City of the plain

Text by Rubén Gallo

Photography by Sohrab Golsorkhi-Ainslie

Ruben Gallo

 

Mexico City: light of my life, fire of my gay loins. Mexico City: Latin whore of Babylon, tropical Sodom, centre of all Biblical perdition. City of decadence, capital of excess, landmark of perversions. Black hole that sucks up all prudishness, propriety and sexual hang-ups. Wild West of erotic life where hell knows no limits; paradise of male prostitutes and their admirers; birthplace of gender bending and heteroflexibility. Mexico City: shining star over a landscape of LGBTQ banality; beacon of sexual deviance; gateway to sadism; whipping post for masochists; haven for sodomites; touchstone for all perverts. Mexico City: queer capital of the universe.

Sunday, 6pm – Zona Rosa: Over the past 30 years, Mexico City has evolved from a rather prudish, laced-up capital into one of the most overtly sexual urban centres in Latin America. The trend began in the 1990s with the signing of NAFTA, the free-trade agreement with the United States and Canada, and accelerated in 2010 with the legalisation of gay marriage in the capital. Since then, dozens of gay bars have popped up like mushrooms throughout the city as young gay people from all over the country flood to Mexico’s city on the plain.

Zona Rosa is the city’s most notorious gay district. Literally “the pink zone”, it was built as a posh residential district at the end of the 19th century. In the 1960s it became one of the city’s most fashionable areas, full of galleries, restaurants – including the mythical Champs Élysées, Octavio Paz’s favourite hangout – European-style cafés and elegant boutiques. This all changed in 1969, with the construction of the Mexico City metro and the opening of Insurgentes metro station on the edge of the neighbourhood.

There followed a familiar Mexican story: the rich fled en masse to other districts, far away from metro stations and the working-class masses they attracted, and were replaced by more humble inhabitants. Today Zona Rosa is a lower-middle-class neighbourhood, popular with secretaries, bank employees, accountants and the odd taxi driver.

Zona Rosa was the birthplace of gay nightlife in Mexico City: the first gay bar, El Taller, opened its doors in the 1980s on Calle Florencia. Calle Amberes, meanwhile, has become the gayest street in all of Zona Rosa. In a stretch of a hundred feet it boasts five gay bars, two sex shops, a gay-friendly hotel and – on weekends – hundreds of drunk boys and girls who have spilled out into the sidewalk. (The streets in this part of town bear the names of European cities: Florencia, Génova, Niza, Hamburgo; Amberes is the Spanish name for Antwerp).

A gay tour of Zona Rosa must begin at Insurgentes metro, a futuristic sunken rotunda that was once used as a location for the film Total Recall. These days the vast plaza is full of teenage gay and lesbian couples. They hold hands, flirt, kiss, hug and sometimes do much more. There are dozens – on weekend nights, hundreds – of these couples engaging in extreme public displays of affection. Back in the 1970s, before the gay revolution, male couples were often harassed by the police simply for walking together at night. Since the legalisation of same-sex marriage, the police have a mandate to protect gay and lesbian citizens from harassment and aggression.

8pm – Touch: We head to the first bar on our list: Touch, on Calle Amberes, is the size of a studio apartment, its speakers blaring Lady Gaga and Rihanna.

As in most places in Zona Rosa, the crowd is very young: boys in their early 20s, wearing T-shirts and designer jeans.

There are eight of us: the Tank team, Marc, a 50-year-old straight French architect, and the poet Luis Felipe Fabre, connoisseur of gay Mexico City. We make our way through all the boys wearing tight clothes and order some mezcales.

Our waiter is called Armando: he is 22 and was born in Guanajuato, a small city a few hours away. Like all patrons, he wears a tight T-shirt to show off his muscles: enviable biceps and a washboard stomach. “Can I take a photo?” the Tank photographer asks. The waiter, pleased, puts his arm around me. I can feel his bulging bicep pressing against my back. Click, snap, done.

I introduce him to Marc. “What are your impressions of Mexico City?” our waiter asks him.

“I am impressed by how free people are,” Marc replies.

“Free? Here?” the waiter asks him, with an expression mixing surprise and horror. Time for a round of mezcales.

At the table next to ours I see a gay couple in their early 20s. Marcos and David are students: one studying business and the other medicine. They have been together for a few months. How did you meet, I ask.

“Ughh… through social media,” David says hesitantly, before confessing they found each other on Grindr. “But we talked for almost two years before meeting face to face.”

Why so long, I ask.

“His prices were too high,” David tells me as Marcos – the younger and shyer of the two – laughs.

These boys are part of the first generation of globalised gays, and their experience seems to have very little that is specifically Mexican about it. They grew up online, and much of their social life has been conducted though Facebook, Grindr and Twitter.

Before we leave, Armando, the cute waiter, gives me his phone number. Call me later, he says.

8:30pm – Papi’s: Next door to Touch is Papi’s – its full name is Papi Fun Bar – another small bar with floor-to-ceiling windows facing the street. The music here is norteño, an upbeat genre from the north of Mexico, usually accompanied by accordions and featuring a very simple and repetitive “hump-dah-dah, hump-dah-dah” rhythm. The songs tell stories of love and betrayal. As we come in the loudspeakers are blasting “El Federal de caminos”, a song honouring a slain police officer: “In Reynosa, Tamaulipas, the men are determined / So we celebrate by singing a corrido / They have killed, in Zacatecas, a highway policeman / He was a true man; he defied all danger / He honoured his uniform and the rifle he carried / On the handle was his name, Javier Peña.”

As the norteña songs play on, couples dance, flirt, make out. We order a round of mezcales. I begin to see some structural differences in the Mexico City gay fauna: while the boys at Touch inhabit a globalised gay modernity, their counterparts at Papi’s live in the same wired world but give free rein to their passion for norteñas, a musical genre that is decidedly un-modern, un-cosmopolitan, and un-glamorous. 

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 9pm – Oasis: We leave Papi’s and head down Amberes. Kinky is closed on Sundays. The lesbian bar down the street is nearly empty, and so are the sex shops. We decide to leave the Zona Rosa and head to the Centro, the historic district in the centre of Mexico City, where imposing 16th- and 17th-century palaces rise next to taco vendors and street stands peddling everything from fried insects (“very yummy,” Marc says after some grasshoppers) to motorised plastic toys.

The Centro is a decidedly working-class neighbourhood. If Zona Rosa attracts those who work in office buildings, the Centro has long been the shopping and entertainment district for construction workers, taxi drivers, cleaning ladies, factory workers and even the odd farmhand in town for the day. Here is the salt of the Mexican earth.

Despite repeated efforts to gentrify it, the Centro has held strong as a bastion of working-class culture. In more prudish days, the main attraction was Garibaldi, a large square where dozens of mariachis hung out, waiting for drunk music enthusiasts to show up late at night to request songs so sentimental that they make most Mexicans – especially after a few drinks – burst into tears.

The Centro has one of the city’s highest concentration of cantinas, those working-class bars that, until very recently, invariably displayed the same sign by the entrance: “No entry for women or men in uniform.” Patrons wore hats and acted macho until the beers and tequilas began to soften them up; by midnight they could be seen singing along, crying to the tragic lyrics of ranchera songs and hugging each other.

At first sight Oasis looks like every other cantina in the Centro: a dingy bar that has seen better days, exuding a stale smell and in dire need of a paint job. We arrive to find only a few patrons, round men in their 50s and 60s, sitting alone or in pairs, wearing hats and leather belts and boots. The mood is melancholic – even slightly sombre.

C’est lourd,” Marc tells me. “One feels the tragedy in their lives. It is making me depressed.” We are only a few miles from Zona Rosa, but we have entered a world that is light-years away from the frivolous dance floors of Touch or Papi’s. Most of these men are married and live with their families. They work as taxi drivers, mechanics or shopkeepers. One day a week they take a vacation from heterosexuality and come to the Oasis. Their routine has been the same for decades. In the meantime the city has changed: gay bars have popped up, gay marriage has been legalised, gay couples can now stroll hand in hand, but none of this matters to the patrons of El Oasis, who continue to live in a world impervious to those transformations.

“Look at him,” says Marc. Behind us, sitting by himself on a high bench, is a moustachioed man in his 60s, writing away on a piece of paper. He is jotting down numbers and adding them up with a calculator.

“Is he the owner, doing the balance sheet?” asks Marc.

“No,” says Luis Felipe. “He is an accountant who left the office to finish his work in a more relaxed atmosphere.”

The Tank team is hungry, so we call the waiter to order some food. He suggests tacos de cecina, tortillas stuffed with paper-thin slices of beef.

“Monsiváis said it well,” quips Luis Felipe, quoting one of the foremost chroniclers of the city’s nightlife. “The real danger in this city is not violent crime, but the food.” As the waiter serves the steaming tacos, I worry about Tank: what if we lose half of its staff to typhoid? As I take a bite I imagine the kind of obituaries that would appear in the British tabloids: “Exemplary editor… left us after a courageous struggle against dysentery”; “brilliant cameraman… killed by a parasite that has spread terror across Mexico.”

It is now 10pm and more patrons have arrived. Our waiter announces the imminent start of the espectáculo. A few minutes later the stars emerge. They are the same age as the patrons and look just like them – rotund men in their 50s – except that they are wearing wigs and dresses and pounds of make-up. There are two of them on stage, dressed as Rocío Dúrcal and Ana Gabriel, two divas of Latin song who were immensely popular in the 1980s. Like Proust’s madeleine, the lyrics trigger an avalanche of involuntary memories of my teenage years. All those sappy hits, with their tales of failed love, betrayal and revenge.

“In search of lost melodrama…”

Dúrcal has five-o’clock shadow and a double chin; Gabriel has a one-day beard caked with make-up. Energised by their appearance, the audience claps enthusiastically. “Amiga,” sings Dúrcal, “my heart is wounded… the man I love is leaving me, I am losing him.” “Amiga,” responds Gabriel, “have you neglected him? Perhaps the chores, the daily routine, have become your enemy.” The tone rises and the two divas are now on the verge of tears. “Give him everything,” urges one. “I have given him all I have… there is no way to love more,” responds the other. “If you think that way you are bound to lose him.”

The audience is now singing along and at the end of the song the entire room begins to clap and whistle. The mood has changed from melancholic to exuberant.

Around midnight the divas take a break and the speakers start blasting very danceable norteño music. An old lady wearing a scarf comes to our table. She is carrying a large tray full of cigarettes. “Cigarros, señores?” she whispers, politely, before leaving, like a spectre, for the next table. Marc tells me she reminds him of a character in A Streetcar Named Desire, the ghostly Mexican woman who sells flowers and wails “Flores… flores para los muertos.”

Suddenly a young couple materialises on stage. Two boys in their late teens, wearing hats and cowboy boots. They glide across the dance floor as one leads the other, moving forward, backward; one spins, the other pulls him back into his arms and then they repeat. “Qué cosa hermosa,” Luis Felipe tells me. “A beautiful sight.” They are like angels, except for the devilish look on their faces. Angel-devils, devil-angels, or perhaps devilled angels.

The group decides it is time to try a new place. On the way out I run into the two dancing boys. “Where are you from?” I ask. “Tlaxcala,” one says with a devilish smile, as he rests his hand on my waist. Tlaxcala is a poor town about an hour away from Mexico City. During the conquest its inhabitants – a fierce people known as Tlaxcaltecas – sided with the Spaniards and helped defeat the Aztecs. La culpa es de los Tlaxcaltecas is the title of a novel by Elena Garro, Octavio Paz’s first wife: “It was all the Tlaxcaltecas’ fault.” As we leave the Oasis, I take one last look at the boys from Tlaxcala and repeat to myself: “La culpa es de los Tlaxcaltecas.”

2:30am – Touch: “What I like about Mexico City,” I tell Marc, “is that you can travel in time. A few minutes ago we were in a world that has not changed since the 1950s. The city around them has changed, but they have chosen to continue living in the past.” Back at Touch we have returned to the 21st century: all the boys know the lyrics to Lady Gaga; they check Facebook on their iPhones and take photos of the dance floor. I think, wistfully, of the Tlaxcaltecas.

3am – Chichifos: No tour of gay nightlife in Mexico City would be complete without a stroll through the streets frequented by chichifos, as male prostitutes are known in local slang. The etymology of chichifo is uncertain: some think it comes from the verb chiflar, to whistle. Others see the “ch” and “f” sounds as an onomatopoeia pointing to a graphic sexual act. In any case, chichifos constitute a venerable Mexico City institution that has withstood the passage of time, changing mores and new technologies.

In the 1970s, when there were no gay bars in the city, all cruising was done on the streets. Zona Rosa was too posh, so most working-class boys strolled along Avenida Álvaro Obregón in Colonia Roma, a long, leafy boulevard that ended, conveniently, at Cine México, a large cinema that had seen better days and was then mostly abandoned. Next to the cinema was a bath house. Street cruising in the 1970s was an elaborate art: few words were exchanged; all was settled with a knowing glance.

In one of the great gay novels of Mexico City, Luis Zapata’s The Vampire of Colonia Roma (the full title is Las aventuras y desventuras de Adonis García, el vampiro de la Colonia Roma), the protagonist is a chichifo who recounts his many erotic and extra-erotic adventures. The streets were one of the rare spaces in Mexico City in which different social classes came together: working-class boys could go home with a rich man from a wealthy suburb; students could pick up politicians; construction workers could hook up with bankers. (This has been lost in the new gay Mexico City: there are now working-class bars like Oasis, chic bars in Polanco, bars for students and bars for professionals. No more class promiscuity.)

We walk to the back streets where the chichifos hang out. They seem to have been lifted from a 1970s film: worked-out bodies, leather jackets, white T-shirts, tight jeans. They work the streets and field catcalls from passing cars. As our group walks by – there are now only four of us – they look at us with curiosity. It occurs to me that we are bending the unspoken rules of streetwalking: johns ride in cars; working boys walk the streets. Elsewhere we would be too old to be working the streets, but not in Mexico City. Years ago I lived on a street frequented, at night, by putas abuelas, grandma whores. These women – who were probably middle-aged – wore long skirts and held handbags, imitating the posture of a sweet grandmother. I wonder if any of the passing cars would mistake Marc for a grandfather whore.

It is now almost four and time to call it a night. We could have gone on in the cruising areas of the city parks, or the infamous La Casita – an empty house near Insurgentes metro, open all night, where desperate men go when they have failed to find a partner for the evening in the city’s bars and discos. La Casita, as Luis Felipe reminds me, is a heavy place, and it might not be the best place to take a straight architect. And we also worry about our editor: we imagine a hundred hands dragging him into the underground dark room. (Stories abound about this house: one day a corpse of a man was found in the basement; apparently he had been dead for days but no one had noticed.)

As we get ready to hail a taxi, I spot a chichifo wearing a cowboy hat. “I’m Roberto,” he tells me as he extends his hand. I notice a provincial accent so I ask where he is from. “From Tlaxcala, Papi,” he replies.

It was, indeed, the fault of the Tlaxcaltecas. §

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  • Rubén Gallo Sodomexico