PILSEN — Marlene Torres, the owner of La Malinche Coffee and Tea House in Pilsen, died last week after a years-long struggle with cancer. She was 39.
Torres had beat cancer once to open La Malinche, 2110 S. Halsted St., in January 2021, realizing her longtime dream. She’d been treated for stage IV breast cancer while enrolled in Truman College, where she was pursuing an associate’s degree in hopes of owning her business.
Torres’ cancer returned just weeks after opening the cafe, forcing her to step back from her business. She died Feb. 4, her husband Tarsicio Almaraz said Monday. She’s also survived by her son, 17-year-old Abram Almaraz.
Sitting inside La Malinche for the first time since Torres died, Tarsicio Almaraz said it’s been a difficult past few days but he’s glad she’s not in pain anymore.
He launched a GoFundMe to help cover funeral expenses. It’s raised more than $3,500 as of Monday night.
“It’s very hard for me right now, but I have to be OK for my son,” Tarsicio Almaraz said.
Torres’ persistence to open her own cafe was an inspiration to many.
After immigrating to Chicago from Mexico as a teenager, Torres worked as a barista and manager at Starbucks and other cafes. After 13 years at Starbucks, “I quit because I realized I was training other new managers, and because they had a degree they were making $10,000 a year more and I was training them,” she said last year.
At 28, Torres enrolled at Truman College. During her first semester, she was diagnosed with stage IV breast cancer and had to quit to focus on her health. After a year of treatment, she returned to school and started selling food to pay for her associate’s degree.
As a Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) recipient, Torres wanted the coffee shop to be a place that other immigrants could gain work experience and other opportunities.
She found the perfect cafe space in Pilsen and she was ultimately able to open the shop in January 2021.
For years, Torres took her grandma’s advice to share her dream with anyone who would listen.
“For God to hear me, I had to share my dream with a lot of people,” Torres said last year.
Two months after Torres opened the cafe, she was battling cancer again. Doctors found cancerous tumors in Torres’ brain and liver and she had three operations on her brain after the diagnosis, her husband said.
Tarsicio Almaraz said the money raised through a GoFundMe last year kept the coffee shop afloat during the uncertainty of Torres’ condition and recovery. But the money ran out and Torres’ health continued to deteriorate, so they decided to sell La Malinche instead of closing it.
The new owners have kept everything the same — including the name — and have a section of framed photos on the wall to keep Torres’ memory alive in the coffee shop.
Toward the end of Torres’ life, cancer spread to her spine and prevented her from moving her legs — but through it all, she maintained a positive attitude, her husband said.
“Even when [her condition] was really, really bad, she never complained to anybody,” Tarsicio Almaraz said. “I never saw her ask, ‘Why me? Why did this happen?’ … I don’t know how she did it.”
“My son asks, ‘Why do we lose the good people?’” he said.
Torres was constantly helping people, to the point where “sometimes I would get mad at her because she would spend her time everywhere for free,” Tarsicio Almaraz said with a chuckle.
Aside from the GoFundMe, Almaraz said the community can honor Torres’ memory by frequenting La Malinche and keeping her cafe dream alive.
“Finding this place was like a pot full of gold,” she told Block Club last year.
Tarsicio Almaraz said he’s touched by the love and support he’s received from the community since Torres died, and while she was sick. He said people were always asking if they could come visit her — even people she knew from 10 years ago.
“Everybody’s just sad,” he said. “She was a really good person.”
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