Queer Sanctuary on the Borderlands

Joel Zapata

“Eight hundred miles or so west of the South Texas border, I also found the perfect place for me.”

During the summer of 2009, I arrived at the El Paso–Ciudad Juárez borderplex as a teenager seeking sanctuary. I did not arrive from south of the border as most Americans might imagine but from the Texas Panhandle, and with a southern twang in my voice. I still remember my first few months there when I unconsciously said “fixin'” to the bewilderment of others. I carried that word from the rural, profoundly southern, Baptist, and—perhaps more deeply than anything—conservative town I grew up in, north of Amarillo. Like many rural towns in the Panhandle, some of which are majority-minority, my hometown was about half Latina/o (mainly Mexican). But the region and its communities were, and continue to be, white ruled.1

When the region’s Mexican population began to grow in the 1980s, progressive newspapers and magazines referred to the Texas Panhandle as a mirror of apartheid South Africa. Known as “the whitest part of Texas,” the area was so segregated that the Texas Civil Liberties Union called the region an “isolated example of a kind of racism that has pretty well disappeared everywhere else” and noted its moniker “Little South Africa” among social justice advocates. Decades later, discrimination and social inequality remains widespread in my home corner of Texas—a place where I grew up as Mexican and Queer (a word I didn’t use as a bisexual man until years later).2

When it came around to college applications, my A’s (plus one B in an algebra class, taught by a teacher who gave Sudoku handouts for tests) probably could have gotten me into a few name-brand schools. Not that my white school counselor ever attempted to help any of the Mexican students get into any college, much less one with a recognizable name. But that wasn’t my concern. I wanted to go somewhere I could freely be me. I wanted to find a community where the word Mexican was not a pejorative term. I yearned for a location where twenty-first-century school officials and teachers did not adhere to the spirit of early-twentieth-century Americanization programs that sought to erase children’s first language through English-only education as well as the erasure of their culture—a practice that, as historian Yolanda Chávez Leyva argues, harms children’s “psychological and physical health.” From my kindergarten class through high school, principals and teachers prohibited the speaking of Spanish. Simultaneously, they helped install thick, southern accents into Brown students’ mouths.3

Writer, journalist, and activist Bárbara Renaud González, who also grew up in the rural Texas Panhandle, went south eight hundred miles to the University of Texas–Pan American (now part of the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley), where “everybody speaks Spanish” and Mexican was “a good word.” There, folks didn’t believe her when she told them “how much I needed to hear [their Spanish],” that language that was prohibited in her school, in her dad’s school, in my school. Ten miles from the border, González found “the perfect place” for her. And eight hundred miles or so west of the South Texas border, I also found the perfect place for me.4

On the foothills of a small mountain range, the University of Texas at El Paso overlooks working-class neighborhoods of Ciudad Juárez, the Rio Grande River/Río Bravo, and an ugly metal border wall that attempts to separate Latin America from the United States. Being at the university and in El Paso was one of the first times I found solace in a community. No one questioned my presence in a classroom. Professors didn’t ignore me or consider me lesser. Instead, from my first semester onward, they encouraged me to go on to graduate school. Outside of school, no one followed me around in stores. No one glared at me with racist disdain as I walked down a sidewalk. Authentic Mexican food, even if not quite as Mexican as south of the river, was available everywhere—even on campus.

In El Paso, I also found sanctuary as a Queer Mexican in the gay clubs and bars I went to. The very first was the Old Plantation, or OP. (Even if fixin’ was not often said in El Paso, the South and its problematic past reached into the city, where, during the 1920s, the Ku Klux Klan controlled the school board and held significant political power.) As Chávez Leyva, of El Paso origin, wrote on her inaugural visit to a gay bar, the Pet Shop, in 1974: “the first time was magical.” The same was true for me thirty-five years later. A friend parked their car, packed with a few of us eighteen- and nineteen-year-old college students, on a dimly lit street near the warehouse space the OP occupied just a few blocks from the international border. I was excited but also nervous. Through the club’s large metal doors, we entered into the OP’S two floors of bright lights, stuffy air, blaring Spanish and English-language music, dingy bathrooms, two bars (where I could only ask for water since I was a minor), and illicit drug culture, surrounded by people of various shades expressing their sexuality.5

As I grew and matured and changed majors, I found new groups of friends, each time renavigating who I was as a Queer Mexican. I stopped going to the OP and found other locales where I felt at peace. The place that I found the most comfort in was Chiquita’s Bar. Just off El Paso’s Stanton Street Pride Square, a block of LGBTQ bars in the heart of the city’s downtown, Chiquita’s is an LGBTQ-inclusive dive bar. It is housed in a painted brick building with barred windows, in between a two-story office building filled with law firms, and an asphalt parking lot surrounded by a chain-link fence. The bar attracts a diverse clientele; it is a space where Queer borderlands culture is exemplified among wide-ranging gender identities, sexual orientations, expressions of masculinity and femininity, national origins, social-economic classes, ages, and abilities.

After traversing through Pride Square and turning onto Missouri Avenue on a Saturday night in the fall of 2011, I headed to the entrance of Chiquita’s Bar for the first time. The middle-aged doorman laughed with three men smoking cigarettes. Asking me for identification, he said, “OK, mijo,” when finishing his inspection of my passport card. To my female partner, the doorman playfully asked if she was “twenty-one just in Mexico or both [the US and Mexico]” and allowed her to move into the bar with an “OK, mija,” which literally translates to “my daughter” but is usually used in Mexican culture as a warm embrace from elders to younger people. This affectionate language and easy humor made us feel welcomed. 

After an amazing night hanging out, talking, laughing, and having a few drinks, I returned the very next day. The spot now had an older clientele. A welcoming patron offered, “There is menudo on the table if you want some,” pointing to a large steaming pot and plates by the bar’s entrance. They said it excitedly as if welcoming a family member or a friend to feast on traditional Mexican food. Once more, the language spoken within the space, be it Spanish or English or a mixture, invited one to enjoy inexpensive drinks, free menudo, and to interact with others. Those in Chiquita’s Bar created a Queer sanctuary in between two cultures, two languages, two nations.

The space was also a refuge in how everyone physically interacted. When I walked into the bar for the first time, the group at the bar’s entrance laughing with the middle-aged doorman were physically close to one another. Such closeness, I came to learn, was common. When greeting one another, people fully embraced with long hugs, at times kissing each other on the cheek. Folks touched when talking, giving shoulder and back rubs during conversations. Couples stayed close together. They held hands or placed their hands inside the other’s back pockets. They hugged and danced closely.

I especially remember one dancing couple: a pregnant young woman in a dark tank top and a man wearing sunglasses and a Dallas Cowboys jersey. I can still clearly picture how they mimicked sex acts over a chair, then a table, then on the dance floor. They laughed once they finished dancing. They obviously felt comfortable and took the routine as a joke. The woman later did much of the same when dancing with a young Euro-American man in a wheelchair. As a terrible dancer, I strictly stuck to standing around and sitting on barstools while people-watching and sipping on the most inexpensive beer the bar offered.

Tunes from the digital jukebox shifted from Lalo Mora, a Norteño artist, to Billy Idol and Madonna, and from electronic music to The Notorious B.I.G. That, in part, is why I liked Chiquita’s. People seemed comfortable expressing themselves and their taste in music around others doing the same. They were being their authentic selves—not performing for the heteronormative or Queer cultural worlds. Feeling comfortable just being myself, I wore my usual dress at the time, jeans and a flannel shirt. A few clients wore vaquero boots and sombreros or tejanas. (The bar was generally known as a Mexican or Latinx bar, after all.) But others wore business attire with dress shoes and ties. Some men simply came in with sports T-shirts, jeans, and tennis shoes. I remember one man came in with Vans sneakers, tight-cut jean shorts, and a tight-fitting T-shirt. And then there were the muscular men in black leather. Some were in vests with no shirts under, and one went shirtless and vestless with only black angel wings. All wore tight leather pants.

Gender norms were dismissed in the space as well. Some women dressed in traditionally masculine attire and some men in traditionally feminine clothes; all were accepted members of the space. I recall a gender-bending African American person in a short white skirt and white high heels being followed and admired around the bar by other patrons. Furthermore, men casually entered the women’s restroom and women casually entered the men’s restroom. (Gender neutral restrooms had yet to catch on.) The women at Chiquita’s Bar, aside from a bachelorette party, were in jeans and shirts. They were mostly having fun, laughing and conversing without needing to be worried over heterosexual men’s gazes or unwanted approaches. So free was the environment at Chiquita’s that at the time El Paso City Representative Susie Byrd came in dancing with a bachelorette party. A few men stepped on the dance floor to greet her with hugs and cheek kisses, which she returned. Many of those at Chiquita’s Bar were aware of equality issues and knew that Byrd implemented an LGBTQ-friendly agenda while in office by supporting domestic benefits for El Paso city employees—before marriage equality had reached any part of the South. Byrd danced with her female friends and left the dance floor to invite men to dance with her, saying, “Come on, come on.”6

* * *

Chiquita’s Bar, like the borderlands surrounding it, is a place where people are able to share the many identities and cultures that come together in the region and the bar. That is, the border is not a place at the peripheries of cultural worlds. It is a place of cultural making, including the making of a borderlands culture of sanctuary. While US popular culture continually—and inaccurately—depicts the US–Mexico borderlands as a dangerous “no-man’s land,” there is another borderlands ignored by such sensationalist rhetoric. There is a borderlands of sanctuary, a borderlands with some of the safest American cities, a Queer borderlands, a borderlands with multiple languages and cultures, a “perfect place for me” and others.7

The year after first visiting Chiquita’s Bar, I moved across Texas to Austin for work. There, I entered a quickly growing city that uses underpaid Latinx labor to build gleaming high-rises and skyscrapers in places where communities of color once thrived, all while seizing various Latinx cultural expressions to add flair to white-serving hipster coffee shops and restaurants. Still, the city’s Latinx people, which are majority Mexican, had (have) a thriving art, music, and food scene that welcomed newcomers like me (and demonstrated how the borderlands where the US, Mexico, and Latin America meet are not just located along national boundaries). I then moved to Dallas in 2013 to attend graduate school at Southern Methodist University, which is located in a wealthy, conservative, and almost all-white inner suburb that I avoided. Unlike stereotypes about it, Dallas is a global city where Latinxs make up the largest ethnic group. But the city’s halls of power are restrictive. As historian Michael Phillips has argued, people of color in Dallas have faced “continual political dominance by white business elites”—not unlike my home part of Texas. Phillips writes that in “schools, the media, the pulpit, and the political institutions,” these white business elites have continually erased the city’s diverse past through a fabricated historical memory and its present with bulldozers spreading gentrification and monumental expressways over minoritized communities. Despite such efforts, Latinx neighborhoods remain, offering a haven and a different vision of the city than its ruling class. However, most of the Queer spaces in these two cities were not created to welcome Mexicans or other Latinxs.8

As I navigated work, graduate school, and various moves, I continued to visit El Paso and Chiquita’s Bar through the years. And in 2019, a decade after first arriving at the border, I moved back to El Paso to temporarily teach at my alma mater. I had the privilege of working with students that reminded me of my teenage self. Spending my days and nights writing, preparing lessons, applying to long-term positions, and consciously avoiding running into my wonderful students at a bar, I didn’t go to Chiquita’s Bar or any other night spots.

About a year later, I moved to the Pacific Northwest to continue my academic career. From over a thousand miles away, I miss many things about the border: seeing my parents’ birth country across the Rio Grande as I walked to class, the dry desert, the sun. Having experienced the joy of being on the border and now living in a place even whiter than the Texas Panhandle, I especially miss, in the words of El Paso–origin poet Pat Mora, “the pleasure of moving back and forth between two languages—a pleasure that can deepen human understanding and increase our versatility conceptually.” Mora notes that language “allows us to see and explore our world anew.” In switching between my taught language and my first language when I moved to El Paso, I had the opportunity to see and try things out in my new home, to feel at ease in my Brown skin and mother tongue. Chiquita’s Bar and other Queer spaces on the US–Mexico border also allowed me “to see and explore the world anew”—to find who I was and could become.9

This essay was first published in the Sanctuary issue (vol. 28, no. 2: Summer 2022).

Joel Zapata is assistant professor at Oregon State University. Zapata completed his PhD at Southern Methodist University, and his dissertation won the 2020 National Association for Chicana and Chicano Studies Tejas Foco Dissertation Award. His “Taking Chicana/o Activist History to the Public” received the Frederick C. Luebke Award for the best article published in the Great Plains Quarterly in 2018.
  1. Josh Katz and Wilson Andrews, “How Y’all, Youse and You Guys Talk,” New York Times, December 21, 2013, https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2014/upshot/dialect-quiz-map.html.
  2. Louis Dubose, “Hispanic Power in the Panhandle,” Texas Observer, January 15, 1988, 10; Molly Ivins, “Bringing Hereford out of the Dark Ages,” Texas Civil Liberties Reporter (Summer 1987): 6. I use the term Queer as an overarching, even if incomplete, identifier for nonheteronormative.
  3. Yolanda Chávez Leyva, “‘There Is Great Good in Returning’: A Testimonio from the Borderlands,” Frontiers 24, nos. 2 & 3 (2003): 6.
  4. Bárbara Renaud González, Golondrina, Why Did You Leave Me? A Novel (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2009), 199. In an author’s note, Renaud González asserts, “This book is a fictionalized telling of my family’s story. The events are completely real to Texas, however, a story so cruel and sublime that if I wrote the truth you wouldn’t believe it” (xii).
  5. David Romo, Ringside Seat to a Revolution: An Underground Cultural History of El Paso and Juárez, 1893–1923 (El Paso: Cinco Puntos Press, 2005), 148; Mario T. García, Desert Immigrants: The Mexicans of El Paso, 1880–1920 (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1981), 250; Bob Champman, “Dudley Beats K.K.K. by 2,120,” El Paso Times, February 2, 1923; Yolanda Chávez Leyva, “Remembering the Pet Shop and Orogrande, NM,” Fierce Fronteriza (blog), March 25, 2017, https://www.fiercefronteriza.com/fierce-fronteriza-blog/remembering-the-pet-shop-and-orogrande-nm. Unlike 1974, the local police department was no longer raiding gay bars and clubs in the 2010s, and society was at times on its way to becoming more open in regard to sexuality. This was because of the bravery and social justice work of previous generations.
  6. Marty Schladen, “City Restores Domestic Partner Benefits,” El Paso Times, June 14, 2011, http://www.elpasotimes.com/ci_18270403?IADID=Search-www.elpasotimes.com-www.elpasotimes.com.
  7. Emma Pérez, “Decolonial Border Queers: Case Studies of Chicana/o Lesbians, Gay Men, and Transgender Folks in El Paso/Juárez,” in Performing the US Latina and Latino Borderlands, ed. Arturo J. Aldama, Chela Sandoval, and Peter J. García (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2012), 201; Victor M. Ortiz Gonzalez, El Paso: Local Frontiers at a Global Crossroads (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2004), x; Julían Aguilar, “El Paso Again Tops the List of the Safest U.S. Cities,” Texas Tribune, February 5, 2013, http://www.texastribune.org/2013/02/05/el-paso-again-rankedcountrys-safest-city/; Julían Aguilar, “The Majority of Texas Border Residents Feel Safe,” Texas Tribune, August 10, 2010, http://www.texastribune.org/2010/08/10/poll-majority-of-border-residents-feel-safe/; González, Golondrina, 199.
  8. Javier Auyero, ed., Invisible in Austin: Life and Labor in an American City (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2015); “QuickFacts: Dallas City, Texas,” United States Census Bureau, accessed February 25, 2022, https://www.census.gov/quickfacts/dallascitytexas; Michael Phillips, White Metropolis: Race, Ethnicity, and Religion in Dallas, 1841–2001 (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2006), 3, 16; A. K. Sandoval-Strausz, Barrio America: How Latino Immigrants Saved the American City (New York: Basic Books, 2019).
  9. Pat Mora, Nepantla: Essays from the Land in the Middle (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1993), 10, 11.