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Art, Heritage and Pride - Silvana Salcido Esparza

Author: Justin Lee
Issue: March, 2016, Page 124
From advocacy of her culture to providing showcase displays for emerging artists, Chef Silvana Salcido Esparza’s fearless passions?and ambitions?transcend the kitchen.

Celebrated Chef Silvana Salcido Esparza Reflects on Her Story as a Woman With Something to Say

On the menu at Esparza’s Barrio Urbano: the classic Mexican breakfast of huevos divorciados.
What molds a great artist or drives a compelling visionary is always an irregular recipe. Heritage, geography, love and the education of life’s trials: These are the elements that layer—and take hold. For Silvana Salcido Esparza, the impassioned force behind some of Phoenix’s most well-known restaurants, having a diverse and often contrary pedigree is a badge of honor that transcends any kitchen in which she’s ever worked.

Known for her unwavering advocacy and support of the city’s ever-growing class of independent Latino artists, Esparza knows exactly where she came from—and where she’s going.

Known for her unwavering advocacy and support of the city’s ever-growing class of independent Latino artists, Esparza knows exactly where she came from—and where she’s going.

Born in Los Angeles, some of Esparza’s earliest memories are rich impressions of an urban city on the rise. “I remember riding down Broadway in LA, buying Mexican staples at the ‘mercado central,’ passing big buildings and just being excited,” she says.

Still a small girl when her family moved to Central California’s San Joaquin Valley, a cradle of American
agriculture with an exploding migrant population, Esparza chose to dive deep into herself, her new community and her family.
“I was isolated, but I thrived,” she explains. “I grew up in a three-generation household where my family was Jehovah’s Witness, we could only speak Spanish at home, and we could only eat real Mexican food. I learned so much about myself.

“Those early years gave me purpose. I learned from my father’s business and my mother’s cooking,” she notes, recalling how her father operated a small bakery and sold bread to the region’s waves of Mexican immigrants. “That’s when and where I developed my sense of community. One minute I’m driving my dad’s delivery truck through migrant camps in rural California, watching him barter with farmers; next, I am spending my Saturdays in church, preaching to those same people.”
Esparza’s father also shared an enthusiasm for creative endeavors. “He was very artistic,” she says, recalling a visit with him to celebrated artist Diego Rivera’s house during a trip to Mexico as a youth. “He would say ‘look at that, now that’s a true mural.’ That all influences who I am today,” she adds with sentiment.

As an adult, Esparza continued to seek her place in life, spending time in Miami, Florida, as well as “cashing out” and backpacking through Mexico in her 30s. In 1995, she landed in Phoenix, where she quickly grew wings and thrived.
Barrio Guacamole is Esparza’s gourmet twist on the staple of Mexican cuisine. Always made-to-order tableside with rough-smashed avocados, fresh jalapeños, tomatoes, pomegranate seeds, onions, cilantro and lime, the award-winning dish is available at all of her restaurants.

“Growing up, when I went to Mexico, I was told I wasn’t Mexican. Back in America, I was told I wasn’t American. I was both, and I had to reinvent who and what I am,” she reflects with pride. “I could have gone anywhere, but I chose Phoenix.” She opened her now-lauded Barrio Cafe shortly thereafter, in 2002.

Then, in 2010, everything changed. “When SB 1070 hit, that’s the seed that sparked everything for me,” she says, recalling Arizona’s enactment of the controversial immigration bill. “That’s when I knew I had an obligation to tell a story, to represent my culture—through everything.”

Esparza commissioned her first mural outside Barrio Cafe and reinforced her efforts to use her popular restaurant, which pulls in diners from all edges of the city, as a social conduit beyond the plate, prominently displaying and selling artwork by rising local Latino artists.

Soon, artists from all walks of life were approaching Esparza to not only hang their works of art along Barrio Cafe’s walls but also to collaborate on new murals throughout the neighborhood.

Today, 16th Street in Central Phoenix, most noticeably between McDowell and Thomas roads, is a proliferation of color. Designated locally as the Calle 16 Mural Project, one-time dead zones of brick and asphalt have been transformed into an urban gallery of pride and perspective.

“I’m now watching these artists I work with showing in professional galleries and being featured on a national level, and I couldn’t be more proud,” Esparza says.

Filled with pork chile verde and topped with salsa verde, queso gratinado and cilanto, the Arizona Burrito is favored by diners at Barrio Urbano.
One such artist is Lalo Cota. Known for his trademark surrealist murals inspired by his Mexican heritage, Cota is eager to repay support. “I’ve never met another person more passionate about art,” he says. “I admire Silvana because she is true to herself. She doesn’t just talk; she makes things happen.”

Nothing is off the agenda for Esparza, who’s now happily consumed by her life in Phoenix; her wife of almost three years, Jo; and her unstoppable passion for living life with resolution. Her latest concept, Barrio Cafe Gran Reserva, located along Phoenix’s historic stretch of Grand Avenue, opened in February. When asked to point to her own design rulebook relative to her developing her new projects, Esparza says she owes it all to instincts. “I let the buildings speak to me,” she explains. “I’m inspired by everything. Everyday experiences trigger something in me.”

With other new projects already in the queue, Esparza has endless dreams of not only expanding her empire but of giving back to the community that has embraced her so warmly. “I’ve always felt I have a responsibility to give back. My dream is to work with at-risk youth,” she says, referring to her affection for mentoring troubled teenagers.

“I’m doing everything now,” Esparza states with a smirk when probed on what else might be included on her growing bucket list. “I have nothing to prove anymore. This community is now my family.”

Chef Silvana Salcido Esparza
Masters of the Southwest 2016 Award Winner

You can’t have a discussion about Mexican food in the Valley without mentioning
Silvana Salcido Esparza. A driving force in the Arizona culinary scene for more than a decade, she elevated South of the Border cuisine from casual comfort food to fine dining, garnering rave reviews and attracting the attention of foodies and dining critics worldwide.

While her now-infamous Barrio Cafe remains at the top of “Best Mexican Restaurant” lists in magazines and newspapers, Silvana has also received numerous personal accolades. A four-time James Beard Award-nominated chef, she was inducted into the Arizona Culinary Hall of Fame in 2004.

But we know her for more than just her “comida chingona.” In 2010, she founded the Calle 16 Mural Project, which brings together local artists and visually celebrates the region’s Mexican-American culture. “Silvana has opened the doors to so many artists in Phoenix,” says fellow 2016 Masters of the Southwest award winner Gennaro Garcia, one of Calle 16’s original muralists. “She’s an artist, and she loves art in general.”

For bringing beauty to our plates and our streets, we at Phoenix Home & Garden  are proud to name her a Masters of the Southwest award winner. 

Congratulations, Silvana!
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