Loving and Partying at Chico: 'The Best Latino Gay Bar' in Montebello | KCET
Loving and Partying at Chico: 'The Best Latino Gay Bar' in Montebello
MORE FROM THE "TASTEMAKERS & EARTHSHAKERS" SERIES
In partnership with the Vincent Price Art Museum: The mission of the Vincent Price Art Museum is to serve as a unique educational resource through the exhibition, interpretation, collection, and preservation of works in all media.
"Tastemakers & Earthshakers: Notes from Los Angeles Youth Culture, 1943 – 2016" is a multimedia exhibition that traverses eight decades of style, art, and music, and presents vignettes that consider youth culture as a social class, distinct issues associated with young people, principles of social organization, and the emergence of subcultural groups. Citing the 1943 Zoot Suit Riots as a seminal moment in the history of Los Angeles, the exhibition emphasizes a recirculation of shared experiences across time, reflecting recurrent and ongoing struggles and triumphs.
Through a series of articles, Artbound is digging deeper into the figures and themes explored in "Tastemakers & Earthshakers." The show was on view from October 15, 2016 to February 25, 2017 at the Vincent Price Art Museum.
A Mexican and a Jew walk into a bar.
But this isn’t the set-up for a saucy joke. In 1999, Julio Licón and Marty Sokol walked into Mr. D’s Cocktail Lounge, a modest bar largely off the gay-dar, located in a Montebello mini-mall. Business was fading at Mr. D’s and the owner wanted out. The bar drew a local Mexican-American clientele, a smattering of self-identifying gay men and women, trans women and drag queens, and heterosexuals having a fling with someone not their significant other. I had been friends with Sokol and Licón since the mid-1990s. Sokol, a TV producer, was enmeshed in the gay/art/camp/rock band scene of Echo Park and Silver Lake, as was I. Licón bartended at the now long-gone Score, a scandalous Skid Row-adjacent Latinx LGBTQ bar, in then way rowdy downtown Los Angeles. Owned by the proprietor of the gay vaquero dance club, Tempo, the Score had a long, queer past. It was once a gay bar called The Keyhole, the front door surrounded by a large, wooden keyhole shape (that remained when it was the Score and beyond).
One day, Sokol called and told me that he and Licón had bought the bar but didn’t know what to call it. I asked him: “What are some of the names you’re thinking of?” He rattled off a number of single words in English and Spanish, mostly hackneyed terms conveying spiciness, heat and chili peppers. I told him: “Those are all terrible — give me a minute.” I recalled the interior of Mr. D’s — the size, mostly — and suggested to Sokol, “What about the name Chico? The place is small and you’re looking to appeal mostly to a male clientele.” Sokol and Licón loved the name. Chico was born.
In 1999, I was in the photographer stage of my art career. Sokol and Licón asked me to create imagery for their new bar. I thought about Montebello, about queerness and representation, and how desire could be captured while avoiding the clichés of so much homoerotic imagery. I came of queer-age in Latinx clubs like Circus, La Plaza and Tempo, as well as bars like Woody’s, The Score, the Jalisco Inn and Little Joy Jr. The prevailing style of dress for Latino men throughout the ‘90s was cholo drag — bald heads, crisply ironed white T-shirts or football jerseys and oversized creased jeans. I wanted images for Chico that were aimed at a predominantly gay Latino male audience, aesthetically informed by neighborhoods like Montebello, largely working and middle class. In these neighborhoods, masculine male erotic desire (both homo and heterosexual) is generally embodied within an array of archetypes, including the homeboy/gangster, the jock and the chacal, a term common in Mexico for a masculine young man who might have sex with other men, but who doesn’t bear common queer traits or interests. Neighborhoods like Montebello typically offer scant public LGBTQ visibility, and few outlets for public queer socialization, if any. Queerness is often sublimated, in the home and on the street. Historically (and still), male homosocial sexual encounters covertly take place in the recesses of public parks, like Whittier Narrows and Elysian Park.
I set out to make images for Chico that left room to the imagination, that deliberately played with sexual ambiguity, both in the casting of models, as well as unassuming compositions. The handsome, buff pelón with ‘hood tattoos, yet full, soft lips. A fit soccer player reclining in a bathtub, gazing softly, yet directly, into the camera’s lens. I scouted and found men working in fast food restaurants and auto body shops, in gay and straight bars, cruising in parks and on the street. Some models were friends of mine, and friends of friends, and some were introduced to me from the Chico staff, guys they knew from the gym, for example. I committed to never revealing the sexual orientation of the men I shot, even if I was aware of it.
We enlarged seven or eight of the images to poster size and mounted them on foam core. The photographs nearly covered the walls of Chico and hung in the bar for over a year. The clientele really connected with the images and often told me which ones were their favorites. As the photographs were unframed, a few of them had to be replaced, as, over time, they became covered in scuffs from fingertips and lipstick imprints. Bar patrons took pictures of the pictures, and pictures of themselves with the pictures. I couldn’t have been more honored by their reception, including men offering themselves up to model for the next round. The images, a series titled “Chico,” were exhibited in a solo show in a Los Angeles gallery, and later, as another solo exhibition in Paris. For the gallery opening in Los Angeles, go-go dancers from the bar danced on large wooden plinths, and the gallery’s bar was operated by Chico’s bar staff. The opening was packed with patrons from the bar and a number of the men in the photographs brought their families and significant others, posing for pictures in front of their likeness. In France, a Paris resident, an older gay man originally from East Los Angeles, came to the opening. He introduced himself and told me that I had brought a piece of home to him.
In the early years, Chico filled a niche when bars continued to function as the primary outlet for LGBTQ people to meet and socialize. The bar took off and was filled to capacity more often than not. Granted, Chico is a modestly sized space, but a loyal clientele established quickly, one that was predominantly Latino, gay and male. It soon became a gay, brown “Cheers”-type bar, with a working class and distinctly homie aesthetic. It wasn’t an unfriendly space to women, by any means, but Chico was unquestionably a male-oriented affair. Sokol and Licón were wisely proactive in developing dialogue with both the local residents and the Montebello police. Licón had already worked in gay bars for years, and he understood well the reality of having a bar in a residential neighborhood. Police officers and the fire marshal would make surprise visits, mostly to confirm that the bar was obeying capacity limits, but also to address complaints residents would phone in. In the bar's nascent years, it wasn’t uncommon for men to meet at the bar and later be found having sex in a car parked on a side street or on the front lawn of someone’s house nearby. The go-go dancers of the wildly popular Wednesday night party, Cockfight, became too liberal at times with flashing their sex parts. The vice squad fined the bar, forcing that party to maintain a strict PG rating. Sokol and Licón really had their hands full, even with a tiny bar, yet they always ran Chico as a responsible neighbor. Despite their efforts, a few local residents had little better to do and routinely phoned in bogus complaints to the police. The police caught on, however, and warned the nuisance callers to cool it.
It would be a misstep to think that the opening of Chico was a warm and welcome beacon to every LGBTQ person living on the eastside of Los Angeles. For some, especially those not “out” (to their families, their colleagues, or in some cases, to their homies), Chico was too close to home, and not worth the risk that someone might see them in a gay bar. They far preferred the distance and relative anonymity offered by bars and clubs in West Hollywood and Long Beach. Joey Terrill, a queer Chicano Los Angeles artist, grew up in Highland Park and speaks about this in “Gay L.A.: A History of Sexual Outlaws, Power Politics, and Lipstick Lesbians,” by Lillian Faderman and Stuart Timmons.
As I write this, I recall something that I must address. Last summer, I was riding in a car at night with a friend down Santa Monica Boulevard. I had been in Mexico for six weeks and experiencing the reality of how fast Los Angeles changes, even when one is gone for a short time. Heading west, we passed Hudson and Seward and then suddenly, a long stretch of construction fence with nothing behind it. It looked… confusing, and then it hit me. Circus is gone? It was the first time I saw that both Circus Disco and the former ice factory that housed Arena had been razed. I could see through the fence that the ground on which the clubs had existed had been excavated for new construction. I felt an instant sense of loss, of sadness, thinking of so many years of dancing, socializing and loving, especially at Circus on Tuesdays and Fridays. I thought about the large oval of little elephants in hot pink neon suspended over the main dance floor, the trunk of each one linked to tail of the next; the raised landing of red vinyl booths, alongside a mirrored wall, ideal for cruising; the windows of the small upstairs dance floor always covered in steam; the occasional fist fights spurned by jealousy and passion.
I’m ambivalent how to close this text. Upon reading a first draft of this essay, Melody (Soto, Artbound’s associate producer and site editor) offered the following note: “You left off at a good spot for a conclusion as well. My interpretation of your last paragraph is that the loss of Circus signifies more than a building closure/demolishing — Circus was a space for communion and memories for folks who often feel like they don't have too many places to turn to. For this reason, Chico was/is/continues to be of value for many.” I agree with Melody, as I told her, and yet, I resisted in that I didn’t want to conveniently portray Chico as “the little gay bar that could.”
Young queers (and I use “queers” here inclusive of trans-identified folx and those who resist identification) have grown up with the internet and social apps. They’ve become their fully authentic selves, or their selves’ along-a-spectrum long before it’s legal for them to step foot inside a bar or club. They might not need queer spaces like previous generations relied on queer spaces — and that lack of need is reflected in how many queer-oriented bars and clubs have closed. In addition to Circus and Arena, Los Angeles has lost a staggering number of queer/LGBTQ bars, clubs and other social spaces — too many to list here, too nostalgic to list here. Many of these spaces catered to a Latinx LGBTQ clientele, but also gone are outliers like The Other Side, one of the only bars that warmly catered to senior queers. The closing of the decades-old The Catch/Jewel’s Catch One was a major loss, as it wasn’t only one of the best Saturday nights out in the city; it was a black LGBTQ cultural and community stronghold.
These places have closed, yet we’ve just found other places to go. Queers have largely assimilated into non-queer spaces. Just the other night, I joined a gay male friend and his lesbian colleague at Hooters. Yes, Hooters. We had a blast — and not only because of the very phallic tower of onion rings on the table. I very much acknowledge the difference in options, choices, comfort and safety available to someone living in a big city versus a small town. (The documentary film, “Small Town Gay Bar” is a must see.) LGBTQ bars and clubs will always be important and necessary and it’s important that we support them financially. What keeps spaces like Chico vital and fresh are industrious promoters and DJs who create fun parties like the punk/camp/trash/rock en Español night, sCUM (at Chico), and the dyke/trans-oriented CRUISE night at the Eagle. The bars closest to my heart will always be the queer working class dives that proudly fly their freak flag — threadbare, ramshackle and smelling of Fabuloso.
Chef Kimmy Tang loves to travel, and while her cosmopolitan approach to cooking can be partially attributed to globetrotting, it also originates from the influence of a Taiwanese chef-mentor she endearingly calls Uncle Chu.