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¡Ay Mama Inés! A Cultural Icon Celebrates The Big Four-Oh

By Natalia de Cuba Romero

August 29, 2003
Copyright © 2003 PUERTO RICO HERALD. All Rights Reserved.

Other than The Three Kings, the Virgin Mary and Baby Jesus, there is probably no icon in Puerto Rico, certainly none of the profane variety, that can match the sunny, smiling singing caffeine pusher, Mama Inés.

Mama Inés has been the symbol of Café Yaucono since 1963. Quick math tell us that she's a well-preserved 40 this year, so our column this week celebrates her fortieth as well as the Yaucono legacy AND informs you about the birthday bash planned for the streets of Santurce on August 31.

I can remember sashaying across my grandmother's kitchen in Hato Rey, singing along with Mama Inés. I think I even tried to draw her once or twice. A black woman of generous proportions, with big earring, a red-polka dotted headscarf and an engaging wink, she never stops banging out steamy cups of hot coffee from her old-fashioned kitchen, the way it was before Starbucks and those absurd double lattes with all sorts of silly flavourings. She's sort of a Puerto Rican version of America's Aunt Jemima.

Mind you, Aunt Jemima has been rehabilitated into current political correctness and now looks more like a society hostess than a cuddly cook. I don't know where that puts Mama Inés in terms of political correctness - I'm sure you readers will have many enlightening opinions on that - but I can't help loving her just as she is, as a memory of happy childhood summers with a grandmother who is no longer living.

And now as a grown-up who travels frequently, I take pounds of those yellow, red and dark brown one-pound bags of Yaucono with me as gifts that really say Puerto Rico and are appreciated beyond all measure. Most recently I took six or seven pounds to England and Prague; I can't tell you what my clothes smelled like after so much contact with strong ground coffee. Next time I take the vacuum-packed tins!

Despite whatever cultural dodginess, Mama Inés is truly a success symbol. Yaucono, a brand created in Miramar in 1914, has survived war, several factory closings and hurricanes to become the biggest selling coffee on the island, with 49 percent of the market. Since 1918, Café Yaucono has been produced by the Jiménez family, whose patriarch, Tiburcio, arrived from Spain in 1911 to work with coffee-producing cousins and hung in until he was able to buy the whole concern, including the Yaucono brand, his hands-down favourite.

I recently had the pleasure of speaking with Tiburcio's son, José Enrique "Don Quique" Jiménez and granddaughter, Don Quique's daughter, María Elena Jiménez, who are carrying on the family tradition of quality coffee roasted to the Puerto Rican palate.

Don Quique actually grew up on the second floor of the family business. Tiburcio built that famous factory on Fernández Juncos Avenue (look for a big mural of Mama Inés on the side) in Miramar/Santurce in 1923. He brought his family to live there and Don Quique remembers the air redolent of roasting beans, horse carts clattering to pick up deliveries and friendly neighbours calling to tell them when it smelled like the coffee was burning.

Today the Yaucono factory is still an important resident of the neighbourhood. And the company (which is actually Jiménez y Fernández, Sucr.) gives back by hosting an annual party (Sunday's will be the sixth) called La Rumba de Mama Inés. All proceeds go to improvements in the Santurce area. Since 1998, the Mama Inés party has paid for façade painting, tree-planting, school rehabilitations, scholarships, furnished community centers and renovated a park for blind children. This year the plan is to fix up Trastalleres Street, the birthplace of singer Andy Montañés.

So, where's the party? you say.

Here's what's on.

Starting at 8 a.m. Sunday, August 31, with an agricultural fair Fernández Juncos Avenue from Stops 15-18 will be closed to cars for the party. The artisans and antiques dealers begin displaying their wares at 9 a.m. and health clinics start at that hour as well. At 10 a.m. the kiddie zone and the domino tournament get underway. Then at 12 noon, the music starts, and boy is it a terrific line-up. Andy Montañés leads a pack that includes

Atabal, Bomplenazo, Choco Orta, Guayacanes de San Antón, La Exclusiva, La Mulence and La Sonora Ponceña. At 5 p.m. is a salute to Mr. Montañés and at 9 p.m. a fireworks display. Whee-hee.

The entrance is free and, since it's the weekend you should be able to find parking around Santurce, but 10,000 are expected, so you may have to park a fair distance away.

So on the 40th birthday of Mama Inés, Jiménez y Fernández, Sucr. deserve our warmest congratulations. After all, they sell us 11.5 million pounds of coffee a year, roasted just the way we like it. What would we do without them?

Natalia de Cuba Romero is a freelance travel, food and arts writer. Her column, "Sights, Sounds & Tastes of Puerto Rico", appears weekly in the Puerto Rico Herald. She can be reached at

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