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The medieval pleasures of Tijuana's Zona Norte

There is nothing for the visitor to do but move on down a block to Coahuila

El Infierno, a whole building covered with painted flames, stands directly opposite Coahuila’s only church. - Image by Paul Stachelek
El Infierno, a whole building covered with painted flames, stands directly opposite Coahuila’s only church.

The strippers and dancing girls of the Calle Coahuila seem, at first glance, to belong nowhere but in Tijuana’s Zona Norte. They are as ingrained in the border town’s sex district as the corrugated tin roofs, bucket-sized mariachi bars, and Indian beggars that surround them on all sides. But like the bangled geishas of Lahore or the fabled Dancers of Gion of medieval Japan, the performers of Coahuila live in a lantern-lit world apart — a world of grease-paint, mannered titillation, and brutal theater.

The New York Club tries hard to emulate the tropical nightclubs to which film noir heroes escape with suitcases of forged dollar notes.

The Zona Norte begins with Constitucion, Tijuana’s most alarming thoroughfare. Before it slides steeply downhill into depravity and the Zona Norte, it betrays nothing of its ultimate destination.

And it is only as the nervous intruder feels the pock-marked pavement begin to veer away beneath him and the pavements narrow into tunnels that he suspects he is changing climate. The mariachis ululating in the side streets, the errant musicians dragging their hand-painted basses and guitars on their backs, the prostitutes cowering in the tiny spaces between cobblers, the clam stalls and roaring barbershops are all elements of a world as alien to him as the Martian cities of Edgar Rice Burroughs.

All over the Zona Norte familiarity and lack of self-conscious shame make the sex district unexpectedly childish.

Turning off into the alley just before Coahuila, near the bottom of the hill, where the terrifying cantina called Las Charritas opens a single menacing eye onto the world, he is plunged immediately into a theater that no American city has tolerated in decades. On either side of a plane of black rubble, filled with irregular lagoons of rainwater, the Zona’s most vicious saloons, most of them surmounted by sinister wooden models of stagecoaches and demonic cowboys, open their flap-doors to Tijuana’s manhood.

As the tourist advances slowly toward the doors of Las Charritas, unsure as to what mode of entertainment he is going to be overwhelmed by, dogs come rushing toward him, perhaps smelling something vulnerable. And the hostess posted on her steel chair, looking like a guardian of Hell in her hennaed hair, kohled eyes, and Gestapo boots, informs him by means of a single glance that if he is insane enough to ask her the formalities of admission, he might as well forget all the normal privileges of a terrestrial Christian. In fact, this is forbidden territory for him, and there is nothing for him to do but move on down a block to Coahuila.

The Noa-Noa is easily the most crowded of Tijuana’s redlight bars.

For there, at least, the clubs aspire to be cabarets, and in the showcase windows of the New York Club, the Manhattan, or even the sad and delinquent Guadalajara, one can see the likes of Zulena, Nataly, and Jennifer done up in bow ties, fishnets, and dinner jackets, frozen in the inimitable poses of nothing less than the “Latin Show Ballet.” The Zona Norte is one of those rare places that refuses to observe the boundaries between night and day. It lives in a state of confusion, disinclined to choose between one or the other and indifferent to those frivolous events known as dawn and dusk. For two blocks from Constitucion on, Coahuila plays at being a twilight fairground And almost every available space is given over to despondent sex cabarets with the charm and sophistication of all-night butchers. Halfway down the street, El Infierno, a whole building covered with painted flames, stands directly opposite Coahuila’s only church — a tiny chapel that the street girls say is open only four hours a week. Unlike El Infierno, of course, which never closes. And the bars themselves are filled with so-called “taxi girls,” dollar-a-dancers who take their customers to the bedraggled tiny hotels above the street for $30 and who work from different establishments for different races: the Adelita for gringos, other locations for Japanese and Mexicans.

In the ’40s, the area was known for its so-called “donkey shows,” live acts performed by women and that priapic beast, recalling the donkey festivals of ancient Rome. The donkey is known even now in most Latin folklore as a symbol of virility. But what exactly is the significance of the stuffed donkey we can see on the garbage-strewn pavement of Constitucion today, upon which tourists in sombreros have themselves primly photographed? Is this a relic of that strange kind of beauty Andre Breton once described as being like “the circulation of blood between the highest and the lowest species”?

Whatever it may be, the donkeys have now disappeared, and the sleekest of today’s nightclubs, the New York, would not dream of showing its audiences such spectacles of bestiality. With its facade of blood-red tiles, its hydraulic stage rising and falling to the shriek of a band hidden on a shadowed balcony, the New York Club tries hard to emulate the tropical nightclubs to which film noir heroes escape with suitcases of forged dollar notes. There are the languid, middle-class Mexican couples out for a mild thrill. There is the perilous bar filled with courtesans looking for a casual kill. There are the small-time bosses, cement nabobs and refrigeration barons in their topaz cuff-links and string ties. And there, at odd tables, are the spreads of ice buckets, half-hacked lobsters, and bottles of Taittinger, laid on for his belle by some balding tycoon of the Tijuana construction boom. This morose creature will, from time to time, lean over, slap one of the girls’ backsides with a chubby, ring-heavy hand, and yell to the whole room: “Ah, quegatas, las chicas!” And all the waiters will simultaneously burst out laughing.

Now, the idea of sitting at tables with cocktails while watching half-dressed boys and girls mime to Liza Minelli songs as they wade through a miasma of dried ice is perhaps a concept of entertainment that has long died out elsewhere in the world, but not at the New York Club. Nor is there a lack of prima donnas in this business of musical mime. A voice from on high never ceases to remind us that the star performer, known simply as La Rubia del Pacifico (“una mujer, senores e senoras, la mas perfecta!”) is a Ruby in more senses than one.

La Rubia, wrapped in boa feathers, tries hard to arouse in her audience that mixture of the sexual and the aesthetic, an effort that is always doomed to failure. She dances, flings open her arms, opens her soul. But whatever he may delude himself into thinking, the spectator always has to make a choice between one or the other, and with La Rubia, the sexual unfortunately dominates. One can see she is slightly upset at this fact and wishes it otherwise. She goes to incredible lengths to dance well, to bend her lips to the words “Money makes the world go around,” to be an artiste; but in the end the audience is merely measuring inch by inch the curve of her buttocks. Her flourishes, her pas-de-deuxare all to no avail; shades of donkeys past hover over her.

La Rubia looks about 17, and indeed all the professional dancers at the New York have the bodies of adolescents. The well-off, after all, do not pay to see half-naked Earth Mothers cavorting about a stage. But the down-at-heel, long-distance truck drivers across the road at the Guadalajara do — for here, all pretense has finally been stripped away, and the naked drama of the voyeur is at last laid bare, without anyone caring in the least what the object looks like. And once in his seat, the customer will not see La Rubia del Pacifico or the lovely Latin Ballet Show. He will see a roly-poly creature called La Rosa Negra done up in opera gloves and laced white knee boots shuffling around a dirty circular stage as if in a catatonic trance. Shimmering with velvet tassles, she shakes her immense belly with a lascivious motion which, the excited compere screams, is “totalmente artistico!”

One after another, La Rosa, Adelita, Magali, the sad strippers of the Guadalajara, waddle into the limelight, pause for a moment to adjust their own lighting, accept the jeers of the louts sitting at the tables, and then wobble their hips around the stage to Mexican disco tunes. Occasionally, a loud snore rumbles from one of the tables and a hat rolls silently onto the floor. La Rosa, Adelita, and Magali pay no attention whatsoever. And only at the climax of their act do they roll their eyes, shiver all over, and whip away that tassled brassiere. As they do, there are muffled cries of “iOle!”

It has to be admitted that we may well be a million miles away here from the exquisite ceremonies of Gion or the Yoshiwara. There are no geishas playing lutes here. But what is perhaps similar is the easy confraternity of performer and client. As La Rosa leaves the floor, rocking slightly on bow legs towards the exit door, she stops to exchange merry obscenities with three patrons, takes off the bra again, undoes her little sky-blue crushed velvet skirt to let them peer upon her hidden pudenda, laughs a chain-saw laugh, and finally rolls off like a tragic Fellini showgirl — sentimentally gushing, teetering on her heels and waving goodbye to a virtually empty room. It is almost as if she is taking her leave of a roomful of mummies.

All over the Zona Norte, in fact, this familiarity and lack of self-conscious shame make the sex district unexpectedly childish. Even in El Infierno with its decor of lapping flames and its fresco of the Devil sodomizing some unfortunate sinner, or the temperamental Asa Negra with its equally sinister decor of giant playing cards, or the transsexual Noa-Noa, the performers are separated by very little from their clients.

And there is something else that makes the bars of Zona similar to the pleasure houses of the Middle Ages. The latter were often places of subversion, where tongues could wag more freely than they could elsewhere. In Mexico, it is not that these red-light districts are filled with budding revolutionaries; it is that they are places where a certain kind of linguistic obscenity can flourish. Mexicans have a particular term for this obscenity or foul language — chingada. Chingada is a kind of blasphemy, a verbal aggression both exciting and scandalous. And it is to this chingada that the nightly audience at the Noa-Noa is exposed.

The Noa-Noa is easily the most crowded of Tijuana’s redlight bars, and here — at the heart of the Zona Norte’s gay scene — the transsexual performers who mime to Mexican ballads whip their audiences with a stream of chingada obscenity. Indeed, their very physical presence, that abortive mixing of male and female, the half-formed breasts, the hair in ringlets, and the masklike face make them instigators of chingada. The Mexican lesbian couples caressing in the dark, like the aging Anglo gays with their Tijuainan beaus on the adjoining tables, are there merely to have themselves offended, lacerated, and in general submitted to a kind of sing-song verbal savagery. Why are all these queers, the hundred-pound transvestite in studs would like to know, not using the services of our local Jesuits? Are they afraid of losing their corruption? Do they think they might end up regaining their maidenhoods?

The visitor will never understand the perversities of this cat-and-mouse-game, nor its doubtlessly subtle pleasures. After a while, the terrible noise of the powerful bisexual lungs belching out their sentimental lyrics will begin to cause an encroaching numbness. He will begin to feel giddy, reach for his car keys, and head once more back towards the flap-door where a tight crowd stands for most of the night listening to chingada. He may well have felt a sudden nostalgia for ice cream or healthy golf or Mass. In any case, he will leave the Zona Norte by the way he came, along the deafening tunnels of Constitucion. The mariachis are still wailing in the Colondrino bar, the Malagra, and Las Charritas; the drunken mestizos are still reeling through the mud gutters carefully hiding their paper-wrapped bottles of-mescal; and from Coahuila itself, following him like the mad music of some distant and misplaced angelic embassy, he hears the sound of singing from the little church that stands forlornly opposite Hell.

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El Infierno, a whole building covered with painted flames, stands directly opposite Coahuila’s only church. - Image by Paul Stachelek
El Infierno, a whole building covered with painted flames, stands directly opposite Coahuila’s only church.

The strippers and dancing girls of the Calle Coahuila seem, at first glance, to belong nowhere but in Tijuana’s Zona Norte. They are as ingrained in the border town’s sex district as the corrugated tin roofs, bucket-sized mariachi bars, and Indian beggars that surround them on all sides. But like the bangled geishas of Lahore or the fabled Dancers of Gion of medieval Japan, the performers of Coahuila live in a lantern-lit world apart — a world of grease-paint, mannered titillation, and brutal theater.

The New York Club tries hard to emulate the tropical nightclubs to which film noir heroes escape with suitcases of forged dollar notes.

The Zona Norte begins with Constitucion, Tijuana’s most alarming thoroughfare. Before it slides steeply downhill into depravity and the Zona Norte, it betrays nothing of its ultimate destination.

And it is only as the nervous intruder feels the pock-marked pavement begin to veer away beneath him and the pavements narrow into tunnels that he suspects he is changing climate. The mariachis ululating in the side streets, the errant musicians dragging their hand-painted basses and guitars on their backs, the prostitutes cowering in the tiny spaces between cobblers, the clam stalls and roaring barbershops are all elements of a world as alien to him as the Martian cities of Edgar Rice Burroughs.

All over the Zona Norte familiarity and lack of self-conscious shame make the sex district unexpectedly childish.

Turning off into the alley just before Coahuila, near the bottom of the hill, where the terrifying cantina called Las Charritas opens a single menacing eye onto the world, he is plunged immediately into a theater that no American city has tolerated in decades. On either side of a plane of black rubble, filled with irregular lagoons of rainwater, the Zona’s most vicious saloons, most of them surmounted by sinister wooden models of stagecoaches and demonic cowboys, open their flap-doors to Tijuana’s manhood.

As the tourist advances slowly toward the doors of Las Charritas, unsure as to what mode of entertainment he is going to be overwhelmed by, dogs come rushing toward him, perhaps smelling something vulnerable. And the hostess posted on her steel chair, looking like a guardian of Hell in her hennaed hair, kohled eyes, and Gestapo boots, informs him by means of a single glance that if he is insane enough to ask her the formalities of admission, he might as well forget all the normal privileges of a terrestrial Christian. In fact, this is forbidden territory for him, and there is nothing for him to do but move on down a block to Coahuila.

The Noa-Noa is easily the most crowded of Tijuana’s redlight bars.

For there, at least, the clubs aspire to be cabarets, and in the showcase windows of the New York Club, the Manhattan, or even the sad and delinquent Guadalajara, one can see the likes of Zulena, Nataly, and Jennifer done up in bow ties, fishnets, and dinner jackets, frozen in the inimitable poses of nothing less than the “Latin Show Ballet.” The Zona Norte is one of those rare places that refuses to observe the boundaries between night and day. It lives in a state of confusion, disinclined to choose between one or the other and indifferent to those frivolous events known as dawn and dusk. For two blocks from Constitucion on, Coahuila plays at being a twilight fairground And almost every available space is given over to despondent sex cabarets with the charm and sophistication of all-night butchers. Halfway down the street, El Infierno, a whole building covered with painted flames, stands directly opposite Coahuila’s only church — a tiny chapel that the street girls say is open only four hours a week. Unlike El Infierno, of course, which never closes. And the bars themselves are filled with so-called “taxi girls,” dollar-a-dancers who take their customers to the bedraggled tiny hotels above the street for $30 and who work from different establishments for different races: the Adelita for gringos, other locations for Japanese and Mexicans.

In the ’40s, the area was known for its so-called “donkey shows,” live acts performed by women and that priapic beast, recalling the donkey festivals of ancient Rome. The donkey is known even now in most Latin folklore as a symbol of virility. But what exactly is the significance of the stuffed donkey we can see on the garbage-strewn pavement of Constitucion today, upon which tourists in sombreros have themselves primly photographed? Is this a relic of that strange kind of beauty Andre Breton once described as being like “the circulation of blood between the highest and the lowest species”?

Whatever it may be, the donkeys have now disappeared, and the sleekest of today’s nightclubs, the New York, would not dream of showing its audiences such spectacles of bestiality. With its facade of blood-red tiles, its hydraulic stage rising and falling to the shriek of a band hidden on a shadowed balcony, the New York Club tries hard to emulate the tropical nightclubs to which film noir heroes escape with suitcases of forged dollar notes. There are the languid, middle-class Mexican couples out for a mild thrill. There is the perilous bar filled with courtesans looking for a casual kill. There are the small-time bosses, cement nabobs and refrigeration barons in their topaz cuff-links and string ties. And there, at odd tables, are the spreads of ice buckets, half-hacked lobsters, and bottles of Taittinger, laid on for his belle by some balding tycoon of the Tijuana construction boom. This morose creature will, from time to time, lean over, slap one of the girls’ backsides with a chubby, ring-heavy hand, and yell to the whole room: “Ah, quegatas, las chicas!” And all the waiters will simultaneously burst out laughing.

Now, the idea of sitting at tables with cocktails while watching half-dressed boys and girls mime to Liza Minelli songs as they wade through a miasma of dried ice is perhaps a concept of entertainment that has long died out elsewhere in the world, but not at the New York Club. Nor is there a lack of prima donnas in this business of musical mime. A voice from on high never ceases to remind us that the star performer, known simply as La Rubia del Pacifico (“una mujer, senores e senoras, la mas perfecta!”) is a Ruby in more senses than one.

La Rubia, wrapped in boa feathers, tries hard to arouse in her audience that mixture of the sexual and the aesthetic, an effort that is always doomed to failure. She dances, flings open her arms, opens her soul. But whatever he may delude himself into thinking, the spectator always has to make a choice between one or the other, and with La Rubia, the sexual unfortunately dominates. One can see she is slightly upset at this fact and wishes it otherwise. She goes to incredible lengths to dance well, to bend her lips to the words “Money makes the world go around,” to be an artiste; but in the end the audience is merely measuring inch by inch the curve of her buttocks. Her flourishes, her pas-de-deuxare all to no avail; shades of donkeys past hover over her.

La Rubia looks about 17, and indeed all the professional dancers at the New York have the bodies of adolescents. The well-off, after all, do not pay to see half-naked Earth Mothers cavorting about a stage. But the down-at-heel, long-distance truck drivers across the road at the Guadalajara do — for here, all pretense has finally been stripped away, and the naked drama of the voyeur is at last laid bare, without anyone caring in the least what the object looks like. And once in his seat, the customer will not see La Rubia del Pacifico or the lovely Latin Ballet Show. He will see a roly-poly creature called La Rosa Negra done up in opera gloves and laced white knee boots shuffling around a dirty circular stage as if in a catatonic trance. Shimmering with velvet tassles, she shakes her immense belly with a lascivious motion which, the excited compere screams, is “totalmente artistico!”

One after another, La Rosa, Adelita, Magali, the sad strippers of the Guadalajara, waddle into the limelight, pause for a moment to adjust their own lighting, accept the jeers of the louts sitting at the tables, and then wobble their hips around the stage to Mexican disco tunes. Occasionally, a loud snore rumbles from one of the tables and a hat rolls silently onto the floor. La Rosa, Adelita, and Magali pay no attention whatsoever. And only at the climax of their act do they roll their eyes, shiver all over, and whip away that tassled brassiere. As they do, there are muffled cries of “iOle!”

It has to be admitted that we may well be a million miles away here from the exquisite ceremonies of Gion or the Yoshiwara. There are no geishas playing lutes here. But what is perhaps similar is the easy confraternity of performer and client. As La Rosa leaves the floor, rocking slightly on bow legs towards the exit door, she stops to exchange merry obscenities with three patrons, takes off the bra again, undoes her little sky-blue crushed velvet skirt to let them peer upon her hidden pudenda, laughs a chain-saw laugh, and finally rolls off like a tragic Fellini showgirl — sentimentally gushing, teetering on her heels and waving goodbye to a virtually empty room. It is almost as if she is taking her leave of a roomful of mummies.

All over the Zona Norte, in fact, this familiarity and lack of self-conscious shame make the sex district unexpectedly childish. Even in El Infierno with its decor of lapping flames and its fresco of the Devil sodomizing some unfortunate sinner, or the temperamental Asa Negra with its equally sinister decor of giant playing cards, or the transsexual Noa-Noa, the performers are separated by very little from their clients.

And there is something else that makes the bars of Zona similar to the pleasure houses of the Middle Ages. The latter were often places of subversion, where tongues could wag more freely than they could elsewhere. In Mexico, it is not that these red-light districts are filled with budding revolutionaries; it is that they are places where a certain kind of linguistic obscenity can flourish. Mexicans have a particular term for this obscenity or foul language — chingada. Chingada is a kind of blasphemy, a verbal aggression both exciting and scandalous. And it is to this chingada that the nightly audience at the Noa-Noa is exposed.

The Noa-Noa is easily the most crowded of Tijuana’s redlight bars, and here — at the heart of the Zona Norte’s gay scene — the transsexual performers who mime to Mexican ballads whip their audiences with a stream of chingada obscenity. Indeed, their very physical presence, that abortive mixing of male and female, the half-formed breasts, the hair in ringlets, and the masklike face make them instigators of chingada. The Mexican lesbian couples caressing in the dark, like the aging Anglo gays with their Tijuainan beaus on the adjoining tables, are there merely to have themselves offended, lacerated, and in general submitted to a kind of sing-song verbal savagery. Why are all these queers, the hundred-pound transvestite in studs would like to know, not using the services of our local Jesuits? Are they afraid of losing their corruption? Do they think they might end up regaining their maidenhoods?

The visitor will never understand the perversities of this cat-and-mouse-game, nor its doubtlessly subtle pleasures. After a while, the terrible noise of the powerful bisexual lungs belching out their sentimental lyrics will begin to cause an encroaching numbness. He will begin to feel giddy, reach for his car keys, and head once more back towards the flap-door where a tight crowd stands for most of the night listening to chingada. He may well have felt a sudden nostalgia for ice cream or healthy golf or Mass. In any case, he will leave the Zona Norte by the way he came, along the deafening tunnels of Constitucion. The mariachis are still wailing in the Colondrino bar, the Malagra, and Las Charritas; the drunken mestizos are still reeling through the mud gutters carefully hiding their paper-wrapped bottles of-mescal; and from Coahuila itself, following him like the mad music of some distant and misplaced angelic embassy, he hears the sound of singing from the little church that stands forlornly opposite Hell.

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