinto (black coffee) enriched with aguardiente (spirits).
More than a coffee shop, these places became coffee-bars, coffee-restaurants, coffee-offices, coffee-pools, coffee-churches, and coffee-schools. They transformed themselves by the hour, depending on their visitors.
Old Gun Club Building, where members of Bogota’s high society would meet socially in the first half of the 20th century, is now a specialty coffee shop and barista school. Credit: Laura Hiller
Political & Social Revolution in The Café
Yet no “decent” or “modest” woman would go into a café. Only those women who were true revolutionaries passed through their doors – those who believed in female suffrage, for example.
In fact, the government considered Bogota’s traditional cafés to be dangerous places where people could conspire to enact rebellion, movements could be born, and more. And the most prominent cafés, such as the Café San Moritz, Café Pasaje, and El Cisne, were indeed known for specific political movements. I. D. Cultural writes that some were famous for their particular patrons, while each was home to a different belief, political party, art movement, or style of thought.
El Cisne, for example, was known for being the headquarters of the Nadaism literary trend, an anti-establishment reaction to the 10-year civil war La Violencia, which is estimated to have resulted in the deaths of 200,000 people.
Many political and social movements were born in Bogota’s cafés.
The Violent End to The Intellectual Coffee House
That same civil war spelled the end of the intellectual coffee house.
Many historians will say that, after achieving independence from Spain, Colombia had two main political parties: the Liberals and Conservatives.
But then, on April 9th 1948, everything changed. On this day, Jorge Eliécer Gaitán, a charismatic and populist Liberal presidential candidate, was assassinated. His murder started a sequence of violent reactions all around the country – with the worst of the violence occurring in central Bogota.
Riots and protests took over the city, destroying many public spaces in the process. Some of the city’s most iconic cafés were casualties.
Riots caused the destruction of many places, some of them Bogota’s iconic coffee shops.
Censorship & Coffee Houses
A delicate period in Colombia’s history had begun. Before the assassination, Bogota was known for its elegance and culture. Yet now repression and censorship were the norms. People grew afraid to speak their mind – and coffee shops, which were once known for their forward-thinking, were no exception to this landscape of fear.
Over time, some of the city’s old cafés attempted to rebuild and reopen. But they were unable to regain their former glory. Out of more than 500 traditional cafés, only six remained open.
After a period of censorship, cafés began to reopen their doors.
Bogota’s Coffee Shops Today
A café is more than just a place to buy coffee. It is an essential part of the social and intellectual lives of every city. And historically, Bogota’s cafés have have defined and educated some of our country’s presidents, artists, and leading thinkers.
But today, do Bogota’s cafés still hold the same power?
Yes. They define our city’s personality, give our culture life, and allow us – as a country shaped by coffee production – to see the relevance of our industries and diverse histories.
They are still the place where everyone goes, from coffee producer to businessperson, student to politician. They may have new aesthetics (minimalism, for example) and offerings (such as cold brew), but they play the same role in our lives. They are café-libraries and café-date-spots, café-internet-hotspots and café-business-places, café-bloggers-workplace and café-forums…
They still bring us together, and they still allow us to shape our world.
Written by Laura Hiller.
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