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La Peña Founder Leaves a Cultural Legacy

Friday July 18, 2003

When Hugo Brenni helped create La Peña Café in 1973, he intended it to be a small, local restaurant and performance space. Thirty years later, the retiring Brenni leaves behind a cultural center that has become a Bay Area landmark. 

La Peña, which means gathering place in Spanish, began as an idea to create a multicultural performing arts space that would allow artists and visitors to come together to exchange ideas and share in one another’s heritage. Brenni played a key part in the planning process, then took on the role of head chef once La Peña opened in its current Shattuck Avenue location, specializing in food from his native Chile. 

Brenni explained that the tradition of holding peñas began in Chile and Latin America, where villagers built temporary huts to create a community space to celebrate holidays. As larger cities grew up around what were once small villages, people retained the peñas to hold on to their traditional identity. The music and poetry that came out of such peñas mixed people’s cultural background with the new social dynamics of the big cities. But Brenni said that finding an available building in the East Bay that would meet the group’s needs was not as easy as organizers had hoped. 

“We had looked at three or four places that we couldn’t afford,” he recalled. “We were holding a benefit at the Starry Plough, and when we came out that night I saw the ‘For Rent’ sign on the space next door. The rent was cheap, so we began renting it and then bought it later.” 

Since La Peña moved into that empty space in 1975, it has become a popular cultural center where visitors can hear traditional Latin-America performers, many of whom infuse their work with commentaries on modern-day social and political situations. 

“What I think is that you can’t run a business without politics,” Brenni said. “Everything—the performances, the management, the restaurant must be tied in to politics. You can’t isolate a business from the world outside.” 

As such, La Peña has always been known as a politically charged hotspot of conversation and political messages. Photographs and paintings of radical leaders line the walls, and the brightly colored mural on the facade of the cultural center features a representation of Victor Jara, a Chilean musician who was murdered by the army serving under the dictator Augusto Pinochet. 

Like many of the artists who regularly perform at La Peña do through their work, Brenni expresses his heritage through his food. 

“I love to cook,” he said. “I love to serve people the food that they eat when they are listening to music or poetry.” 

Fittingly, Brenni did the cooking for his own farewell party, which was held Tuesday night at La Peña. Community members crowded into the space to present tributes to the driving force behind the center’s landmark status, and the newly created La Peña Community Hall of Fame inducted Brenni as its first member. Brenni said he’s much more comfortable in the kitchen, behind the scenes, than he is as the subject of so many accolades. 

“It is not about the rewards,” he said. “I have learned so much from the people I have been around. That’s the biggest loss for me, is all the people that have taught me what I know.” 

Now that he’s retired, Brenni is preparing to move back to Chile with his wife, Wanda. He sold his house on Wednesday, and will leave the United States in late August. 

But although he is retiring, Brenni’s future plans do not include a slower lifestyle. He will spend the first several months building his own house, then will look to get involved in the community much as he has done in Berkeley. Brenni and his best friend own a piece of land, on which they are considering building a cultural center similar to La Peña. 

“But no restaurants,” Brenni laughed. “No business. I’m going to have fun.” 

Meanwhile, La Peña will continue on without the man who created it, bringing in a new generation of staff members to further the center’s goal of combining people’s cultural heritage with modern social situations and ideals.  

“We need new people,” he said. “I’ve gotten old. They’re going to make it even better.”