Last dance

In Dallas' cantinas, where the company of pretty young meseras is doled out by the drink, a killer lurks

One minute, the woman in the clingy, curvy red and black dress makes the rounds as a waitress, taking drink orders from the tables of men at Mike's El Socio Nightclub. The next moment, she is sitting with a customer in boots and straw hat, talking and laughing with him as if on a date. Then she is shuffling across the dance floor with the middle-aged man, moving to the unbending polka rhythms of the recorded norteno that booms through the East Dallas club.

All around them on the dance floor are other mismatched partners: Mexican cowboys or young men in T-shirts and tennis shoes dipping and swaying with women dressed to kill in little black mini-dresses and heavy mascara, or skin-tight Selena pants with silver and red high heels.

As the accordions wheeze and chirp, some of the women offer quickie dance lessons to their stumble-footed partners as the mirror ball picks up the twinkling of the Christmas lights over the dance floor, reflecting it back as a big, spinning circle on the wooden boards below. "Ninety percent of the girls in here are working," says Bibi, one of the club's women, looking on from the back hallway on a recent Friday night. "This isn't the kind of place you'd bring your girlfriend."

That's because Mike's is a home away from home for working stiffs, indocumentados looking to buy a little time, maybe a dance or two, with a woman. And for this there are meseras, translated literally as "table waitresses"--women who spend innocent moments talking, dancing, fetching beers for any man who can pony up the price of their company.

Mike's and cantinas like it exist in a hidden, secretive world, unfamiliar even to most Dallas Hispanics, let alone the city's Anglos. But they've been much on the minds of a couple of Dallas homicide detectives.

At least since the murders.
In the early morning of June 27, a pretty 24-year-old mesera named Olivia Hernandez left her job at Mike's with a man, a thin young guy in Western attire. She was found the next afternoon, nude and strangled to death, at a construction site in northwest Dallas.

Detectives revealed last month that they have conclusive proof that the man who killed Hernandez had strangled another mesera to death on February 15.

Maria Perales, a 20-year-old with dusky good looks, had left her job at the El Tapatio Club in South Dallas, then was seen at La Cabana on Industrial Boulevard, then was never seen alive again. Her nude, strangled body was found early the next morning on the edge of a dark East Dallas side street, where it was dumped from a truck or car.

Dallas police, who have no suspects, say a serial killer may be searching for his next prey tonight in Dallas' cantinas.

Detective Jesse Trevino, who is overseeing the investigation, says witnesses at the bars have provided only a general description of the man with whom Hernandez and Perales left the bars.

The search for the killer has taken Trevino and two colleagues deep into the invisible world of the illegal work force, the cantinas, and the young women whose allure fuels the bars and makes them go.

"It kind of reminds me of the Wild West," Trevino says. "These are guys who are living with six other guys with no chance of meeting a girl. On the weekends, they splash on some cheap cologne and go to town to meet a lady."

One man, though, has something far more frightful, far more ghastly in mind.

Like more than a dozen other cantinas around Dallas, Mike's El Socio is a modern-day version of the 1930s taxi-dancing club. Willing women in their teens, 20s, or early 30s fetch beers, chat, drink, and dance for a price--money doled out in the form of drink surcharges, tips for each dance, and in some taverns, dance or drink tickets sold at the bar.

The women may be called waitresses, but they have much different duties than those assigned to the Jennifers and Alisons at your corner Bennigan's. "Their job is to keep the men in the club, consuming drinks and having a good time," says Luis, a cook at an Irving restaurant who is familiar with the clubs.

If they insist on anything more, the mesera is likely to summon a bouncer. This isn't about stripping or lap dancing or sex for sale.

"They do this for money, to send back to Mexico," says Bibi, the woman at Mike's, who declined to give her last name.

A stew of beer signs and cigarette smoke, the club is done in threadbare red carpet and a crude red paint job, thick and untrimmed, like the set of a low-budget theater production. "Dancing with men in here," says Bibi, "it's like dancing with your grandfather."

The mesera business is as old as the needs of lonely men far from home--whether they're U.S. soldiers buying dancing partners and more in Saigon during the Vietnam War, or migrant Mexicans two-stepping with young women after a hard day on the construction sites of North Texas. Some remember the phenomenon in Texas as far back as the 1960s, when the women were known as peseteras, or quarter dancers.

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