The streets of Granada, Nicaragua can be a bit overwhelming at times. The chaos of the markets, the street dogs dodging traffic, the calls of the touts and money-changers, and those cars that drive around with giant speakers strapped to their roof, blaring pop music and advertisements — yeah, seriously. But luckily, the city is full of great little cafes and restaurants where you can slip away from the madness outside and enjoy a moment of peace and a good cup of Nicaraguan Coffee.
One of the best places for just that is called Cafe de las Sonrisas, or Café of Smiles. Walking in to the cafe, you’ll be greeted by the smiling waitstaff, who will usher you in to the tranquil and quiet courtyard and show you to your table where a menu awaits. Adding to the serenity of the quiet courtyard, lined with hammocks, is the fact that not a single word is spoken. In fact, not a single word will be spoken by your waiter for the entire time your at the cafe – and that’s because they can’t speak. The Cafe de las Sonrisas is run entirely by deaf mute people, it’s actually the first coffee shop in the Americas, and the 4th in the world to be run entirely by deaf mutes. You might think it would be difficult to communicate with a deaf mute waiter, but it’s actually quite easy.
You’re shown to your seat and your menu has an explanation of how things work, along with some helpful photo illustrations of a few commonly used phrases in sign language like “thank you,” and “please,” and “I would like…” If you’re not up for the signing, you can just point to the photos in the menu — it’s really that simple. And the coffee? It’s good.
Café de las Sonrisas is the brainchild of a man who goes by the name of Tio Antonio, and he runs an NGO by the same name that is dedicated to creating jobs for people who have difficulties that make it hard for them to become integrated in the labor market. In Nicaragua, it is very difficult for anyone who can’t hear or can’t speak to get a job. And there aren’t a lot of options for these people. Many of them would end up being taken care of by family, or, if they don’t have that option, they could easily end up homeless, begging for money on the street. But as Antonio puts it, there’s no dignity in that, and Café de las Sonrisas is all about giving people dignity – giving people an opportunity to work, and earn money, and better their lives. The cafe and the adjacent hammock workshop and showroom employs 45 people, not all of them deaf mutes, but all with some life difficulties. That’s 45 lives changed. Forever. Simply by giving them a job.
I had a chance to sit down with Antonio Prieto, aka Tio Antonio and talk to him about his Café, and his mission. Originally from Valencia Spain, Antonio came to Central America to start a restaurant in Costa Rica, but it didn’t work out, and he never felt at home in Costa Rica so he hopped over the border to Nicaragua, just to check it out. ”In the first moment, it was: Wow!” He recounts, and he knew immediatly that he would stay in Nicaragua. “This is my country,” he says.
While in Granada, he met a deaf mute man, and decided to try to help him “It’s the first time in my life that I can say, okay, I can help this guy, and I can change the life of this person.”
He didn’t even speak sign language at the time. But he found a teacher with experience working with deaf mutes. And the teacher kept introducing him to more and more deaf mute people who needed help. “I started with 1 and in a moment, I had 20. And my life changed forever,” he said.
So Antonio found a teacher and began funding this makeshift school for deaf mute people, out of his own pocket. But soon becomes concerned that his bank account is dwindling and he won’t be able to keep this up forever – So he started a business. First with a small hotel to fund his project, and then with a hammock workshop, and finally the café – all staffed by deaf mutes and people with disabilities. Because, he explained to me, it’s not about charity, it’s about providing work for these people, and giving them the ability to live their lives.
“Charity is nothing,” he said, “Charity is your dignity on the floor.”
Antonio said that what people really needed was simple: Dignity, Education, Job – and this became a sort of mantra for Antonio. Especially the dignity part. Antonio cares so much about dignity that he makes sure to clarify that his mission is not about selling coffee made by deaf mutes or hammocks made by blind people, but rather selling a good quality product, and at the same time, giving jobs to people who might not be able to find them otherwise, but are none the less capable.
“You buy a hammock because the hammock is incredible quality,” he says, not because of who made it. “If you come back tomorrow, it’s because the coffee is fine, the juice is good, and the food is incredible.” He hopes that from the customer’s standpoint, it doesn’t matter who made the coffee or who made the hammock.
He helps so many people, and you can tell he works hard, his desk stacked with papers and an ever-present coffee cup. I asked that if with all that he does, he’s had time to start a family. He smiles, and points out photos on the wall of his adopted children – he has 8 of them, all local Nicaraguan boys. He is especially proud of his one grandson.
I can tell this is a fulfilled man. He has a family that he is proud of and a business that helps people, sharing a few simple things with the world: Good coffee, quality hammocks, dignity, and so many smiles.
To find out more about Cafe de las Sonrisas, visit their Facebook page.
You can also hear parts of my interview with Tio Antonio, and a whole lot more about Granada, Nicaragua on my Radical Travel Podcast!