For 13 years, Lydia Martinez Majdišová and her husband, Pepe Martinez, have run STARs Café in the Heights, an Island institution.
With warming soups in the winter, sandwiches in the summer and consistently great coffee every day, their café is an important part of Island life; a place where people gather to catch up, to gossip and to meet new friends.
Lydia’s parents and two siblings live in Slovakia. When Lydia’s parents learned that she would be raising her children, Emma and Sebastian, on an island off the coast of North America, they issued a directive: “Make sure our grandchildren are fluent in Slovak.”
She grew up in Dolny Kubin, Czechoslovakia, which in 1993 became Slovakia. Born in 1979, she lived the first 10 years of her life under communism. “Being a member of the party was the only way to go to college or to have some perks,” she said. “But my parents and grandparents were not politically involved at all. We had to be silent.”
In the fall of 1989, Lydia vividly remembers streets filled with the sounds of protest songs and peaceful demonstrations as the Communist Party fell and her hero, Václav Havel, was elected president. “The Velvet Revolution” was the most memorable event of her childhood, and one that determined the course of her life. “When I have grandchildren,” she said, “I’ll be able to tell them what happened back then.”
Lydia immediately felt the changes at school. “In 5th grade, we had to take Russian,” she said. “When I entered 6th grade, we had English and German and Russian went down the drain.”
The peaceful revolution that brought down communism made it much easier for people to travel. At 16, Lydia had the opportunity to be an exchange student in an English-speaking country. With strong encouragement from her father, who wanted her to have the opportunity to live in the West, she applied.
Chosen by a host family in Canada, 17-year-old Lydia went to live in Manitoba for the 1996 school year, in a large clan she came to love. “After, I got there, I asked them why they picked me, and they said they wanted to take me out of the war zone,” she said.
“They thought I was from Slovenia, a third world country.”
The enlightenment that comes from exposure to a new culture went both ways. “They asked me, ‘Do you have microwaves and vacuum cleaners?’ and I said, ‘Yeah, ours are actually a little bit more modern than yours.’”
“That was the year I got to see so much of the world,” Lydia said, describing a bus trip across the American West, a trip that included a quick crossing of the California/Mexican border at Tijuana. She was horrified.
“It was like they opened a door and right behind it was a whole different world with children begging and half-naked,” she said. “Ironic, because later I married a Mexican.”
Back in Slovakia, Lydia studied to teach English as a Second Language at Comenius University in Bratislava, working summers in a special government department for minorities, living with Roma people in shacks in the eastern part of Slovakia. “The kids, when they recognized me, jumped all over me,” she remembered. “I would wash their hair in the river because they had no running water. It was very rewarding. Those kids were really amazing.”
In 2001, with excellent English honed during her time in Manitoba, Lydia decide to apply for a work and travel program that allowed her to go to the United States on a special visa. She landed at the Hampton Coffee Company in Water Mill, where Pepe was the roastmaster. “I was lucky because when Pepe saw my application with my picture, he said, ‘O.K., this girl is hired,’” Lydia said.
The summer of 2001 was Lydia’s first visit to Shelter Island, riding shotgun in a delivery van with Pepe, bringing fresh-roasted coffee to businesses on the Island. Seeing that Lydia was curious about the local cuisine, he asked if she had ever tried chicken wings. Lydia said, “I don’t know, but it sounds weird.”
They stopped at the Dory for wings, and soon Lydia was looking for another chance to make coffee deliveries on Shelter Island and eat more wings. Lydia said she and Pepe were friends for almost two years before they fell in love. In 2004, Lydia and Pepe’s daughter, Emma, was born.
In 2003, Pepe began running STARs, after first getting Charlotte Hannabury’s blessing to use the same name that her late daughter, Cheryl, gave the café when it was founded. But the first winter, Lydia said, “We were sitting upstairs and there was no one.”
Unable to find housing on the Island, they commuted from Water Mill on the 5:45 a.m. ferry, with a baby at home and struggling to pay bills.
“Pepe never wanted to let it go, but it was very hard for me. In Slovakia, a woman who has a baby has a three-year maternity leave,” she said. “They get paid very little, but they get paid. That’s how it is in many countries, and it doesn’t make any sense to me in such a developed country. I’m a mother who is raising citizens. A country should take care of its people.”
When their son, Sebastian, was born, Lydia took the children to live with her parents in Slovakia for a year to ease the strain.
Finally, in 2009, Pepe was able to find a house to rent on the Island. “That’s when we started our life here,” Lydia said.
“Even now, there are people who see affordable housing as a threat because they think with it comes some sort of low income, questionable families,” Lydia said. Her youngest sister, Kristina Martin, now lives in Greenport, and works on the Island. Her sister, Lenka, and brother, Matej, live in Slovakia.
In 2010, Pepe was returning from a family visit to Slovakia when his green card was confiscated and he was instructed to make an appointment with an immigration judge. At the appointment he was arrested and held for six weeks in an immigration facility in New Jersey. It was the worst crisis Lydia had ever faced.
“Here I was, with a 2-year old, and my 6-year old daughter, and I had to run STARs, and handle all the immigration paperwork,” she said.
Pepe was released without a resolution to his case. It took six years and a group of Shelter Island neighbors speaking on his behalf to settle his immigration status. He is now applying for citizenship.
Emma and Sebastian attend the Shelter Island School, and as their grandparents wished, speak Slovak as well as English. Lydia, who is also fluent in Spanish and Italian, hopes one day to go back to the interpreting and teaching career she started before her children were born.
Until then, she’s happy to be flexible for her kids and glad to be able to live and work on Shelter Island, where Pepe introduced her to chicken wings so many years ago.
For now, she said, “Whatever my husband cooks is my favorite food.”