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One Last Night in Mexico City’s LGBT Time Warp

The bars and clubs around Avenida República de Cuba have long made up Mexico City’s queer nightlife hub. Now, after more than half a century, their future hangs in the balance.

At midnight on a recent Saturday—any Saturday, really—Avenida República de Cuba, near the sketchy northern edge of Mexico City’s Centro Historico, practically seethes with people. Twenty-somethings of every gender line up around the block outside El Marrakech and La Purísima, a pair of nightclubs that face each other across the narrow, construction-chewed street like Scylla and Charybdis (if Scylla and Charybdis were really good at voguing).

Paunchy bureaucrats and middle-aged office workers push through the swinging cantina doors at 60-year-old Bar Viena, while next door, at Oasis, the block’s other decades-old standard-bearer, nattily dressed gentlemen and weekenders from the campo and the occasional posh kid from the city’s richer quarters dance salsa and cumbia with envy-inducing grace.

Later, as the night wears on, they pour onto the street and around the corner onto the Eje Central, one of the city’s busiest avenues. They wander under the harsh fluorescent glare of streetlights, through banks of smoke rising off taco stands, and duck into dingy cubby-holes like Citrus and upstairs dives like Wowiez. Starting around 3 a.m., they head toward after-hours spots like Teatro Garibaldi on the nearby plaza and, my favorite, a place called La Malagueña, set in a soaring 17th-century cloister behind a boot-and-hat shop—a place favored by genuine provincial cowboys and the city guys who dress like them.

And those are just the official bars. “Now, even just in the normal shops you find people in the back chupando,” says Marcos Belloso, who runs Oasis along with his two brothers, using a colloquialism for ‘imbibing’ that translates literally as ‘sucking.’ “I mean drinking,” he adds, then chuckles and shrugs: “And sometimes the other thing.”

Elsewhere in Mexico City, there are pop-up parties like Traición, Mami Slut and Gomora, patronized by a mixed crowd of the young, cool and artsy; there’s Club Roshell, favored by the trans community; there’s Punto Gozadera, a lesbian-feminist coffee shop and event space at the southern end of the Centro. The queer worlds of Mexico City are impressive in their diversity, but the bars on Cuba and Garibaldi are singular in their openness, not just to city kids, but to rancheros in town for an anonymous weekend, and older men enjoying freedoms they never thought possible.

As some of the oldest queer spaces in the city, the bars on República de Cuba are also an important part of Mexico City’s (mostly well-deserved) reputation for progressivism in a conservative region. For a century, the hemisphere’s largest city has been a magnet for political dissidents and exiles (Leon Trotsky and Roberto Bolaño both lived here), for refugees and asylum seekers and for queer people from across the country and region looking for liberation and opportunity. On an ordinary weekend night, the bars of Cuba and Garibaldi are, as a drag queen called Madonna told me, un licuado—“a smoothie”—a heterogeneous blend of ingredients whipped to a sweet, frothy frenzy.

A few days later—at 8 p.m. on Thursday, August 18—some 561 city officials, including several hundred armed police officers, turned up on República de Cuba, entered six area bars, including Oasis and Viena, slammed down their metal curtains and stamped them with big white seals that read Suspension of Activities. As of September 13th, they’re still closed. The bars, they claimed, were lacking several necessary licenses to operate legally, despite the fact that they had been allowed to reopen after a similar, though much smaller, raid in April. They called the operation Ciclón, or Cyclone.

According to Alfonso Suárez del Real, an openly gay journalist and representative for the city’s central districts in the state government, this raid, unlike those of years past, had little to do with anti-gay sentiment. Instead, he claims, city government hopes to sow discord between locals and business owners, drive residents from their homes and open the area to real estate speculators, a tactic they’ve used in other neighborhoods in the past. “All this grew,” Belloso told me, “because people saw, little by little, that pink money is worth something.” Sixty years later, tourist money may turn out to be worth more.

Belloso’s grandfather opened Oasis in 1952 as an ordinary cantina on the ground floor of the building that housed the Secretary of the Navy, a half block away from the current location (his father moved the bar following the devastating 1985 earthquake that leveled much of the city center). It didn’t take long for the bar to become a well-known, post-work cruising ground. “From ’52 to ‘98”—when Oasis officially became a gay bar—“it was just a cantina—but in quotes, right?” Belloso says.

A Night at Oasis

Two years later, in 1954, El Viena opened next door. Víctor Jaramillo, who opened El Marrakesh nine years ago and La Purísima a few years after that, told me that Viena opened on the assumption that it could capitalize on gay overflow from its neighbor. Still, neither Oasis nor Viena was officially gay. Salvador Martinez, who has worked at Viena for well over 20 years, remembers a time when inspectors from the city government would come in undercover and fine the bar if they saw people kissing.

Until 20 years ago, women weren’t permitted in cantinas at all, “so every cantina in Centro was potentially gay,” Jaramillo says. Even so, Oasis and Viena were special. Luis Verjel, who opened La Malagueña with his wife, Tonantzi Dominguez, four years ago, has worked in this part of Centro since the 1970s. “Even then, Oasis and Viena were already known as bars for the gay community,” he says.

Homosexuality was never technically illegal in Mexico—anti-sodomy laws are more a vestige of Anglo puritanism than Catholic moralism—but that doesn’t mean that overt queerness was tolerated. Mexico’s first public queer scandal took place in 1901, when police raided a secret dance and arrested 22 men in men’s clothing and 19 dressed as women, a group that became notorious in local papers as El 41. Rumor has it that a 42nd person, the son-in-law of then-dictator Porfirio Díaz, was quietly allowed to escape. Those who failed to pay the authorities for their silence were sent to labor camps in the south.

According to journalist Guillermo Osorno, whose book Tengo Que Morir Todas las Noches chronicles the gay underground of the ‘70s and ‘80s, the city’s first gay bar, Madreselva, opened in 1949, followed by a place called Los Eloínes in 1951, which principally drew a wealthier crowd. At that point, the Centro had long since lost its colonial luster. Middle-class families had started moving out of the old city as early as 1860 into newly developed neighborhoods to the west and south. Many old apartment buildings and commercial spaces were turned into factories and bodegas, while the people who took up residence there were largely middle- or low-income. Following the devastation of ‘85, the Centro was abandoned by virtually everyone but mechanics, shopkeepers and the city government.

The disappearance of a resident professional class made the Centro safely anonymous. “People would think, ‘I’m going to a bar.’ Where? ‘El Centro, where no one knows me,’” Martinez told me. Cantinas like Oasis and Viena were known as lugares de encuentro—or meeting places—while the nearby Alameda, once the colonial city’s most elegant park, became a hub for male sex workers.

By the time the earthquake hit, the Zona Rosa, one of the city’s most desirable neighborhoods, had emerged as a glamorous, hedonistic counterpoint to Cuba and Garibaldi. Viena and Oasis continued to operate as they always had, but more visible queer spaces started to spring up nearby—places like El 41, named for that early scandal, and El 14, where off-duty soldiers, Jaramillo told me, would escape through a trap door hidden behind a jukebox whenever the authorities turned up. Gerardo Vázquez Lugo, executive chef at Nicos, widely considered the city’s best restaurant, remembers “going through those little cantina doors and seeing everyone—truck drivers and all of us Bellas Artes snobs. It was a different world.” If Zona Rosa was fashion and cocaine and beautiful people, then Centro was seedy and dark and a little unhinged. Zona Rosa was Andy Warhol. Centro was John Waters.

For the time being, at least, it still is. The weekend before the Ciclón, I found myself for the first time at a bar called El Tahúr, tucked away on a quiet street around the corner from Oasis and Viena. Fluorescent light poured through the open doors onto the sidewalk, otherwise cast in shades of pewter like a discarded film negative. Across the street, the 17th-century Templo de la Concepción leaned drunkenly against the darkness. Inside, liter-sized beer bottles called caguamas littered the tables and a jukebox spat out the biggest hits from Mexico’s ’90s pop idols. Nearly everyone was over 40; virtually no one was even remotely fashionable.

In the course of an hour, I talked about cowboy beauty workshops with a trio of burly vaqueros, and about the bar’s 25 years in the neighborhood with a regular who was missing both of his front teeth. I watched a pair of slender young femmes with medal-worthy posture drift over the dance floor like feathers and saw a guy straight off a construction site wander by in a ratty T-shirt that read, “This Daddy is Especially Loved by Kyla-Page and Frank.”

If you came out (and of age) as I did, in post-Queer as Folk America, you might have trouble assimilating a place like El Tahúr into your conception of what a gay bar is supposed to look like. It’s not a leather dungeon or a bear den or a semi-ironic sports bar or an oversize nightclub where identikit Adonises dance around shirtless. Bars like El Tahúr and Viena and Oasis are, as Jaramillo put it, time capsules, a reminder of a past that was less open, but also, perhaps, freer; of how far things have come since 1901 or 1971 or even 1991, but also of what we stand to lose. I’m not sentimental by nature, but a night out around Cuba and Garibaldi can, at times, inspire chest-clutching extremities of optimism, an unfamiliar feeling in these dark days.

Despite its rising cache as the hemisphere’s hippest city, Mexico City is still far from a queer utopia. Gay marriage has been legal in the capital since 2009, but last year, thousands gathered here to protest the president’s announcement that he would make marriage equality legal throughout the republic. In the central districts, it’s common to see same-sex couples holding hands, but the same is not necessarily true in the outlying districts where most people live. Refugees escaping violence in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras—among the most dangerous places on earth to be queer—are applying in record numbers for refugee and asylum status in Mexico, yet overburdened immigration authorities continue to reject those applications at a higher rate than their American counterparts.

Even in Mexico City, where the government eagerly courts what Suarez del Real refers to as “a gold star for gay rights,” police and city officials may well be cynically exploiting—if not outright fabricating—tensions between queer businesses and local residents. “They know how to administer social conflicts in their own favor,” he says, driving residents out of potentially lucrative neighborhoods to make way for new development. “A fragmented society,” he continues, “is a society that allows the city to transform itself into a space for business and not a space for the exercise of rights.”

But bars that have survived decades of raids and societal finger wagging—like neighborhoods that have survived earthquakes and economic declines, and queer immigrants who have survived every kind of injustice and debasement—don’t give up so easily. Cynicism has no place in a world built on camp.

For all its flaws, Mexico City remains, for many thousands of people, the Emerald City at the end of a long and treacherous yellow brick road. Dorothy, that great gay icon, found comfort, finally, in the safety of her cozy, black-and-white world. But sometimes, home turns out to be Technicolor.

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