What the Che?

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Let’s just say it: the Che Café has seen more history than any other building on the UC San Diego campus. Ever since it was plucked from its roots as an army barracks and trucked into Revelle woods to become the first student center. Ever since the frats dug trenches for plumbing and the kitchen served a Ureyburger.1 Back then it was known as the Coffee Hut, a cozy college hangout for the first years of its life, until the pervasive campus conflict of late ’60s created a fight over, of all things, food.2

Until 1967, Revelle College cafeteria was the main campus eatery, epitomizing the early ideals of UC San Diego interaction: a place where intellect knew no division and faculty, undergrad and grad students all dined together, everyone equal at the lunch table. But this dynamic was shaken when the cafeteria decided to serve only those on a residence hall meal plan. Former student Brian Ritter recalls witnessing his first protest: “Leftist graduate student Barry Shapiro ’69 3 spoke about the social division of the policy, how it essentially left no comfortable space for interaction. But the result was the Coffee Hut became the place for intellectuals to meet and interact.”

The Coffee Hut became the prototypical space for those countercultural times—imagine a roomful of free-thinking students, a rotation of folk singers in one corner and radical leftists in another, debating the philosophy behind their next protest. It became the hub of discussion for the larger activist causes of the time, be it the end of the Vietnam War, Third College self-determination or resistance to CIA involvement on campus.

“It became a place where the more militant students were comfortable,” says Ernest Mort, resident dean of Revelle College, who frequented the Coffee Hut.

The menu was the message for years at the Che Cafe. Photographer Fred Lonidier, MFA captured decades of culture at UC San Diego.

Students embraced the space, and its lean was undeniably left, a haven for those who find resistance irresistible. But a new conflict would come in May 1979, when then-Chancellor William McElroy proposed a solution to the $53,000 debt4 the Hut had accrued: convert the space into a faculty club. But the clientele wouldn’t have it—their student fees had created the space, and they were determined to keep it. After months of protest from A.S. Councilmembers5, the Hut ultimately landed in the hands of the Student Center Board—a blank canvas for students to create something.

The onset of the ’80s was a boom time for campus co-ops, each with a specialized niche, anything from recycling to books to bicycle maintenance, and of course, food. A.S. gave a handful of members from the food co-op the opportunity to clean up the Coffee Hut and start a student-operated vegetarian restaurant. As one of those members, Kalene Walker, recalls: “Winter break of 1979 was spent scraping hamburger and French-fry grease off the walls, cleaning, painting, and dreaming. Imaginations ran wild. We had a great time working hard, and visioning—what could we do with this space?”

It was truly a frontier. Outside of the buildings themselves were the forested grounds, enough room to grow their own food, compost kitchen refuse and otherwise hold to the environmentalism6of the time. Imaginations also ran wild on what to name the space, and outside of assorted origin myths,7 the one certainty is the Hut’s leftist legacy was given a visual identity in the image of Argentine Marxist revolutionary Che Guevara. This would seem to foreshadow the guerilla resistance to come, but there was little incident in those early years of the reborn Che Café—it was simply a quirky, funky coffee shop that reflected the alternative ethos of the ’80s with a focus on vegetarianism and veganism and healthy, sustainable living choices. It had all the trappings of a homegrown, post-hippie haven: juice bar, sprout shed, tempeh press for McChe burgers, secret veggie chili recipes, and of course, the legendary all-you-can-eat pasta nights.

But for those involved, it was much more than that. As Walker explains, “A food co-op inherently can explore and address many interrelated concepts—alternative business structure and collective management (i.e. one who sweeps the floor also gets to participate in business decisions), our connection to our food supply (farmers!), alternative health/preventative medicine—all of these concepts sparked my interest unlike anything in the regular university curriculum.”

The Che never lost its radical roots, either. By 1984, when UC San Diego became joined the UC systemwide anti-Apartheid student movement, the Che was the nexus of that effort on campus, with from kitchen discussions that spilled over into off-hours organizing. Che workers were active in forming the Coalition for a Free South Africa, and when student activists decided to occupy and rename the Humanities Library after Winnie Mandela, the Che Café provided food and other support for the occupiers.

The culinary and political action of these years was rounded out by the cultural expression that bloomed at the Che, with poetry readings and art exhibits inside its walls, and a striking amount of color appearing on its exterior. The Che Café’s murals8 may be the most conspicuous display of its radical identity, but they are also a testament to its collective nature, showing how individual contributions make up a larger whole. While renowned artists like Victor Ochoa and Mario Torero often led production of many of the murals, they are always a group effort, and go where the group takes them. “It’s all about freedom and expression,” says Torero, explaining the vibrant colors one student used on the latest portraits to adorn the Che. “It’s about letting the wall direct us more than us trying to control it. There is tremendous meaning in that.”

The Che was the flagship for not only artistic expression, but personal expression as well. In the ’80s, one of the most radical things one could do was be openly gay—just being yourself was a statement. But the Che was the first to hold nonsexist dances9 put on by the Lesbian and Gay Organization, or LAGO, a precursor to the current campus LGBT student resources. This kind of openness and forward-thinking was simply part of the Che’s DNA. As de facto Che Café historian Arnie Schoenberg ’89 puts it, “The same sense of protection that Robert Thorburn and Paul McKim put into the design of the Coffee Hut—an enclosed courtyard nestled into the existing eucalyptus grove—made it an ideal safe space for the non-sexist dances.”

For all the freedom to be found in the woods, the university kept expanding and the Che seemed to be more and more isolated—literally and figuratively on the fringe of campus. That likely contributed to the next phase of the space: a music-driven nightlife venue.

In the mid-to-late ’80s a contingent of Che patrons saw the chance to stake out the Café as a venue for edgy, esoteric, and often straight-up punk rock of the times. Muir student Matthew Rothenberg ’85 formed the campus Musicians’ Club to access university PA equipment and rehearsal space for his newly formed band, Noise 292, which soon made the Che home. “Back when we were doing this, it wasn’t so clear that we were friendly,” Rothenberg remembers. “The co-op folks were, frankly, a little appalled by us. I think the idea that a hippie, vegetarian coffee house would play host to crazy people banging on 40-gallon oil drums and overdriving their guitars was a pretty weird concept.” 10

As years went by, the Che’s focus became more on booking bands 11 than cooking food. This is perhaps how the Che truly got its edge.12 Financial woes that became administrative skirmishes escalated considerably in the ’90s, with members of the collective developing a notoriously stubborn reputation.

Matthew Xavier ’84, a Revelle graduate who managed the Student Center from 1993 to 2002, recalls working with the Che as incredibly challenging. “The hardest thing was gaining trust with them, because they inherently distrusted any administrator,” he says. “However, there were instances when the folks at the Che crossed boundaries, and in those cases the university had to do something.”

Those instances would run the gamut of grievances from both sides13—angry parents of teenage patrons, changed locks, missed rent payments, insurance lapses, general dilapidation—things that are generally par for the punk rock course, but don’t tend to fly institutionally. A recurring theme was administration citing sky-high repair costs to get up to code, whereupon the collective would use a DIY ethos to do it at a fraction of the cost. It was an overall era of cat-and-mouse, regular bouts of we-said/they-said that typically resolved themselves amicably.

Until it almost didn’t.

Remember Brian Ritter? The student who saw his first protest regarding the Revelle Cafeteria policy? As a longtime editor for The New Indicator activist newspaper, he’d been privy to many of Che’s clashes with administration, yet they were nothing like the most recent conflict. “I thought it was over,” he says, recalling the months when tensions reached their crescendo: a standoff that marked the longest occupation of a building in UC system history, an unprecedented coalition of student, alumni and community partners, and a watershed meeting that brokered the most understanding and support the Che has seen in recent history.

To recap: the new millennium saw food become extinct from the Café, administrative tensions were high, and Che patrons were an ever-slimming cohort without much representation in student government. These factors led to a cascade of votes: the first in 2014, when the student-run University Center Advisory Board14 voted to cut the Café from its maintenance budget, quoting astronomical repair costs and apparent lack of student interest in the space. A month later, the Graduate Student Association followed suit with a vote to decertify the Che as a co-op, as well as cancel the café’s lease.15

The Che lawyered up, suing the university for breach of contract and alleging collusion to deliberately undermine the Café. They lost the case and began an appeal, but in the meantime, an eviction notice was posted on the door. As of March 17, 2015, the collective had 30 days to vacate the building.

Out came the grassroots: students, alumni, community members, pro bono lawyers and protest marchers. It was a spectrum of Che stakeholders—many generations who knew the Che as very different things, but all united in the effort to preserve it. They organized a substantial protest march to deliver a petition of 13,000 signatures to the Chancellor’s office to “Save the Che.” They also gained entry to the building, and a rotating cadre of committed members began a 24/7 occupation to block any covert bulldozing. Also established was the Che Café Support Network—which included a minuteman-like response team that could mobilize student protesters within minutes should any immediate need arise.

“Our group wasn’t always so positive,” recalls Ritter on returning to meetings to lend support. “It was definitely a culture clash. But there was common ground in our dedication to the space. We all respected how the Che was the only place on campus that didn’t feel like campus.”

Brian’s wife, Susan Wingfield-Ritter, also saw how generational differences could be complementary. “I would hear some of the young people feeling hopeless,” she says. “In meetings they’d say, ‘You know we’re just going to have to leave the space anyway.’ But us older folks, we’d seen what happened in Vietnam, with apartheid, and we’d say ‘No, you don’t!’ We knew that if you stay long enough and strong enough, you can really make a difference and turn it around.”

When the meetings and protests seemed to be going nowhere, and the signatures and many testimonials to save the Che16 seemed to do nothing, a turning point came when the group made a deliberate shift toward understanding.

“I suspected that no one really knew what the space has meant to this campus, and what it still means today,” says Brian. “And when I read the Chancellor’s speeches, and the university’s statement on diversity, it rang true. I could tell it was a genuine effort toward inclusion, one that the Che was directly related to. That’s what the Che was all about; it was just a matter of showing that.”

In July 2015, a devoted group of Che supporters met with Chancellor Khosla and laid it all out on the line: the Che’s history, its purpose, its role as a safe space for all ages and identities, its significance to campus and all that it fostered: the art, the impact, the community. They read the testimonials; they showed the signatures. “We wanted the Chancellor to hear what it meant to people in this community, and he heard it,” says Susan. “He really did.”

The meeting was a breakthrough in understanding, and resulted in sincere lease negotiations and a commitment from the university to fund the Che’s new safety upgrades—a fire suppression system, kitchen repairs, new flooring, lighting, gender-neutral bathrooms and accessibility upgrades. The Associated Students Council and the GSA also passed a joint resolution creating the Che Collective Campus Integration Committee to aid the Che during its reopening and facilitate more student involvement.

An additional agreement was made with the Che and other co-ops: a four-year lease that required each to pay an annual rent of $1. Specifically concerning the Che, the collective must pay for all utilities and insurance, and maintain its nonprofit classification. And so far, it has.

So the fight is over, and the Che still stands. And… now what? What happens when there’s nothing left to resist? The Ritter’s response: “If anyone has had any history with the Che, they need to know it still exists, that it still represents the same ideals of freedom and diversity, and they should know how close to the edge it came. And for that reason, they should enjoy it! It’s like nowhere else on campus, like nowhere else in this city. Come back, come in. Take part. Enjoy.”


Che Café history also comes to life with guided tours the first Saturday of every month at noon. Regular meetings, open-mic nights, and a lineup of rock shows can be found at thechecafe.blogspot.com