Artist Leaves Mark on Former Latino Gay Bars

There's no shortage of opinion in the Southland about what constitutes a landmark. Earlier this week, in the dead of night, one Los Angeles artist cemented her own historical plaques to commemorate the Latino gay bars she says have been gentrified out of the Silver Lake area. KPCC's Adolfo Guzman-Lopez went along and filed this report.

Adolfo Guzman-Lopez: In the United States there's arguably no bigger gay icon than Judy Garland. In Mexico, the balladeer Juan Gabriel has reached the same status.

[Song: "Querida" by Juan Gabriel]

Guzman-Lopez: Cal State Northridge Chicano Studies professor Ramon Garcia remembers seeing an extravagant cabaret show at a Silver Lake bar that included Juan Gabriel, Madonna, and Edith Piaf impersonators. That was about a decade ago.

Ramon Garcia: The drag queens that performed there I think took it very seriously because there were a lot of costumes, the set design was very well put together, it was creative, artistic, and subversive in some senses.

Guzman-Lopez: Le Barcito, Garcia says, was seedy, comfortable, and definitely a landmark. It was a place where gays and straights could rub elbows with cowboy-hatted Mexican immigrants or Latino professionals.

That atmosphere's gone now. A nightclub one online guide calls "an edgy bar for punk-minded artists" took its place. The new owners have painted likenesses of Le Barcito's drag queens on the tables.

For one Los Angeles artist, that homage isn't enough.

[Sound of car door closing, seat belt click, and car engine starting]

Sandra: It's an hour or two before sunrise, about four o'clock.

Guzman-Lopez: Sandra and her driver leave her Echo Park apartment in a white sedan. It's before dawn Sunday morning. The city sleeps. Sandra's destination: three bars.

Sandra: We're going to put up some guerrilla-made plaques that commemorate gay bars that were once gay and Latino and now have been gentrified and have a totally different clientele.

Guzman-Lopez: Sandra doesn't want to reveal her last name because what she's about to do may be illegal.

She holds a Master of Fine Arts degree, she's exhibited in Santa Monica art galleries, and she's set to participate in a group show next year at the L.A. County Museum of Art.

She arrives at her first destination near the intersection of Glendale and Silver Lake Boulevards.

Sandra: This bar is called the Cha Cha, it used to be Le Barcito, now it totally caters to a rock-and-roll clientele.

Guzman-Lopez: As she crouches in the passenger seat, a rubber band fixes a kumquat-sized flashlight to her forehead. The light shines on a copper-colored sheet of galvanized aluminum about the size of two 8x10 sheets of paper. With a trowel, she slathers a thick coat of white construction adhesive onto a wall.

Los Angeles, Sandra says, is one of the most photographed and mythologized cities in the world.

Sandra: And one that really isn't, doesn't really invest so much in its history, I think it's an incredible place, with a very rich history.

Guzman-Lopez: A history like an onion, she says. Peel one layer, and it reveals another.

Sandra: "Former site of Le Barcito."

Guzman-Lopez: Sandra reads the plaque just before she positions it on the wall.

Sandra: Although by the late 1990s, due to gentrifying effects, the neighborhood around Le Barcito was pretty much white and exclusive. The bar became a haven for an increasingly less visible Silver Lake, a magical mix of the rancho, Bohemia, of something Mexican and artistic.

Guzman-Lopez: Up goes Monument #9. No employees, bar owners, or cops spot her. Mission accomplished.

Sandra: So we're just going to go straight down, turn to the right and it'll hit Sunset.

Guzman-Lopez: There are two more bars to hit, a former Latina lesbian bar on Sunset and a former gay bar on Fourth and Main Streets, downtown.

Sandra plans to return the next day to photograph the plaques. She says she'll come back, incognito, when the bar opens, to hear what people say about them.

Redevelopment is changing the face of the city, she says. That's erasing the histories of working class people. She urges residents to fashion their own historical plaques, so their neighbors can better understand what came before.

[Sound of street traffic on Sunset Boulevard]

Guzman-Lopez: Early the next evening, Dalila Paola Mendez visits the Echo nightclub on Sunset to see the plaque Sandra placed there. For two years at the turn of this century Mendez's group, Womyn Image Makers, ran a once-monthly club night there.

Dalila Paola Mendez: We would say, it's a space for queer women of color, lesbian women to come, please come in and enjoy the space with us. It was very inviting in that space and even to our allies, they felt very comfortable to come in and dance and participate in this community.

Guzman-Lopez: That lost community is what Mexican gay icon Juan Gabriel alludes to in his song "El Noa Noa." The lyrics honor one of his favorite bars.

[Song: "El Noa Noa" by Juan Gabriel]

Guzman-Lopez: He sings: "it's a place with a good vibe, where everything is different, where you'll dance happily all night long."