In a world too often structured around strict binaries, for Nepantla Cafe chef-owner Rocky Coronado, the journey is all about embracing in-betweenness.
From the Indigenous Mexican language Nahuatl, “nepantla” is a concept that arose during Spanish colonization of the Mexican subcontinent to describe the feeling of being in between the two cultures. The word seemed a fitting name for Coronado’s latest venture, a vegan Mexican food truck and forthcoming brick-and-mortar in Southwest Detroit.
“Nepantla struck me because my life, the neighborhood the cafe is in, and the food is all in this in-betweenness,” says Coronado, who identifies as gender non-conforming.
Raised in Texas by Mexican and Indigenous parents, Coronado recalls standing on top of a chair to watch their mother and adopted grandmother make tortillas for blue-collar workers in the wee hours of the morning.
But Coronado’s own culinary career began mostly in Asian kitchens, working the line at Vietnamese, Chinese, and Thai restaurants around Texas and elsewhere.
So when they moved to Detroit in 2016 — lured by the promise of ample grant money and institutional support — the move came with a return to Coronado’s Mexican roots.
“When I came to Detroit, I just really immersed myself into Mexican food,” Coronado says. “After multiple trips throughout Mexico eating all the food, I kind of got a bellyful of collective unconsciousness — eating the foods my ancestors ate. It’s a way of de-colonizing myself.”
Having been educated in Catholic school and raised in a mostly white culture, much of Coronado’s ancestral history remained a mystery to them. Then, at 18, their mom died, and Coronado lost an important culinary and cultural link to their past.
Now with Nepantla Cafe (formerly known as Rocky’s Road Brew), Coronado is using vegan Mexican cooking and Indigenous culinary traditions to stitch together a new ancestral story, rooted in culture and community and the process of self-discovery.
“I feel like I am rediscovering myself in a lot of ways in my life,” Coronado says. “My mom passed away when I was 18, and so it feels really good to get back to it. I’m remembering first food memories — her handing me cilantro. It’s just a way of connecting with my mom and my other ancestors and my indigeneity.”
Plus, Coronado is quick to add, “everybody loves Mexican food!”
Now deeply rooted in Southwest Detroit, Coronado has found a community of like-minded people with Indigenous ancestry who they now call “auntie” and “elder.”
“Since I’ve moved up here I’ve gotten to know a lot more Native Americans,” Coronado says. “So we’re out foraging and learning about the land. It’s been a nice way to de-colonize and honor my mom.”
The vegan element of Nepantla Cafe, which aims to open in an old bar on West Vernor Highway in 2023, also comes from a deeply personal side of Coronado’s life — their religion.
As a practicing Buddhist, Coronado abides by the concept of “right livelihood,” one of the elements of Buddha’s Noble Eightfold Path. During their own journey toward sobriety and health, Coronado learned that heart disease is the number one killer of Latinos and felt the need to provide healthful plant-based food instead of artery-clogging meats. And that’s how the vegan Mexican concept was born.
For Coronado, Nepantla “is about knowing where you’re from, knowing where you’re at, and knowing where you’re going.”
Find Rocky Coronado on Instagram: @nepantla_cafe