Today, Chope’s Town Cafe and Bar in the rural community of La Mesa may be a off the beaten path, but for much of the twentieth century this locally-owned cafe and bar was considered by many as the social spot of Southern Doña Ana County.
The social and historical significance of this local business helped turn a New Mexico State University student project into a year-long effort Chope’s Town Cafe and Bar on the National Register of Historic Places. Chope's recently was recognized by the New Mexico Cultural Properties Review Committee.
Addison Warner, now an NMSU graduate has been working on this project with his partner, NMSU student Norma Hartell.
“We started to see that the history and the family was very historic in a legendary part of actually the whole country itself, but definitely in La Mesa and New Mexico culture with the food and everything,” says Warner.
Chope’s has a direct connection to U.S. agricultural history. In the early 1940s, the country established the Bracero Program, a guest worker program with Mexico to fill massive voids in the agricultural sector as farm workers left to serve overseas during World War Two.
Norma Hartell has a personal connection to that history. She says that the Braceros would frequent Chope’s Town Cafe and Bar as customers and sometimes paid for their meals with crops they had picked that same day.
“To me that was important, because both of my grandparents were Braceros, so I started to recognize how that affected the United States and especially agricultural communities like La Mesa and local businesses like Chope’s,” says Hartell.
The history of this family cafe and bar goes back to 1915, when Longina Benavides opened a small dining room in her home to area residents. Locals knew that when the outside lamp of Longina’s home was lit, that they could find fresh enchiladas for sale inside. Later her son José “Chope” Benavides and his wife Guadalupe would take over the cafe, and build a bar next door. The couple raised their daughter’s just steps away from the kitchen of the Cafe.
Dr. Beth O’Leary, a retired NMSU professor worked with her former cultural resources management students (Warner and Hartell) to get Chope’s on the state register of cultural properties. She says the history of this cafe and bar speaks for itself.
“The Bracero program was incorporated into the cuisine, and where the family since 1915 (the women especially), have been cooking this marvelous food and preserving the recipes and the skills that they brought with them when they came to this country.”
Amelia Rivas, Cecilia Yañez, and Margie Martinez the daughters of José and Guadalupe Benavides have owned and operated Chope’s Town Cafe and Bar since their father passed away in 1990.
Margie Martinez says that her father who was known as “Chope,” was as a charismatic figure in the community she says she learned a lot from her parents.
“The customers loved him and he loved people. My mother is a wonderful person. She is a wonderful cook, very giving, and they taught us to be good with people, to find good in everyone, and to treat people well,” says Martinez.
According to Amelia Rivas, she and each of her sisters always have different opinions and thoughts when it comes to running the historic cafe and bar, but at the end of the day, the one they agree on is that they still consider the place to belong to their mother, 97 year-old Guadalupe who is still in the restaurant everyday.
"We do everything for my mother. We always remind ourselves, it's my mother's business, not mine," says Rivas.
Cecilia Yañez says growing up at Chope’s Town Cafe and Bar has been an experience that she wouldn’t have any other way.
“I can’t not see myself in another kind of life..It’s been a lot of work, and hard work, but it is something that I have enjoyed very much,” says Yañez.
Ara Janelle Woodward, was raised on a farm near Chope’s. She has been coming to the Cafe and Bar since high school.
“I just think this is the best place to live, and Chope’s is the best place to eat. I just had red enchiladas,” says Woodward.
Whether it’s red or green chile enchiladas, or even Chope’s famous Chile Rellenos. You can still find the original recipes of Longina and Guadalupe Benavides being served today, and the work to get Chope’s Town Cafe and Bar on the National Register of historic places is seeing progress.
The Cultural Properties Review Committee in Santa Fe has unanimously passed that Chope’s Town Cafe and Bar be added to the state register of cultural properties, moving it forward to the National Register of Historic places for consideration. According to Dr. Beth O’Leary, the group should find out within the next couple of months if the family restaurant will be added.