IN the quaint village of Hawthorne, New York, just a stone’s throw away from the Metro-North station, lies a place where the aroma of freshly brewed coffee mingles with the vibrant hues of art—a place known as Likha Art Café. This charming café is more than just a spot for coffee; it’s a haven for families, artists, and the creative community.
Officials from the town of Mount Pleasant led by Councilman Tom Sialiano and Highway Superintendent Rich Benkwitt helped cut the ribbon at the grand opening of Likha Art Gallery Cafe on Elwood Ave in Hawthorne. The town’s social media page expressed its support to the newly-opened business. “It’s a beautiful cafe, serving Filipino specialties, coffees and pastries, along with some great artwork. Stop in and try some of their menu items. Wishing them the best of luck!,” they posted.
Founded by a group of friends originally from Batangas in the Philippines—Emma Songalia, Eddie Manongsong, Ruel and Aileen Jusi—Likha Art Café seamlessly blends the love for art with the joy of savoring delicious coffee. The café exudes a warm and welcoming atmosphere, adorned with captivating artworks from local Filipino and Filipino-American talents. Stepping inside, you’re immediately transported into a world of creativity, culture, and community.
Emma quit her 9-to-5 job to embark on this entrepreneurial adventure. “I work long hours for 7 days, it is tiring but I am having so much fun,” Emma said with enthusiasm. “I always look forward to coming here because I love what we do. It makes me so happy!”
Aileen, Ruel’s wife, shares Emma’s sentiments, emphasizing how their journey from a mere dream to a flourishing business has been both challenging and rewarding.
“It was just a dream, and now it’s a big blessing. We worked hard full-time, and now we have our own small business,” she said. “We look forward to coming here every time we have our day off.”
Her husband Ruel added, “We worked hard full time and now we have our own small business. It was just a dream and now it’s a big blessing. Pinaghirapan namin ito.”
“Mahirap talaga sa umpisa but you can do everything if you work together,” Emma said. “We believe that we have something new to offer, our place is inviting and the people are warm and friendly.”
She and her partner Eddie are relishing the moment.
“It’s such a nice feeling, getting the local community’s support,” she said, proudly adding that some clients have driven a couple of hours from upstate New York. “We were welcomed with open heart, the support from the community has been overwhelming.”
“Nakakataba ng puso na malaman na sa iba ibang lugar galling ang mga ciustomers,” Eddie quipped.
Aileen claimed that this is their American dream and she couldn’t be prouder that they all took that giant step. She admitted being scared at first but she realized that they are not just doing it for themselves but for Filipinos in the area so they have a place to visit and for the non-Filipinos in the area to have a taste of Filipino culture.
The team’s dedication to creating a welcoming space for both Filipinos and the broader community is commendable. “We are not just doing it for ourselves, but for Filipinos in the area so they have a place to visit and for the non-Filipinos in the area to have a taste of Filipino culture,” Aileen explained. Their location in Hawthorne, a 40-minute train ride from Grand Central Station, is right smack in the heart of Westchester County.
This passion for sharing Filipino culture extends to their menu, which features a delectable array of Filipino-inspired breads and pastries. Their current bestsellers, such as the ube latte, pan de sal, chocolate pan de sal with hazelnut, ube cheesecake, sans rival, and mini ube flan, allow patrons to savor the rich flavors of Filipino cuisine.
The Hudson Valley café doesn’t just stop at food and coffee since it is also a platform for artists to showcase their talents. Likha Art Café hosts rotating art exhibits that highlight the diversity and creativity of these artists, giving them a space to express themselves and share their work with the community.
Surviving 9/11: A tale of resilience and art
Among the artists featured during their grand opening were Hamilton, New Jersey-based couple Ruben and Loreta Macaraig. While their art is a testament to their creativity, it’s their remarkable story of survival during the September 11 attacks at the World Trade Center that truly inspires.
Ruben, now 76 years old, is a survivor of the September 11 attacks at the World Trade Center. He worked on the 50th floor of Tower 2 at a law firm specializing in computers and information technology.
Ruben was working at a law firm on the 50th floor of Tower 2 when the tragic events of 9/11 unfolded. When the towers were hit, he and his coworkers were initially told to return to their offices. However, Ruben made a life-altering decision to leave the building, ultimately saving his life.
“Pinababalik kaming lahat, but I decided to go, and that saved my life,” he recalled. As he evacuated the building, he witnessed the unimaginable sight of people jumping from the towers.
Loreta, meanwhile, was in her midtown office and watched the events unfold from her window. In those terrifying moments, she screamed, “Oh my God, my husband works there!”
Their daughter, who usually worked in the Financial District, had reported to their Jersey City location that day. She called Loreta, frantic, asking if she had heard from her dad. Loreta had no news to offer.
In the midst of the chaos, Ruben managed to reach his wife from a restaurant to assure her he was okay. But as they spoke, the second tower collapsed, filling the air with debris. Outside, he witnessed the unimaginable as people jumped from the burning towers.
In the years that followed, art became a form of therapy for Ruben, who had been drawing and painting since high school. He found solace and relaxation in painting, and this passion soon extended to Loreta, who began quilling— meticulously rolling tiny strips of paper, gluing them together, and shaping them into delicate and beautiful creations.
He was so pleased when Loreta also developed an interest in art. To nurture their shared passion, he constructed a his-and-hers studio in the basement of their home in Hamilton.
“During the pandemic, I had nothing to do, so I thought about it. It was challenging, but I watched YouTube tutorials and I ended up mastering it and making a lot,” Loreta shared.
Loreta expressed her delight in having a place like Likha Art Café, where she can finally display her art. Previously, she painted on silk and sold her creations at a gallery in Lambertville, New Jersey, but the gallery eventually closed its doors.
Choosing early retirement, Ruben picked up his brush and easel once more, pouring his thoughts and emotions onto canvas. His paintings, created using oil and acrylic, often take the form of abstract art.
However, every September brings back poignant memories of that fateful day, along with thoughts of friends and colleagues who were not as fortunate.
“We’re always anxious every time September comes around,” Loreta said.
Despite the hardships and traumas they endured, the Macaraigs continue to create art, finding strength in each brushstroke. Their journey is a testament to the human spirit’s ability to overcome adversity and find solace in the world of art.
Also among the artists featured was Erwin Ong from White Plains who describes himself as a self-taught artist.
Erwin recently made headlines for his illustrations in the “Filipino Flavors” zine, which celebrates the vibrant Filipino restaurants and bars of New York City. This zine serves as a guide for those visiting the city to experience “Here Lies Love” and its all-Filipino cast, currently gracing the Broadway Theatre eight times a week.
Erwin’s artistic contributions extend beyond zines. His bilingual greeting cards, now proudly displayed at Likha Art Café, bridge cultures seamlessly by featuring Filipino phrases alongside their English translations. These unique cards originated from a pop-up event last year, where he sought to reach a wider audience by including English translations of Filipino phrases.
“I feel happy and surprised about the feedback I’ve been receiving,” Erwin humbly shared, referring to the positive response to his cards being displayed and sold at the café. His artwork has not only resonated with patrons but has also sparked conversations about culture and language.
During his visits to the café to set up his artwork, Erwin encountered fellow Filipinos who expressed their joy at the emergence of a place like Likha in Westchester. Interestingly, Erwin and one of the café’s owners happen to be neighbors in White Plains so when he learned about this local Filipino-owned café promoting Filipino art and artists, Erwin was immediately drawn to it, recognizing the opportunity for collaboration. “It’s a perfect match,” he remarked, emphasizing the synergy between his art and Likha’s mission.
Erwin’s art, characterized by its inspiration from plants, animals, and nature, finds its roots in his formative years spent in the Philippines. A pivotal moment occurred when he had the chance to visit El Nido at a young age. There, he was mesmerized by the vibrant marine life, the intricate corals, and the kaleidoscope of fish. These experiences left an indelible mark on his artistic sensibilities.
Likha Art Café not only provides a platform for artists like the Macaraigs and Erwin Ong to display their creations but also serves as a testament to the power of art to transcend boundaries and connect people across cultures. It’s a place where art tells stories of survival and healing, reminding us of the power of the human spirit.
In the long run, Likha Art Café’s founders want Likha to become not just a place to grab a cup of coffee; it’s a sanctuary of art, culture, and community. It’s a testament to the power of dreams, hard work, and the enduring spirit of Filipino culture.
Emma, Eddie, Ruel, and Aileen have not only created a thriving business but also a place where people from all walks of life can come together to appreciate the beauty of art and the flavors of Filipino cuisine. It’s a place where coffee meets creativity, and where stories, like Ruben’s, find a canvas to be told. n