Ché Café: ‘Revolutionary’ space hits 50th year on La Jolla's UCSD campus

In 1966, three wooden barracks from Camp Matthews (a Marine Corps rifle training post near La Jolla), were moved on to the then-center of the UC San Diego campus. The school reportedly paid for the foundation, plumbing and construction work, and in January 1967 — 50 years ago —the first Student Center opened on campus, unnamed until March of that year when it became the “Coffee Hut.”

“It was made into a greasy spoon, basically a coffee shop, which had all kinds of cultural activities and concerts going on, and then, of course, greasy food,” said Arnie Schoenberg, member of the Ché Café history committee. “In 1979, it was abandoned as a greasy spoon and then taken over by the student co-op movement. At that point, it became the Ché Café. So Ché could (represent) Cheap Healthy Eats, Coffee Hut Express, or just Che Guevara.”

For many years, the Ché Café was a place for experimentation on campus. It fostered vegetarianism, a farm-to-table restaurant, and safe spaces for LGBTQ people. It was — and still is — a student-run center, where the profits are shared among the different co-ops on campus.

In 1989, the student center was moved to the Price Center.

“About the 1980s or ‘90s, a transition happened where (Ché Café) became more of a music venue and less of a restaurant, and then it became known as a punk venue. A lot of punk bands would stop off on their national tours to play at the Ché Café, and that’s still going on today,” Schoenberg explained.

A distinctive feature of the Ché Café are its mural-filled walls. Artists such as Víctor Ochoa (of the Chicano Park murals) and Gerardo Navarro painted some of the iconic walls of the old Camp Matthews barracks with colorful, meaningful works of art. Images of contemporary social activists from Malcolm X to Che Guevara cover the walls, making the small complex among eucalyptus trees a recognizable site on the otherwise monochrome campus.

However in 2013, campus officials proposed shutting down the Ché Café. Safety concerns were raised by the UCSD Fire Marshal in 2012, as they highlighted the reforms needed to bring the building up to date. In a 2013 report, the university calculated $1.5 million in expenses would be needed to maintain Ché Café for the next eight years.

But in 2015, the Ché Café was placed on the Save Our Heritage Organisation’s (SOHO) Most Endangered List. Of the action, SOHO’s website reports: “The future of the building and its murals had been critically threatened by an eviction notice served by the UCSD administration to the collective. The situation became so dire that students occupied the space 24 hours a day, even during summer break, to make sure the university didn't seize the building and tear it down for ‘safety concerns.’ ”

A new lease agreement is being negotiated between the Ché Café Collective and UCSD. Raquel Calderón, a core member of the collective, is involved in the process. For Calderón, the co-op means more than just a college job. “The Ché is a really great opportunity to practice working with other people and run a small business. You learn to work under pressure and in a space where you are really empowered to express yourself and make decisions and execute them,” she told La Jolla Light.

For Schoenberg, the student space has held different meanings at different times.

“It started out being the original Student Center and it was a place where you could have guests. It had a rustic atmosphere, where students could carve their names on the tables ... that was the original purpose of making it a Student Center,” he said. “The Ché is one of those laboratories, experimentation places, where a lot of the really interesting things that we now take for granted, were experiments at the time. The recycling co-op had its foundation here in the 1990s, and now, recycling is mainstream and the administration puts its own cans out.

“To this point, it’s being a place on campus to do alternative projects ... students can have a place where they feel they’re controlling it. (In other student-run spaces on campus) there’s a lot of top-down management, where the administrators tell you what you should be doing as a student. It’s rare to find a space that’s actually run by students themselves.”

According to Calderón, the value of the Ché for the university takes roots in that student-controlled essence of the collective. “For a university community, it’s really important because student autonomy isn’t really as celebrated as much as it should be, and student-run spaces are not as valued as I think they should be,” she concluded.

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