“COFFEE BOOKS REVOLUTION.” This unexpected call-to-action is printed on the awning of a little red brick building on Fourth Avenue. I discovered this tiny gem on January 21, 2017 (the day after Donald Trump took office), while looking for a place to reflect, recharge, and take action. I left with three books, lots of new ideas, and a delicious pastry.
These days, it’s hard for me not to stop into Revolutionary Grounds Books and Coffee when I’m on Fourth Avenue. Between their “Resistance Reading” book list and poetry reading fundraisers, Revolutionary Grounds is always buzzing with activity. Founded in 2008, this bookstore/coffee shop is the brainchild of Joy Elena Soler, whose multicultural upbringing, passion for activism, and love of food is the story I am sharing here.
Soler was born in the projects in East Harlem, New York City, to a Puerto Rican father and American mother. Her childhood was not always easy, as “just being poor and Puerto Rican is politicizing in many ways,” Soler explains. Yet, this distinct identity also created a strong sense of self, one which she channeled through food. Soler learned to cook in a household where recipes from her mother’s home in a small town in Ohio mingled with classic Puerto Rican dishes and flavors from East Harlem. Each dinner tasted of the different cultures, histories, and traditions that had fused together to form her existence.
At 18, she moved from New York to New Mexico. “Leaving New York changed my life,” recounts Soler. “In New Mexico, I learned a lot about the history of the Southwest. We have so many struggles in common in terms of history, trauma, land, loss, culture and food.” She began to dream of a space where people could come together to address these common struggles. This would be a political and educational space; one where community advocates could gather to address the oppression that was as much a part of East Harlem and Puerto Rico as it was of the Southwest.
After a brief stint in San Diego, Soler moved to Tucson in 2004. It was there that she and her husband decided to make those dreams a reality. “My husband and I used to talk about it as a bookstore, but you could never pay the rent as a bookstore.” So, Soler decided to incorporate her love for food and open it as a bookstore/coffee shop. In 2008, they took the plunge (and a loan on their house) and opened Revolutionary Grounds Books and Coffee.
Almost 10 years later, Soler couldn’t be happier. She spends her days gathering great minds together to discuss socialism, intersectional feminism, human rights and the like; and her nights filling the house (or dare I say, neighborhood) with smells of Puerto Rico. At the café, her favorite dish is the World Famous Carrot Cake; at home, it is Puerto Rican Rice and Beans. These recipes both hold a special place in her heart. In them, you can taste the true flavors of a multicultural heritage that has found a home in Tucson, Arizona.
This dish has unlikely origins: the playground in East Harlem, where Soler’s mom used to swap recipes with other moms. Since the day it was scribbled onto a piece of paper, it became the go-to cake for Soler’s family. “It makes me feel good whenever I eat it,” Soler says. “It’s moist and has a sweet goodness, but not overpoweringly sweet. It reminds me of being a kid.”
The carrot cake, however, often has a mind of its own. “If you’re not paying attention it doesn’t work.” Before perfecting the recipe, she often found herself with a sinkhole in the middle of the cake. “It’s a finicky cake, but it’s so good, and SO worth it.”
“If I really want the taste of home I’ll make rice and beans, Puerto Rican style,” says Soler. When she speaks about the rice and beans, her whole face lights up. “Some people feel good with mashed potatoes, and I feel good with rice and beans.” Each bite is a taste of home.
Yet to Soler, home can sometimes be painful to think about. “For a while I couldn’t make any Puerto Rican food because it was too painful,” explains Soler. She even let green plantains – a variety hard to find in the U.S. – go bad on her counter after the hurricanes hit, too depressed to make the Puerto Rican speciality, to stones.
For Soler, Puerto Rican Rice and Beans is an amalgamation of culture, histories and traditions (the Sofrito Spice Mix is her family’s specialty). For better or for worse, memories of Puerto Rico are ingrained in each bean and grain of rice.
“It’s food. It’s my food. And when I cook it, the house smells like heaven.”