When the funding for her unique business venture was pulled out from underneath her, Monica Villalobos did not give up on her idea of a Latinx-owned, Latinx themed coffee company. The pandemic scared community lenders from wanting to continue to pursue new ventures like Villalobos’ Cabrona Coffee — a place where members of the Latinx community could “walk into a space and see [themselves] on the menu and see [their] culture in those four walls,” explains Villalobos. So, when the opening of her coffee shop, set for April 2020, came to a halt, she was not willing to let her company come to an end.Cabrona Coffee
Villalobos has always been entrepreneurial. From selling cinnamon toothpicks in elementary school to starting a cake decorating business in middle school, Villalobos embodies the spirit of entrepreneurship. “I used to come up with things to sell and make and create,” she says. Without any real role models or examples of other entrepreneurs who looked like her (that she can recall), she simply states, “I’ve always had it in me,” and she jokes, “No MBA, [I’m just a] little nerd, so I … deep dive and go down those rabbit holes, learn as much as I can about something, and then just do it.”
When the opportunity to start a social enterprise at her nonprofit workplace surfaced, she signed up to lead the initiative. The mobile coffee cart concept that she developed along with other team members provided young girls from under-resourced neighborhoods of Denver the opportunity to gain real world exposure to business. At Bold Beans, they worked alongside Villalobos. “They were able to see my progression too … we problem-solved together, we learned together, we would troubleshoot … we figured it out, so they had a lot of opportunity for that ownership magic [of a business] and rolling with the punches,” she shares. Eventually the coffee cart became so popular that it evolved into Strong Smart and Bold Beans with a permanent space at STEAM on the Platte in Denver. Cabrona Coffee
Many of the baristas that started working at the coffee cart while they were still in high school stayed in touch with Villalobos and followed her as she continued on her entrepreneurial journey. One of those girls, Jenny Valadez Fraire, loved working at the coffee cart and learning all about how to run a business, so when a trip to Mexico inspired her to start her own handmade beadwork company, she reached out to Villalobos for advice. Through text messages and side conversations at the coffee shop, Villalobos provided Valadez Fraire with mentorship and ideas for how to start her own business: “Any opportunities that she could, she would send my way. [With things] as simple as liking my Instagram posts … she’s always super supportive,” adds Valadez Fraire. They participated in community events together, selling their products, which are rooted in their Mexican cultural heritage, and bonding over their entrepreneurial interests.Cabrona Coffee
Valadez Fraire loves working on her company, Duality Beadwork (dualitybeadwork.bigcartel.com), making beaded jewelry in a style that she learned from her mother to create pieces that celebrate the individuality of the person wearing them. She continues to grow her business, creating unique pieces for weddings and other events. Even though, she admits, that sometimes imposter syndrome creeps up for her as a young woman of color running her own business, she does not let that stop her. “I am capable, and I do have a lot of skills, and I have a right to show up in whatever space I choose to, so I’ve been trying to go towards things that scare me … and somehow I survive them,” she reflects.
It takes bravery to keep pursuing your passion when faced with a pandemic, funding loss and broken commitments from community lenders. Cabrona Coffee exists in pop-up markets and community events, where you can find Villalobos selling bags of her sweet horchata (traditional Mexican rice beverage) mix, café de olla (spiced coffee) mix and other Mexican-flavor-inspired treats. Her products bring the reminiscent warmth of an abuelita’s kitchen to any household. Villalobos and her work are a testament to how Latinas can reclaim the word cabrona — a term that is often used in a derogatory way to describe a strongwilled, independent woman — and bravely make their way in spaces that have been historically inaccessible to them, while inspiring others to do the same. Through her dedication and passion, Villalobos shows us how to surpass roadblocks and pave the way for others to follow. With this momentum, we can have more cabronas choosing their own way in life.
Learn more about Cabrona Coffee at cabronacoffee.com or on Instagram at @cabronacoffee. Check out Duality Beadwork on Instagram at @jenti.vf.
Photos by Marisol Cruz.
Originally published in Winter + Spring 2022-23 issue.