It’s 7 p.m. on a Thursday, and I’m drinking a beer next to a Bitcoin ATM.
On the wall in front of me is an illustration of a masked Satoshi Nakamoto: “Don’t Delay—Be Your Own Bank,” it announces. It’s one of several portraits of Satoshi, including one that features him taking off from a dollar bill as if he were a superhero. (The portraits are particularly creative, since no one knows who Satoshi—a pseudonym—really is.) A TV is mounted above the bar, displaying the current values of hundreds of cryptocurrencies: Bitcoin occupies the biggest space on the screen, followed by Ethereum and Binance Coin, and then other coins, many with squares so tiny that they’re imperceptible. The numbers on the screen fluctuate steadily: A Bitcoin is worth $21,163.64, then $21,112.75, then $21,101.05. Behind me is a case full of Bitcoin memorabilia for sale: mugs, T-shirts, rings.
This is Bitcoin Embassy Bar, a hip two-story establishment in Mexico City’s Roma Norte neighborhood. It’s a place where you can use Bitcoin to pay for a hot doge (Doge Coind, Multidoge, or Dogechain, depending on your liking), or exchange pesos to reload your Bitcoin wallet. It also hopes to be a gathering place for the Bitcoin community in Latin America. As it does so, it weaves a sort of tension: creating a physical gathering space for a community that is, in its DNA, digital.
Latin America is arguably the most important testing ground for building physical infrastructure and community around digital currencies—from El Salvador to Puerto Rico to Guatemala. Depending on how you feel about crypto, this is either incredibly exciting or incredibly problematic. According to a report by Americas Society/Council of the Americas, the use of cryptocurrencies in Latin America rose 1,370 percent between 2019 and 2021. Mainstream adoption is still quite far away, but crypto proponents make big promises in the region: that a new, decentralized financial system could promote financial inclusion, combat corruption, and serve as a counterweight to hyperinflation. Still, those promises are hard to deliver on—and, as in the case of El Salvador, those who pay the real price of failure are rarely the people with red lasers shooting out of their eyes on Twitter.
Lorena Ortiz, the cofounder and owner of Bitcoin Embassy Bar, first started investing in Bitcoin in 2017. She needed quick money for a trip to Japan—her friend was producing a tour and invited her to go along. “It made total sense to me to have a tool that could help people break free of the failed system we live with,” Ortiz, 33, said. Bitcoin was punk, and so was she. Around November, she started with a small investment of about $25 USD. In December, Bitcoin hit an all-time high. But Ortiz decided to forgo the trip to dedicate herself to her newfound crypto passion.*
At the beginning of 2018, Ortiz started talking with the bar’s cofounder, David Noriega, about the need for a physical gathering space for Bitcoiners in Mexico City. Noriega brought the technical Bitcoin experience, and Ortiz knew how to run a restaurant. The bar opened its doors in December of that year.
Since then, Ortiz told me, the business has grown mostly through word-of-mouth. There are ups and downs: During bull markets, she said, the yet unconverted often wander in with questions about Bitcoin. During bear markets, most of Ortiz’s customers are more dedicated Bitcoiners, who attend frequent meet-ups and share tips. Shortly after our interview, the bar’s second floor welcomed 20 or so Bitcoiners for one such meet-up about myths in Bitcoin, led by a Colombian crypto influencer. During meet-ups, up to 50 percent of customers pay the tab in Bitcoin, Ortiz said, but that drops down to 10 or 20 percent when there isn’t an event. Plastered around the bar are print-outs with tips to avoid crypto scams—and this, Ortiz tells me, is one of her core goals: to create a space where people can learn and ask questions.
Bitcoin Embassy Bar isn’t the first business of its kind: There’s a coffee shop in Prague, a bar in Manhattan, and a burger joint in L.A. that follow similar models. This makes sense, because for its core believers, Bitcoin is “not an investment but an ideology,” Ortiz said.
Of course, it’s worth remembering that the community that’s formed around said ideology includes many documented cases of misogyny, racism, harassment, extremism, antisemitism, conspiracy, and outright scams. The crypto community is often hostile to outsiders or critics, and online crypto discourse is known for its toxicity—it’s hard to imagine “crypto bro” culture is a culture worth replicating. But while it’s important to acknowledge the more pernicious elements of this ecosystem, it’s also not necessarily fair to use the loudest, most problematic voices to generalize about such a large group of people. A recent Pew survey found that 16 percent of U.S. adults have invested in, traded, or used a cryptocurrency. And among this community, gathering spaces and meet-ups are foundational. “All revolutions, all social movements, all of these kinds of systemic disruptions wouldn’t have been possible if a small minority hadn’t started to grow, grow, grow through community,” Ortiz told me. In Latin America, she continued, “we have a deeply rooted tradition of making community … in person.”
Mexico’s crypto ecosystem has grown since the bar opened—four years in Bitcoin is equivalent to 20 normal years, Ortiz says. In May 2021, Mexico-based Bitso, a cryptocurrency exchange, became Latin America’s first cryptocurrency unicorn, and in December of that year, the department store Elektra announced it would accept Bitcoin for online sales. Billionaire Ricardo Salinas Pliego, the (very!) controversial chairman of Grupo Elektra, is probably the country’s most influential Bitcoin proponent—in June 2021, he announced that Banco Azteca, which he also leads, would endeavor to become the first Mexican bank to accept Bitcoin. (Mexican regulators quickly shot this suggestion down.) In 2022, Salinas Pliego announced that 60 percent of his liquid portfolio was in Bitcoin or Bitcoin equities.
Salinas Pliego was a topic of conversation at the first meet-up I attended at Bitcoin Embassy Bar, which featured a lawyer, a consultant, and an economics professor debating whether Bitcoin could—and should—be regulated. Salinas Pliego has a longstanding relationship with Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, and an attendee wanted to know whether he might be able to convert the president into a Bitcoiner. (The consensus: no.)
That night’s conversation lasted about an hour and a half, during which the attendees collectively rolled their eyes at Sam Bankman-Fried for dirtying crypto’s reputation and used their iPhones to flip between Instagram, Twitter, and Bitcoin wallets. A Brit who recently moved to Mexico tried to get me to open a Bitcoin wallet right then and there (I don’t own crypto), and a Mexican who worked at a crypto start-up asked what I, as a newcomer, thought were the biggest advantages and disadvantages of Bitcoin. Someone at the table next to me, I noticed, had a Sharpie rendering of the Bitcoin logo drawn on their thumbnail. The wall in front of us held a neon sign that read Eat Sleep Crypto Repeat and a large chalkboard with an illustration of an alien ship, complete with the caption We’re going to the moon.
But the moon, it turns out, is still pretty far away. As I reported this story, I couldn’t stop thinking about a tweet Ortiz posted in early January: One of the city pipes connected to the restaurant was broken, and the restaurant, as a result, was having problems with leaking wastewater. They hadn’t been able to get local authorities to do anything for the past month, and were hoping their followers could help up the pressure on Twitter.
This struck me as the perfect representation of what it’s like to run a Bitcoin bar: You can spend all the time you want talking about a decentralized, digital, financially autonomous future. But at the end of the day, you’re still stuck with clunky government bureaucracy and sewer water.
When I asked Ortiz about this, she laughed. It’s a familiar sensation: Every time she goes to the bank, has to knock on the door of government officials, or juggles headaches like the drainage issue, “It’s like coming back to Earth: ‘Hey, Lore, don’t fly away. This is your reality,’ ” she told me. She treats it as a lesson. “Because at the end of the day, you have to know where you’re standing.”
Here are some stories from the recent past of Future Tense.
Future Tense Fiction
January’s story was “Bigfeet” by Future Tense editor Torie Bosch. Written as if it were a New Yorker-esque article, Bosch’s brilliant fiction debut chronicles a billionaire’s revenge-driven quest to “de-extinct” a bigfoot-like creature. The story is largely told from the perspective of Dr. Shelley, one of the researchers who, sequestered on a distant island, helped combine ape, cow, and bear DNA to create Bigfeet: docile, bipedal creatures that look like “a bizarro A.I. rendering of the traditional Bigfoot,” complete with purple tongues. In a response essay, conservation researcher Challie Facemire discusses the unforeseen consequences of introducing species where they don’t belong.
Wish We’d Published This
“Why My Bittersweet Relationship With Shein Had to End,” by Zeyi Yang, MIT Technology Review
Future Tense Recommends
Having found myself in a bit of a streaming rut last month, I finally heeded the recommendations to watch Bad Sisters on Apple TV+. The 10-episode first season premiered in August, and the show was recently renewed for a second season. It follows the five Garvey sisters—Eva, Becka, Bibi, Ursula, and Grace—and begins by showing the body of John Paul, Grace’s husband, in a coffin. We quickly learn that Eva, Becka, Bibi, and Ursula were trying to kill John Paul, who is presented as controlling, manipulative, and emotionally abusive (for starters … he eventually gets much worse). The show weaves past and present story lines—the events leading up to John Paul’s death, and the fallout from the same—and guides us through stunning Irish landscapes, which, along with the show’s dark-but-smart humor, serve a sort of numbing function for the heavy topics embedded in the plot. Reviewers have pointed out that the show simplifies many of these topics and flattens naturally complex characters, and I think that’s true—we walk away with little understanding of John Paul as anything other than a caricature of misogyny, for example. But at the end of the day, it’s just really entertaining television.
What Next: TBD
On Friday’s episode of Slate’s technology podcast, host Lizzie O’Leary interviewed Tim Requarth, a Slate contributing writer, about how COVID really affects our immune systems. Last week, Lizzie talked to the Washington Post’s Will Oremus about what the rise of A.I. tools like ChatGPT mean for consumers. She also chatted with Bloomberg’s Leah Nylen about why the Department of Justice thinks Google’s ad-tech business needs breaking up, and whether that’s actually likely to happen. And on Sunday, Lizzie will be joined by Ron Lieber of the New York Times to discuss why JPMorgan says it was conned by a young founder who promised to help students get financial aid—and what made her story so magnetic in the first place.
Correction, Feb. 7, 2023: This piece originally misstated that Lorena Ortiz went on a trip to Japan after Bitcoin hit an all-time high. She decided to forgo the trip to focus on Bitcoin.
Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.