Maria Beza, owner of Maria's Cafe.
Maria Beza, owner of Maria's Cafe, is featured in the award winning film Maria’s Café: A Small Business in a Big World, created by Evan Materne and Amadeo Rivas. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

The theme of the 2021 #FilmSA contest sponsored by the World Heritage Office and the Department of Arts and Culture’s Film Commission was fitting for a city seeking renewal after a yearlong pandemic: “New beginning. New vision. New city.”

Young San Antonio filmmakers Evan Materne and Amadeo Rivas chose to translate the idea of “new beginnings” by focusing on how a 30-year-old neighborhood restaurant, Maria’s Cafe on South Nogalitos Street, has endured the pandemic.

Their 5-minute documentary, titled Maria’s Café: A Small Business in a Big World, won top honors in the contest’s 18-to-21 age group category. Former classmates at the North East School of the Arts and now college sophomores studying filmmaking, Materne and Rivas were awarded a $1,000 unrestricted cash prize.

Colleen Swain, director of the San Antonio World Heritage Office and a contest judge, said Maria’s Café highlights the importance of small businesses to the cultural life of a city, in a way not dissimilar to how the Spanish colonial missions once functioned in their “intermingling of cultures, and the community that developed around [them].”

A neighborhood institution like Maria’s Cafe that has served its community for more than three decades is also “a part of our culture and heritage,” she said, and thus highlights an important aspect of a world heritage city.

As a fifth-generation San Antonian, Rivas agreed wholeheartedly.

“Businesses like Maria’s Cafe are what San Antonio is,” Rivas said. “COVID has hurt a lot of businesses, especially the smaller ones. And I love those businesses, those are the heart and soul of San Antonio.”

His family has a long history with Maria’s and the Beza family that runs the small, quirky restaurant, decorated with an odd assortment of antiques and featuring dishes named after regular customers.

“My grandfather would take me there since I was a kid. And then my dad would take me and now I’m a regular myself,” he said.

In the film, Leslie Beza, Maria’s daughter who has worked at the restaurant since age 7, described their patrons as more than customers. “They become part of our family,” she says. The film ends with Maria Beza contemplating retirement but worrying she might miss the customer interaction too much.

This quality is what made Rivas and Materne want to tell the story of a neighborhood-focused small business, rather than the better known, flashier aspects of San Antonio that are directed more toward tourists.

“They treat you like family. And that’s what all these other tourist places really don’t do,” Rivas said.

Though focusing on more well-known aspects of San Antonio might be the norm for a contest focused on touting the city’s standing in the world, Rivas and Materne decided a different approach would set them apart.

“I didn’t want to focus on tourism, because that’s what everyone focuses on,” Rivas said. “If you want to make something that stands out, you focus on a subject that no one has focused on before.”

Rivas and Materne now have the chance to stand out on the world stage. The #FilmSA contest is part of the biennial International Video Production Competition, sponsored by the Organization of World Heritage Cities, and Maria’s Cafe will be entered into competition with films from all over the world.

The two aren’t counting on winning the international competition, but if #FilmSA history holds to form, they stand a good chance. Swain pointed out that the first time her office entered the biannual competition in 2017, San Antonian Fatima Aguillon took first prize for her video San Antonio, Our City, Our World Heritage and won an additional $1,000.

“There’ll be a nice little surprise come August if we win, but just winning this [first phase of the competition] and being able to share this film is really cool,” Materne said.

Rivas said he appreciates the attention the video and contest have brought to Maria’s Cafe, and any further attention to his regular diner, and other local businesses, would be a bonus.

“To help your community and these people in any way you can is the best thing in the world to do,” Rivas said. “To me, small business in San Antonio is family. And I believe that they should not suffer because of COVID.”

Nicholas Frank

Nicholas Frank moved from Milwaukee to San Antonio following a 2017 Artpace residency. Prior to that he taught college fine arts, curated a university contemporary art program, toured with an indie rock...