How Mexican-Themed Bar La Cita Bridges L.A.'s Diverse Communities | KCET
How Mexican-Themed Bar La Cita Bridges L.A.'s Diverse Communities
It’s Sunday afternoon in November at downtown L.A. bar and dance hall La Cita, and the sound of wind exiting the bellows of an accordion spills out into the street, the melodies engraved in the memories of the many immigrants who call this place a second home. The house band Doble Poder goes into a rendition of the classic cumbia song “Cumbia Sampuesana” by Ancieto Molina. Colombian in origin, the song — like the genre — has spread across Latin American and U.S. borders. Partners quickly form and the crowd dances in sync to the age-old three step sway.
Upon entering, your eyes take a minute to adjust to the darkness, which is punctuated by sparkling Christmas lights and a deep red hue that envelops the whole bar. A wooden and brass divider separates the indoor bar from the dance floor allowing curious bar patrons to peek between the rails and observe the dance floor interactions.
"It’s an interesting intersection of two worlds and I like it best when they mingle. In a perfect world I like to say I build bridges with booze."
The room is filled with after-church Latinxs in their Sunday best: sparkly dresses, cowboy hats, leather boots, and big polished belt buckles. It’s an older crowd — the dancers and barflies are mostly in their 40s, 50s, and 60s. They come to enjoy the live music that ranges from classic rancheras and corridos to old cumbia and merengue favorites.
This is just one of La Cita’s worlds. Make your way across the dance floor, past tables and chairs covered in formal linen and beer buckets, through the red-tiled hallway that turns your skin into a devilish color, and you’re in another one. A bright neon sign tells you where you’ve come: “El Patio.”
The cumbia sounds are a distant muffle. El Patio’s music is punk rock. A newcomer might mistake it for a completely different bar. The age range drops, the crowd diversifies: white punks and bikers, Chicanx hipsters, and a few of the old timers who prefer the sunlight. Above is the skyline of financial district skyscrapers, monuments to where Bunker Hill once stood.
It’s Sunday Bloody Sunday, a make-your-own Bloody Mary extravaganza that attracts all types of misfits. Calixto and Rommel, two patio bartenders, work the bar. Calixto, born in Guadalajara but raised in San Diego, has been living in L.A. for 20 years. A born performer and front man for local garage/punk band Barrio Tiger, he’s short with dark curly hair, a pencil-thin mustache and a sassy, take-no-shit demeanor with a caring heart. He stands in stark contrast to his bartending counterpart, Rommel, who is 6 foot 2, dons a long wavy beard, glasses, and kind eyes. He is soft-spoken for an avowed Satanist.
The borders between La Cita’s worlds are regularly crossed. At the far end of the patio, a group of tattooed Chicana punks slurp down their Bloody Mary’s and hurry inside to dance cumbia. At the same time, a middle-aged Latino man from inside in a cowboy hat, satin dress shirt, and studded boots walks outside and lights a cigarette. No one looks up. No one is surprised. It’s business as usual.
La Cita is a place like no other in Los Angeles. For more than 60 years, it has wrapped its arms around a diverse set of the city’s residents — from recent Central American immigrants to second generation Chicanx feminists — making people feel at home amid its red tiles and sparkling lights.
In a city that is increasingly razing the old to make way for the new (residents included), La Cita is a place that has managed to maintain its core by staying inclusive to the immigrants that have made the place a second home for decades, while at the same time adapting to new generations. La Cita functions as a liminal space, forming a cultural crossroads of sorts. While downtown continues to demolish and rebuild, La Cita remains a welcoming space that’s intergenerational, multiethnic, and transnational, where seemingly disparate cultures can freely interact, communicate, and collaborate.
“You might be sitting next to a full-on cholo, who might be sitting next to a guy from the Midwest on business, who might be sitting next to a punk rocker, who might be sitting next to an old vaquero. That’s America,” Calixto, the patio bartender, explains.
Sunday Bloody Sunday was one of the events that put the patio of La Cita on the map as a cultural space and weekend hangout for younger generations. It was started by Calixto, who has been at La Cita for 8 years.
Sundays are his favorite because of the mixture that’s created when the older Latinx crowd inside collides with the eccentric crowd outside. “It’s an interesting intersection of two worlds and I like it best when they mingle. In a perfect world I like to say I build bridges with booze,” Calixto says.
Day time usually brings in first generation Latinxs who have been coming here for years to drink beer, listen to Mexican music, and watch soccer games on TV, but as day turns to night the music offerings can range from punk and reggae DJ sets, old school hip hop playlists, rockabilly trios, up and coming Afro-Latin artists, and Latin alternative bands from both sides of the border. It’s hard to pinpoint the exact type of person that comes here. “We wrap our arms around a lot of people and that’s the way we like it. We force cultures together, and the results are fantastic,” Carl Lofgren, one the owners, says.
“I’ve been to other Mexican bars but I feel comfortable here,” Tony, a regular since 1968, says. A second generation Mexican, Tony grew up in the now-demolished Bunker Hill neighborhood and he remembers passing by La Cita. After serving in the military and once he was old enough to drink, he became a regular. He now lives in La Puente and his journey to La Cita includes driving to El Monte, taking a bus to downtown, eating fried shrimp at the “Original Shrimp Place” on 3rd and Broadway then going to “El Patio” for a few beers. Even though he frequents other Mexican bars he especially enjoys La Cita because of the location amidst the downtown skyscrapers and the connection he’s built with Calixto, who serves him in the patio. “I like to talk to the bartender who’s from Guadalajara and enjoy the sunlight. I feel at home here,” he says.
It’s that second home feeling that brings people back again and again. There’s a sense of a community that’s built around the space, both inside and outside, in Spanish and in English. Working class Latinxs, who are often alienated, have a place to speak their language, hear their music, and connect with people having similar experiences.
Antonio, an indoor bartender from Sinaloa who has been working at the bar since 2002, sees himself as providing a service beyond just serving drinks, “I feel like I’m not only a bartender but a counselor, therapist, even a comedian,” he explains. “I think this place is a shelter for Latinos. You can come here and talk, you can come and only watch TV, but you feel safe.”
Two other indoor bartenders, Eunice and Monica, have also been working at La Cita since the early 2000s. They make an effort to throw birthday parties for their Sunday regulars. “For many people, it’s the first time they celebrate their birthday in years,” Monica explains. “Many of us are immigrants who don’t have family here.”
One of her regulars is a woman in her 50’s who once mentioned that she had never celebrated her birthday. Monica took it upon herself to organize a celebration. The staff pooled together money and she decorated the place with balloons, brought food, and the classic La Cita birthday cake — baked in the shape of a naked man or woman, depending on your dessert pleasure. The woman was so appreciative that on another staff member's birthday she brought them a huge pot of homemade Oaxacan-style black mole.
Similar happenings occur in the patio as well. Recently, a potluck was held in order to raise money for Planned Parenthood. Guests baked pies, cooked vegetarian dishes, and grilled meat. Conversations were had around social issues and the future of our country. In the end, almost a thousand dollars were raised.
Like the Latinx music programming on Sundays that provides space for immigrants to share a common culture and experience, weekly events like Mustache Mondays have also sought to create a community among other marginalized groups. Mustache Mondays is a queer dance party staple that was hosted at La Cita for seven years. The event offered queer patrons — especially those of color — a night of their own within the space. Attendees were encouraged to dress up and express themselves freely through art, fashion, and dance while resident DJs spun everything from hip-hop to house music.
On a Monday afternoon, Mel, a Chicana hairstylist and La Cita regular, walks in, passes the long corridor and Christmas lights indoor to the daylight of “El Patio.” She walks to her usual spot, a place dubbed “the Hen House,” where a group of female regulars drink, smoke cigarettes, and catch up. She says there’s a joke: “Not more than one cock in the hen house at a time.” But it’s also an informal rule. If two or more men are sitting in the area and the group of women walks in, they know they have to get up. “They’re usually shamed if they don’t,” Mel explains.
She sits, bright red hair in 1940’s curls hanging on the side of her face, and takes a cigarette out of her purse and lights it. There’s a tattoo on her forearm that reads “La Cita” in cursive. Rommel already knows what she wants: Titos and soda. It’s her weekly after-work routine.
This place is her sanctuary. An unpretentious safe space that she describes as “an infrastructure of weirdos.” She explains, “You can be sitting next to a millionaire and someone on food stamps and you’ll never know because it’s not a place where you’re supposed to prove yourself.”
La Cita has also served as a refuge and source of protection for Mel. At one point in her 20’s she found herself in an abusive relationship, and in the aftermath of the breakup, her ex-boyfriend attempted to come to La Cita. When he began to speak about her, one of the bartenders told him, “You can order a beer, but if you're gonna talk about her, you're gonna have to get the fuck out. As far as I'm concerned, it's her bar.” That’s when Mel realized La Cita was far more than a place she came to drink. “It was my community taking care of me,” she says.
As a Chicana she describes La Cita as a place where both first and second generation Latinxs belong. Since all the bartenders speak Spanish, it’s a place where you don’t have to speak English if you don’t want to. But you also don’t have to subscribe to a level or type of “Latinoness.” You can just as easily sit inside and belt out Vicente Fernandez as you can listen to punk and smoke cigarettes on the patio. “Someone doesn't have to be less Latino and someone doesn't have to be Latino enough. And that connection doesn't happen many places,” Mel says.
A lineage has formed at La Cita, where different generations have a place to intersect and explore what it means to be Latinx. “I think this is a beautiful place where I can still always feel connected with my roots and still keep evolving without losing that sense of myself,” Mel explains.
Feminist Chicanx theorist, Gloria Anzaldúa describes borderlands as “physically present where two or more cultures edge each other, where people of different races occupy the same territory, where under, lower, middle and upper classes touch, where the space between two individuals shrinks with intimacy (Anzaldúa 2012, preface).” In this same vein, La Cita is a borderland where cultures, languages, and generations collide and flow through its space.
The inside and outside bar, the different programming at night, the day time, the night time, the weekend, are all worlds that exist at La Cita and they often intermix in a unique way. “The space sometimes highlighted those difference and sometimes let them play out in ways that they can’t play out in other places. Like you didn’t have hipsters hanging out with day laborers outside of that bar but inside the bar that interchange could happen,” says Revel Sims, a gentrification and displacement expert and Urban Planning Assistant Professor at University of Wisconsin, who also worked as a bartender for almost six while receiving his PhD at UCLA.
Often times, La Cita is described as being two completely different bars, indoor vs. outdoor, but in reality the boundaries are constantly blurred and in transition. You just have to spend enough time here to see it.
“There’s a Zapatista saying, “we want a world where many worlds fit,” and I think that while not political, La Cita celebrates that in a way that’s genuine,” explains Sims.
As a day progresses at La Cita, people create their own migration patterns, moving back and forth between the patio and the inside. “If you are lucky to get past that point, sit inside at any time or outside at any time, it will be just the same. The same love, the same strength around you,” Mel says.
In an increasingly segregated and gentrified city, La Cita has become a place of belonging for immigrants, minorities, and misfits all cohabiting in a cultural borderland. It’s the representation of a fluid border that’s completely open: “Where we can all just live freely in each other's worlds,” Mel describes.
La Cita’s reputation as a refuge is due in part to its history of inclusion that stretches back to when the building first became a bar in the 1950’s. Despite waves of mass deportations and discriminatory policies that sought to alienate the Latinx population in Los Angeles, La Cita has been here welcoming Latinx immigrants as a space of safe leisure. Through its décor, music, and drink selection, La Cita was created to serve an increasing Latinx population.
La Cita's Performers of the Past
La Cita’s location has witnessed over a 100 years of Los Angeles history. It sits across the street from the long ago demolished Bunker Hill and Angel’s Fight, the last remains of the complex streetcar system that once traversed the bustling downtown.
Bunker Hill was seen as a fashionable place to live in the late 1800’s, but as more residential buildings sprung up, wealthy inhabitants of Victorian mansions moved to nearby neighborhoods. Bunker Hill began to decline, and by the 1960’s the area was torn down to make way for skyscrapers and a new financial and arts district, displacing long-time and often low-income residents.
Built in 1897 but first put to use in 1909, La Cita was originally part of a three-building, three-story complex that existed as a hotel on upper floors and as storefronts on the ground floor. The buildings then went through various iterations and owners; there was a hat shop, then a curios shop. Then in the 1940’s, where La Cita stands today at 336 S. Hill Street it was the New Palace Cafe. It later became the Brass Rail Bar when it was bought by Al Daswick in the early 1960’s.
When Daswick bought it, the Brass Rail was a working class bar that catered to the patrons and workers of Grand Central Market, many of them Latinxs. Latinx immigrants had made the area a center of commerce and entertainment, often shopping at Grand Central Market next door and attending Spanish-language film screenings at the Million Dollar Theater.
The new owner, Al Daswick, was a second generation Russian-American from an Eastern European immigrant neighborhood in Grand Rapids, Michigan. A few years after WWII, he moved west and settled in Bunker Hill. He took over a bar on 3rd street between Broadway and Hill. At first, business was awful. But then, a group of Mexican men walked in to drink and he welcomed them, happy to finally have some business. The next day, he went to Olvera Street and bought sombreros and sarapes that he hung on the walls.
While by today’s standards this act of stereotyping might be seen as painfully politically incorrect, it apparently worked: the bar became crowded with a mainly Mexican clientele seeking a welcoming place to drink and hang out. That’s when Daswick realized there was a market for bars that catered to Mexicans.
Daswick eventually bought the space and slowly turned it into a full-fledged Mexican-themed bar. In the late 1960s, he changed the name to La Cita and decorated the entrance with tiled arches and Mexican flag logos. His advisor was his Mexican right-hand man, Gilberto Gonzales, who was not only a manager but was also in charge of booking Latin music acts for the bars and dance salons Daswick eventually came to own.
By the 1980s, Daswick owned three other bars in the area: La Hacienda Real (where artists like Los Tigres del Norte and Paquita la del Barrio used to perform before they were famous), Las Catacumbas, and Salon Broadway. They all catered specifically to an immigrant population from Mexico and Central America that was growing due to the economic crisis in Mexico and the Central American civil wars propelled by Reagan-era Cold War interventions. By the 1990’s, the U.S. had a Central American population of over a million people, many of whom settled in Los Angeles, causing an increased demand for Latinx goods and entertainment.
Inspired by bars he saw in Tijuana and his own imagination, Daswick quickly tried to use La Cita to engage this expanding market. He loaded the place with brass rails, filled the floors and hallway to the patio with red tiles, and adorned the place with red light bulbs. “I remember my dad used to come home with light bulbs and red paint and we would spend the afternoon dipping them in paint,” recalls Al Daswick’s son, Michael Daswick. Al Daswick commissioned the infamous mural on La Cita’s stage of a Spanish matador kneeling before a bull. At the old Hacienda Real there were even life sized monuments of charros, “senoritas”, and bulls.
He then started booking norteño, cumbia, and ranchera bands to play at his bars. These performances were emceed by DJs from local Latinx radio stations. Daswick also hired rotating conjuntos to play at each bar after the main performers. “So if you were a customer at La Cita you saw five different bands in a night,” Daswick says.
The logo of La Cita became a silhouette of a woman in a flowing dress and man in a cowboy hat dancing. “That attracted all the Latinos that walked on Broadway. And people felt at home because even the colors in here are like the Mexican flag,” Antonio, an indoor bartender, explains.
By the 1990’s, most of Al Daswick’s bars had closed down, but La Cita remained. The old man eventually passed away, and his son Gregory ran it until it 2006, when it was bought by Carl Lofgren and his partners David Neupert, Pete Lenavitt and Jeff Semone.
Lofgren, who is also white, appreciated the Latinx culture that existed at La Cita and sought to maintain it (although with modernizations). “It became quickly apparent that we had bought something very special,” he says. We wanted to honor and cherish that. We took a little research trip to Mexico City to get a sense of what was going on down there musically and culturally and while we were down there, we made a commitment that we were going to take the history of this bar, honor it, but move it into the future.”
They removed some of the brass rails, re-painted, dimmed the lights, hired new security, and updated the liquor options but otherwise retained its original feel. He lengthened the hours of operation during the week to 2am, and began programming DJ’s and bands that catered to a more alternative audience, such as a guest DJ set by acclaimed street artist Shepard Fairey. These changes quickly began to attract new clientele, and La Cita’s new era as a hipster hot-spot began.
“Dance Right” was a Thursday night staple at La Cita, partly hosted by Fairey—it was an event that brought up-and-coming DJs and local music acts together. The bar could have easily been turned into one of the many gentrifying mixology bars that were popping up all over downtown at the time, but instead it created a new culture and also retained the old. “Gentrification happened to La Cita already,” Rommel, a La Cita bartender says. “It just found a balance. It still keeps the afternoon crowd, it still keeps its culture, the old school.”
El Patio also evolved into its own cultural space within La Cita that caters to a younger artistic audience during the afternoon happy hour with punk, oldies, and hip hop songs on rotation throughout the week.
Not all customers were happy with the change in ownership though; some of the old-timers stopped coming when the banda stopped playing on weekend nights. But by keeping Sunday intact, Lofgren ensured many of the old regulars still have a space to meet, catch up, and dance as they have been doing for 20, 30, and even 40 years in the same location.
One of Lofgren’s favorite La Cita memories is of a group of white frat guys walking up to the entrance. Lofgren warned them that it was a Mexican bar just as he had been warned when he first set foot in La Cita. They came in anyways. Hours later, he found one of them on stage belting a perfect rendition of a classic ranchera song. The mostly older Latinx crowd roared in applause and carried the guy over to the bar and bought him shots. “That was one of the things that I was really excited and proud about,” he says, “That we are building the cultures together.”
Despite changing many of its original Latinx dance nights, La Cita has managed to maintain a sense of history while cultivating a new generation of Latinx audiences.
“We took it very seriously,” Lofgren says, “We started doing a lot of research, started going to a lot of cultural events, and I started to see this undercurrent of young Latino artists like the sons and grandsons and daughters of customers here who were starting to create their own versions of cumbia, norteño, ranchero, all those sorts of styles.”
Grammy award-winning band La Santa Cecilia and the internationally touring Chicano Batman both used La Cita to build their early followings. Jorge Avila, co-founder of Qvole Collective, a music management company with a roster of music acts he calls “progressive Latino music” and “black and brown Avant-garde,” was Chicano Batman’s first manager. He recalls La Cita as one of the only venues allowing these types of bands to nurture a local scene. “I don’t think they [La Santa Cecilia and Chicano Batman] would be where they are now if it weren’t for La Cita,” Avila says. “I feel like it’s that important.” That tradition still continues: younger bands like Quitapenas mixes sounds across the Afro-Latinx diaspora, and Buyepongo pairs cumbia, punta and merengue with jazz and funk.
A Sound Journey of Weeknights at La Cita
Hover over images to play samples.
La Cita’s role as a cultural bridge for a Latinx past and present is necessary in a city that has historically made erasing its Mexican past part of its mission. In a concept he likens to the whitewashing of walls, historian William Deverell, author of Whitewashed Adobe, pieces together moments in the city’s past to show how Los Angeles built its identity on the erasure and distortion of a Mexican past. “Los Angeles, once part of Mexico itself, came of age through appropriating, absorbing, and occasionally obliterating the region’s connections to Mexican places and Mexican people,” he explains (Deverell 2005, 7).
A blatant example of this appropriation is Olvera street in downtown. It was built as a space for white leisure where the city’s Anglo inhabitants could temporarily enjoy an ideal “Spanish” past casually strolling the cobbled stones of the “pueblo,” interacting with workers made to dress up in Mexican costumes, and gazing at stereotypical depictions of sleepy Mexicans next to cacti. There were also attempts to marginalize the city’s Mexican presence through exclusionary practices like restrictive covenants, preventing Mexicans and other people of color from living in white neighborhoods. Mexican culture was accepted only if molded and sanitized by white civic boosters and city entrepreneurs. They could accept Mexican culture as a form of entertainment but could not accept Mexicans living in their communities.
The demolition of Chavez Ravine to make way for Dodger Stadium, the conversion of Sonoratown to Chinatown, and the obliteration of multiethnic communities for freeway construction are among other examples of this erasure and distortion of the Latinx past in the collective Los Angeles memory. “Los Angeles matured, at least in part, by covering up places, people and histories that those in power found unsettling,” analyzes Deverell (Deverell 2005, 8).
Six miles northeast of La Cita is a Los Angeles neighborhood fighting a contemporary version of the whitewashed adobe: Highland Park. Once a predominantly Latinx working-class neighborhood, it is now sprinkled with craft beer bars, third wave coffee shops, and vintage boutiques.
On a sunny Friday at a neighborhood coffee shop, cultural historian and professor Norman Klein is surrounded by minimalist metal chairs and sleek wood tables full of fashionable millennials drinking $4 coffees.
“Now the idea is that cities are coming back and cities are trying to retrieve some sort of memory,” explains the fast talking native New Yorker, who wrote the book on LA’s penchant for erasing its past, The History of Forgetting: Los Angeles and the Erasure of Memory. “But is it really coming back?” For Klein, the past is not returning, but is being replaced by a sanitized version of what once existed. Communities are being displaced and forgotten.
It’s this very erasure, as neighborhoods gentrify, that La Cita has managed to avoid. Despite the void left by a now forgotten Bunker Hill, completely demolished in the name of urban renewal, the bar survived. “Erasure is always partial,” says Klein, “It is strange what they didn’t get around to tear down because it wasn’t worth it, it was so useless, it was so irrelevant, no one even thought it was worth the trouble.”
La Cita’s perseverance and preservation of a history kept alive, has created a link between Los Angeles’s past, present, and future in a way that is rare for a city of amnesia. “Culture is dynamic or else it’s just trivial. And La Cita for some reason has managed to not be trivial. These places are really important, they become anchors,” explains Klein.
Having a place where Latinxs can take up space is just as relevant today as it was 60 years ago; Los Angeles continues to be highly fragmented, currently ranking as the country’s tenth most segregated city. Whether it be through the music, beer, or dance, La Cita is a place where connections to a past left behind are forged, insuring that it’s never erased or whitewashed. It has become that rare place where Latinxs can speak a common language and share in a culture that is constantly being either removed, coopted, or molded for the benefit of the powers that be.
“I think it’s that valuation of La Cita’s previous existence and the maintenance of that previous existence in its current form that has allowed it to be not just the typical gentrifying bar,” explains Revel Sims. “They didn’t displace what was going on there already. They kept it, and it’s become central and in fact has contributed to the new identity of La Cita in a big way as well.”
Despite constant reassurance from everyone I spoke to that the place will remain intact, gentrification is rearing its ugly head with the looming construction of a residential building next door.
Antonio, one of the indoor bartenders, sits on the left side of the patio next to the entrance. He’s surrounded by the ornate iron work that decorates the metal fence walls. He looks up at the barbed wire circling the outdoor enclosure, as the downtown skyline glimmers above him. Al Green is blasting from the speakers, but you can still hear Chalino Sanchez belting inside. The sounds merge at the staircase separating both spaces. When asked what happens if we lose a place like La Cita, he says, “We lose history, we lose the wire that connects both cultures…I would die without La Cita.” He tears up. It’s a scary thought.
La Cita's Many Worlds
Peer inside the halls of La Cita and diverse communities it attracts in the photo gallery below:
All photos and multimedia elements by Samanta Helou Hernandez
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