“Si güey, el Zacas va a cerrar” (“Yeah man, Zacas is closing”), a musician named Osvaldo “el Teme” said, confirming the rumor. “Someone told me it will happen before the end of the year. We should go talk to Pancho; he knows all the details. We will definitely be playing a goodbye show before it is gone for good.”
Osvaldo is the lead singer of the most prominent reggae band in Tijuana, Cañamo, and more than just a regular at Zacas.
Named after a municipality near Mexico City, Bar Zacazonapan (better known as “Zacas”) has been by the entrance to Zona Norte since 1975. The first thing you smell when entering the “tolerance zone” is fried chicken mixed with sewer odors. But as soon as you turn the corner on 1st street and head down toward Zona Norte, you get a whiff of cannabis smoke.
If you ignore the smell and opt to continue walking straight, you will find yourself in adult Disneyland. “Ven conmigo pápi,” hookers beckon, trying to snatch customers off the street. “Come on in, my friend. The girls have big titties. No cover, my friend. I got yeyo,” bouncers entreat.
If the smell of cannabis entices you, you'll find yourself going down the half-spiral staircase. The dark and damp basement has stone walls and exposed wood. Modern art, graffiti, and posters of Bob Marley, Jim Morrison, and the Beatles decorate the walls. Most people drink caguamas (32 oz beers) as they smoke cigarettes and more. Pretty much anything goes.
“The bar has always been a family business,” says Francisco “Pancho” Villar, the owner of Zacazonapan Bar, sharing his philosophy on a video interview that was made three months ago by Daniel Rosas.
“My dad is 84 now, so his children inherited the bar. One of my brothers got sick and cannot work anymore. The other wanted out, so we bought him out. Just like we helped my dad, now my sons and daughters are the ones that help me with the bar. There is nothing more important to me than my kids and my grandkid. Famous people have been here, but the regular patrons are more important to me. I know nothing is forever, so I am aware that Zacas will close someday.”
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“We can find Pancho behind the bar Thursdays to Saturdays at night,” Osvaldo said, agreeing to meet at Zacas on a Thursday night. I sat at the bar with my roommate, ordered a caguama, and waited for Osvaldo. Without a proper introduction, I felt it would have been rude to start asking questions about the potential closure, so instead I ordered more beer.
“Tio, pasa dos caguas Pacifico y tres medias,” a waiter shouted at Pancho for drinks. “Pa! El jugo!” the waitress asked for grape juice. As I drank and analyzed the most iconic Tijuana dive bar, for the first time I noticed that every employee had a striking resemblance to Pancho. A family business, indeed.
Natalie joined us at the bar as we ordered more caguamas and my hopes for Osvaldo to show up dwindled.
“No va a cerrar, pero si nos vamos a mover” (We are not closing, but we are moving), Pancho told me after I decided to ask him about the rumor. “We rent the place. The owners want to sell it. We will have to move on… Mira, we've been here for 40 years. We could fight and keep the place, but it is a complicated situation.”
Pancho kept spewing details, but the loud music made it difficult to hear.
“Don't write any of that, I do not want to get in trouble with the law.”
Pancho chuckled when I told him the rumor about Jorge Hank Rhon, one of the richest men in Tijuana, buying the whole block.
“Ha! No, it is not him. If it was [Hank], we would already be out. When he was city mayor, he shut down the bar often.”
Zacas gets raided by the government every now and then, causing the bar to shut its doors temporarily.
As to when the bar will be closing or where it might be moving, Pancho was not sure. Orders for more caguamas were piling up. Pancho asked my name again, shook my hand, and got back to work. Cañamo started playing on the jukebox. Me and my companions enjoyed what could be our last beer at el Zacas.