Editors' Choice

The Coffee King of Irapuato

by Pickett Porterfield

Sometimes you have to take life one day at a time.

Luis doesn’t like Mexicans. He says they’re stupid and lazy. The funny thing is that Luis is Mexican. He owns a coffee shop in downtown Irapuato. Every morning I sit at a table on the balcony sipping his potent secret blend of coffee. I like to watch the city come to life from my second-story vantage point.

When there aren't many customers Luis sits across from me. The majority of his business is in the evening, so he spends most of the morning at my table. We discuss the perplexities of life and solve the world’s problems. He frequently talks about his undependable employees and how he would like to return to Canada someday. But then a group of customers comes in and he rushes off into the kitchen, barking orders in Spanish, ousting his employees from their sanctuary behind the kitchen door.

Luis lived in Toronto for four years. That’s where he learned to speak English. He worked construction on and off between stints as a dishwasher at a restaurant owned by a Croatian mafia boss. He's never told me whether or not he did other jobs for the mafia and I haven’t asked him. It wouldn’t surprise me though because Luis is very industrious. He's always telling me about his latest business scheme or divulging information about a new enterprise under consideration. “Yes, I would like to make business with this. But first I must to be thinking about it more,” he often says in his slightly skewed English.

Luis doesn’t sound like a Mexican when he speaks English. He spent most of his time in Canada with the Croatian and seems to have picked up his accent. He speaks with a harsh staccato lilt, more like an Eastern European than the typical English-speaking Mexican. Nevertheless, Luis is pure Latin Lover. When a female acquaintance comes into the coffee shop, he is all charm and polish, even if his hands tend to wander when he offers a hug and a kiss on the cheek. Women like Luis. He calls them mamacita and chicatita.

Sometimes I arrive early at Luis’ coffee shop, before the metal front door is rolled up. I call up to him through the open French doors on the balcony. I hear him walk down the stairway and open the little door within the main door that always reminds me of an elf’s house in children’s books. He stoops his tall frame to squeeze through the elf’s door and says, “We go for groceries now.”

We climb into his black pickup truck and drive two blocks to the tortilla factory where he charms the smiling old ladies covered in corn flour who stand behind the counter wrapping stacks of fresh tortillas in brown paper. Then it’s off to the produce market for papaya, mango, tomatoes, eggs, and bolillo rolls.

We pick our way through the piles of goods in the narrow corridors of the market, stopping at various fruit and vegetable stalls to buy produce or chat with the vendors for a few minutes. I don’t understand a lot of what they say, but between puffs on his Cuban cigar, Luis always introduces me as his gringo friend and the stall owners smile understandingly. Sometimes they speak to me in doble sentido so that I misinterpret their questions and remarks. They laugh when I take the bait and fall into their trap but it's all in good spirit, just a part of being a gringo in Mexico.

Luis grinds his loafer into the stub of his cigar on the floor between green heads of lettuce and we say goodbye. It’s time to go back to his place to fire up the espresso machine. It’s his pride and joy, a bright red Italian-made Astoria.

Luis seems to know everyone worth knowing in Irapuato. He is originally from León but he married a girl from Irapuato a few years ago. They met in Toronto. Her name is America, but I’ve never met her. She never comes to the coffee shop. America’s father owns a chain of furniture and appliance stores in and around Irapuato. He’s a bigwig in local commerce. Luis has never said it outright, but I get the impression his father-in-law is involved in other, perhaps less legitimate, enterprises as well. Luis tells me he doesn’t exploit his father-in-law’s connections, but that he's not opposed to taking advantage of certain family privileges either.

When the city manager comes into the coffee shop, he and Luis sit at a corner table talking in low, conspiratorial tones. I don’t know what they discuss, but I imagine it's simply “business.” Luis plans to open a second coffee shop a few blocks away and, with the miles of red tape involved in running a business in Mexico, I suspect he is working his connections to his advantage.

Luis is not Jewish so I never understood why he has several Stars of David hanging from the walls of his café. One day I asked him about it. He told me he's a Free Mason and that the Star of David is one of their symbols. He's never offered much insight into this organization except that he uses it primarily for networking. When his Mason brothers come into the coffee shop they exchange arcane embraces and speak cryptically about the latest news and gossip of their secret order. When he returns to my table he often laments that his Mason brethren of Canada were such dynamic fellows in comparison to their Mexican counterparts.

Luis spends a lot of his time standing on the balcony surveying the busy street and parking lot below. He recently emerged the victor of a lengthy feud with a neighboring tenant over a parking space. The neighbor operates a side enterprise, importing vehicles from the United States to sell in Mexico. To Luis’ outrage, every few days a well-used jalopy with a se vende sign on the windshield would be parked in his coveted parking space in front of the entrance to his cafè. Luis did not feel as though he should have to suffer such grievances, so he approached the neighbor about it one day. The neighbor told him to find a new place to park.

For several weeks Luis and the neighbor were locked in bitter combat over the disputed parking space before reaching a stalemate. Then one day the cars disappeared. When I asked Luis about the matter he just smiled and said he went to see his friend at City Hall. Problem solved. There is but one caveat. Because his hard-won parking space is directly below the balcony, out of his line of sight, Luis now lives in mortal fear of the snubbed neighbor sabotaging his new pickup truck. So in spite of his stunning victory, Luis has been forced to abandon his spoils. He now parks across the street where he can keep a sharp eye out for the prowling neighbor.

When there are no signs of mischief near his pickup, Luis diverts his attention to other attractions. His eyes constantly scan the passers-by in the street. Between mumblings of lustful desire for the scantily clad young ladies walking past, he frequently shakes his head and mutters about the ways of his people. One day another gringo regular at the coffee shop asked Luis why Mexicans frequently ride their bicycles with the seats adjusted so low that their knees come up to their chests when they pedal. Luis’ brow furrowed and his green eyes sharpened. “I tell you why, Jeff,” he said. “It’s because these people, they are so fucking stupid.”

I asked Luis why he doesn’t return to Canada if he finds his fellow Mexicans so generally unsavoury. He looked morose when he told me that, with his new baby, it was impossible at the moment. But he vows he will someday return to his beloved second home. First, however, there is business to attend to.

Luis plans to become the undisputed coffee king of Irapuato. He sneers with contempt when he talks of the other coffee shops in town. They cater to peasants with no taste in coffee, he says. Luis spends long hours concocting new blends of Mexican and imported coffee beans in his relentless pursuit of the perfect combination. With each experimentation he eagerly asks my opinion. I always say it tastes like good coffee. He then goes into a lengthy lecture on the piquant subtleties established by the newest addition to his secret recipe, or the brisk, nutty undertones set off by rare imported beans. I've never told him that it always tastes the same to me.

But with his passion for coffee, his offbeat charm, and his deep connections, I have little doubt that Luis will someday reign supreme over a coffee kingdom. Maybe he'll even realize his dream of returning to Canada to capitalize on his concept. In a land where the citizenry ride bicycles with properly adjusted seats, perhaps he may live in peace.


Pickett Porterfield lives in a small town near San Antonio, Texas. He has lived in and traveled extensively throughout Mexico. When he's not busy planning another trip south of the border, he writes about his experiences and impressions there. His story "The Mexican Taco Stand" was featured in The Best Travel Writing 2007, and "A Good Place" won the Silver Award for Destination Story in the Second Annual Solas Awards. "The Coffee King of Irapuato" won the Silver Award for Most Unforgettable Character in the same Solas Awards competition.

About Editors' Choice:
Every week we choose one of the great stories we've received from travelers around the world and present it here as our "Editors' Choice." For more about the editors, see About Travelers' Tales Staff.




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