Maria Clara Cafe, from partners Karlo Torio and JF Calimag, hopes to provide a safe space for members of the LGBTQIA+ community
Katipunan is home to celebrated universities where young individuals are exploring their identities, which if we’re being honest, can be a very isolating experience. In the sprawling stretch, you’ll find Maria Clara Cafe, a queer-owned café that wants you to leave more certain of yourself.
“Kailan ka huling naging ikaw (When were you last yourself)?”
Partners Karlo Torio and JF Calimag, an unexpected Tinder match made in creative heaven, opened Maria Clara Cafe originally as an online food business. This was the unforgettable era when we honed our passions and revisited our hobbies at home, while we experienced one lockdown after another. They sold baked goods like cookies as a side hustle and harnessed a following until they decided to open a brick-and-mortar store in March of 2022.
A collection of paintings and photographs by queer artists adorn Maria Clara Cafe
The name “Maria Clara” came from the street in Quezon City where Karlo grew up and discovered himself. Before moving out, he was challenged to come out to his family, and to this day, his relationship with his parents is a work in progress. He reveals, “I grew up there since birth, so may backstory, ‘yun kasi ‘yung childhood home na umalis ako because of my sexuality (I grew up there since birth, so there is a backstory, it’s the childhood home I left because of my sexuality).” It’s worth noting that in Filipino literature, Maria Clara poses as a conservative, pure and chaste figure, a feminine ideal who embodies the virgin stereotype.
Living out one’s truth is always worth it, but it’s never easy. Having to come out is only the tip of the iceberg for members of the LGBTQIA+ community and the challenges they have to face every day. “During that time, iba pa ‘yung landscape of coming out, or at least ‘yung idea of expressing yourself as a queer artist, as a creative…so umalis ako dun. Sabi namin, gamitin natin ‘yun as a way of, you know, connecting everything [to] be more personal and relatable. Kasi it’s hard to make a brand when you don’t know kung ano talaga ‘yung brand mo; and with Maria Clara, ang dali na niyang balik-balikan because of the stories na pumapali-palibot sa kanya,” Karlo recounts.
(“During that time, the landscape of coming out, or at least the idea of expressing yourself as a queer artist, as a creative, was different…so I left that place. We said, let’s use that as a way of, you know, connecting everything [to] be more personal and relatable. Because it’s hard to make a brand when you don’t know what it is; and with Maria Clara, it’s easy to revisit because of the stories around it.”)
Located in Katipunan, the quaint queer-owned cafe hopes to be a safe space for everyone
Because of Karlo and JF’s trying experiences, they fashioned the motto “lasang pag-ibig (tastes like love),” which one can see as they enter the compound. Through Maria Clara Cafe, they hope to provide a space where everyone is welcome, especially queer individuals. The quaint second floor is adorned by artworks, from masterfully crafted paintings to moving photographs, made by creatives from the LGBTQIA+ community. They also hold regular experiences—like drag performances, exhibits and more—where queer artists have a platform to express themselves and share their talents with a bigger audience. They also partner with organizations like DAKILA (Philippine Collective for Modern Heroism) and Home for the Golden Gays.
“We’re not just giving a safe space for queer artists. We’re also giving a platform for people who just started their craft. So may mga nag-start pa lang ng kanilang artistry. May mga writers, may mga painters na, alam mo ‘yun, walang chance to be out there (We’re not just giving a safe space for queer artists. We’re also giving a platform for people who just started their craft. So there are people who just started their artistry. There are writers, there are painters that, you know, don’t have any chance to be out there),” JF reveals.
“Kailan ka huling naging ikaw (When were you last yourself)?” On one corner of the space, you see this written in the mirror. Truth be told, they could have chosen a more generic expression like “love wins” that highlights the queer community. Instead, they chose a very poignant question that makes you go inward, and it’s worth revisiting now and again. JF points out: “I want you to [be able to] reflect. Seeing yourself now, is this the person you envision? Gusto ko pagalis mo ng maliit na space na ‘to, masasagot mo siya, ‘di man itong oras na ‘to o sa susunod na araw. I want you to echo that question to yourself hanggang sa dumating na ‘yung point na okay, ito na ako.”
(“I want you to [be able to] reflect. Seeing yourself now, is this the person you envision? I hope that when you leave this small space, you would be able to answer it, not even now or the next day. I want you to echo that question to yourself until you get to a point that okay, this is me.”)
Maria Clara Cafe is located at WISCO Compound, Lot 2, Brgy. Katipunan, Quezon City (right across Blue Residences). Stay updated by following them on Instagram.
Art Macky Arquilla