At closing time on a recent Saturday night, Ignacio leaned against the bar at Bamboleo's, a gay Latino club near Oak Lawn, satisfied that he'd snared one last beer before the cut-off.
He wanted it known that he usually would have been drunk by that time, but instead of boozy pronouncements, he offered a lucid conviction about Texas' 2 a.m. law. Ignacio is from Mexico, where 2 a.m. doesn't mean you stop drinking. "That law is stupid," he said. "It's not like these people are going to church tomorrow."
In the tradition of 2 a.m. introductions, Ignacio didn't offer a last name, but he did give several strident opinions that night, maybe because he was upset: Ignacio wasn't getting what he came for.
He looked toward the dance floor, sunken beneath the main floor. The people in the dancing pit could have come straight out of an innocent hoedown in small-town Texas, except that all the dancers were Hispanic, male and dancing with each other. Seen from up above the dance pit, a sea of white cowboy hats was bobbing up and down in time to Spanish rock, cumbia, ranchera, norteña and drawn-out club versions of popular American hits.
At even routine fiestas like this, it is an unspoken rule that a Mexican--even if he is in the United States--should obey his urge to offer up a grito, a tight, controlled ai-yai-eeee sound that erupted into the air here and there. Small groups of guys in spiny ostrich cowboy boots and tight Wranglers with ironed creases had gathered around the tables, but they were all looking at the dance floor. Sometimes the dancers do a kind of Texas two-step, but more elaborate, like a waltz; during other songs, one man wraps his right arm tightly around the waist of another, as if he were helping a friend off the field after an injury. The couples follow one another in a slow circle around the packed dance floor.
A couple wearing black Wranglers were hovering near the dance floor, both of them with a hand in the other's back pocket. They had on black cowboy hats whose broad brims had been tightly curled toward the sky. One of the men had pinned a golden brooch to his brim that spelled out his last name; the other man's pin said "Zacatecas," announcing to everyone in the bar not only the Mexican state he comes from but his pride in his provenance.
There should be nothing surprising about seeing the two of them gently kiss each other. Bamboleo's is a gay bar, after all, but something about their macho outfits and shit-kicker self-possession makes a white reporter who owns neither cowboy boots nor Wranglers strongly suspect that had he seen the two of them on the street, his gaydar would not have alerted him to the fact that they are gay.
Bamboleo's is Dallas' official watering hole for gay Hispanic immigrants, and weekends are a happy reunion for the immigrants, acculturated Latinos and white gay men who show up there. Throughout Bamboleo's, there's the usual predatory cruising that goes on in any gay bar, but despite its boxy, warehouse layout, Bamboleo's feels homey after you've been there a few times. That's because Bamboleo's patrons have made its two dance floors their own: The dance pit, where techno music is now played, draws a young crowd that seems less like they've been living in the United States for a while--more like the crowd at Kaliente, another gay Latino bar about a mile away. The immigrants arrayed in cowboy gear don't visit that area of Bamboleo's anymore, because the crowd wanting to dance to Mexican country music has swelled so much, Bamboleo's owners have started playing the ranchera music in the larger dance floor.
The night that Ignacio was at Bamboleo's, the DJ played a quirky, "Macarena"-like club anthem, "El Gato Volador," which means "The Flying Cat." "There was a party in my barrio," the song goes, translated from Spanish. "Don Gato arrived/Tom the Cat arrived/Felix the Cat arrived/Sylvester arrived/Garfield also came/But there was one cat missing/Do you know who it is? Hmm?/The flying cat." The dancers were flowing in their circle around the dance pit, but Ignacio wanted nothing to do with all that communal happiness.
His blustery swagger and good looks weren't attracting anyone; after two years in the United States, he still seemed to expect people to come to him. We'd struck up that kind of amiable and intimate talk that sometimes happens between two people at a bar who aren't busy talking to someone else. I said, "Well, you're gay. You must know how to talk to a guy, right?"
And then, right in the middle of a gay bar, Ignacio told me he is not gay.
To a misunderstood and controversial segment of the population--illegal male Hispanic immigrants--Ignacio's claim that he's not a gay man wouldn't seem so far-fetched, even though he happened to be at a bar that any objective observer would consider gay. Ignacio is what's known as a mayate, a Hispanic immigrant, often quite new to America and hailing from rural Mexico or Central America, who will have sex with men but doesn't think of himself as being gay.
Ignacio doesn't consider himself gay, because he is always activo when he's with another man. Among mayates, there is one stark rule: The activo partner--or the person whom gay American men call a "top"--maintains his sense of masculinity, while the person who's being penetrated does not. And among recent Hispanic immigrants, who don't own much, manhood is a crucial possession. Mayates may think that letting another man give them a blowjob or giving anal sex to another man doesn't constitute cheating on their wives or girlfriends back in their own countries. And according to researchers who've studied male Hispanic immigrants and HIV transmission, the fact that many of them live in a small apartment to save money means that they sometimes end up having sex with one another. According to these researchers, being a mayate isn't a fixed sexual identity; it's the result of living in cramped quarters in areas of town where there aren't nearly as many women as there are other men who've just arrived from Mexico.
And although they may have heard of AIDS and other STDs, they may be entirely unaware of how the diseases propagate; they may think that being activo guarantees they won't get infected by an STD. If they happen to have caught something, they may feel trapped when they go home to Mexico and their wives or girlfriends ask them why they want to use a condom all of a sudden. The sharp rise in HIV infection among Latinas indicates that the usual suspects when women become infected--prostitution and injecting drugs--explain only part of the increase.
Ignacio may seem like a man on the down-low, a cliquish subculture played up in the media of men who meet to have sex with one another while not telling their wives or girlfriends about their gay lives. There are, in fact, bars in Dallas where mayates hang out, though they are far more invisible and alien to native Texans than the gargantuan Tejano bars off Northwest Highway and Stemmons Freeway. There are even rituals they employ at the end of the night, when it's time to end up alone or with someone.
But Ignacio isn't on the down-low; in fact, there isn't even a Spanish phrase for it. But he knew how to get to the virtually hidden places where the mayates hook up.
To get to Fiebre Latino from Bamboleo's, Ignacio would have driven past the Harry Hines Bazaar, the 7-Dollar Beauty Supply and the $4.99 Las Lomas de Zacatecas buffet. He went past the Continental Liquor Store, which, to maximize its attractiveness to all ethnicities, has a marquee advertising itself in both Chinese and English. One of its exterior walls advertises in Spanish the El Paísa Taqueria jammed inside the store next to the liquor shelves. Past the tawdry fabric outlets and the neon "Guaranteed Lowest Price!" signs is Fiebre Latino ("Latin Fever"), which, in a rare instance of commercial modesty on Harry Hines, doesn't herald its presence with a huge, garish sign.
Once you've dodged the many trucks darting in and out of the parking lot, you pay the $5 cover charge and get a little blue ticket in return. But you don't actually get in until a man has patted you down to determine if the bulge in your front pocket is a cell phone or a gun.
Compared with Bamboleo's, Fiebre Latino is, as they say in Mexico, "un otro rollo," another thing altogether. After he told me he wasn't gay, Ignacio left Bamboleo's and headed toward Fiebre. I went there because AIDS workers from AIDS Arms, UT-Southwestern Medical Center and the Greater Dallas Council on Alcohol and Drug Abuse had all told me about it in unabashedly negative terms. They say that Fiebre Latino's owner refuses to let them distribute safe-sex material or test the patrons for HIV, if they're willing. Fiebre Latino's owner, listed as Dhanesh Ganesh in public documents, didn't respond to requests for comment.
Ignacio was inside, chatting up a woman at the little rectangular bar. He didn't want to be bothered, and, as I soon learned, when a woman at Fiebre Latino is talking to a man, she doesn't want to be bothered, either. A newcomer to Fiebre Latino might wonder how a proper seduction could possibly occur here. Old gum lies matted in the thin carpet. The walls of brown wood paneling seem to trap the musty cigarette and beer odor, and the cloth of the booth seats is ripped off in little patches. The bar stools wobble, and you might be offered drugs in the bathroom--"coke, X, ice, anything you'd like, werito [little blondie]."
The DJ booth is a tall, boxy glass structure, like a telephone booth, and when a CD skips, it keeps on skipping until one of the two female bartenders rushes over to correct the problem. A broad-shouldered young Mexican was standing by the booth; he asked if I liked the women there. "They do whatever you want them to," he said.
After the bartender fixed the CD problem, Fiebre Latino returned to the party mood induced by the throbbing, relentlessly cheery ranchera music. But even with music so familiar to its patrons and the kind of uninhibited circle dancing that takes place at Bamboleo's, there's a noticeable tension: No one pays much attention to the women parading around, even though they've put so much work into their performance. My first time there, I sat at the bar until a dolled-up young woman wearing a low-cut, tight black dress and more makeup than a stage actress motioned excitedly for me to come and see her. The vast majority of the women at Fiebre Latino are actually men, but she in particular carried off the act rather well, despite her husky voice. I met only one woman there who described herself as a gay man dressed up as a woman; all the others felt that through a trick of nature, they happened to be born into a man's body. Whatever their particular orientation, the women at Fiebre Latino all aim for glamour, and Fiebre is known among a certain segment of Hispanic immigrants for offering sophisticated women, even if the surroundings aren't exactly deluxe. "The women here cost you, but they're nice," one man at the bar said to me after I asked if he was a regular there. He meant they look nice; he wasn't saying they're sweet.
The woman I met when I first arrived spoke only a little English, and she asked if I was having fun. It seemed like she'd glued on her smile; as we talked about where she was from in Mexico and what she does in Dallas (sewing and dressmaking from her home), it felt like we were at a Junior League tea party exchanging pleasantries far from the warehouse sprawl of Harry Hines. She may have left everything behind in Mexico to come to the United States, but at about 40 years old, she has educated herself well in the upper-class art of moving one's mouth without really saying anything. (The estimate of her age is only approximate, because asking the women at Fiebre Latino how old they are would cruelly shatter the illusion they work so hard to create.)
When she asked if I wanted a beer, it was obvious she was asking if I would buy her one, too. When the change came back, I held out my hand to receive it from the bartender, but she held the change to the side of my hand, toward the woman I was talking to. I'd entered an awkward rite without knowing it: I thought the bartender had made a simple mistake by thinking the woman had paid for the beers, but the women at Fiebre Latino aren't chatting with you out of the kindness of their hearts. Their time--and the glamour they bestow upon you--is something you must pay for.
This quaint, occluded ritual is something that Enrique, another Fiebre Latino patron, mastered some time ago. In other words, he doesn't fall for it anymore. He plays pool with his friends and may hook up with one of the women there late at night. Because he's in Dallas illegally, he agreed to talk with me in the light of day as long as I didn't use his real name or take his picture.
When we met, Enrique was wearing Wranglers, rattlesnake boots and a Texas Tech cap whose bill he'd shaped into a strict semicircle, just like frat boys do. He didn't know what a Red Raider was when he bought the hat; he just liked the way it looked. Enrique doesn't go to Fiebre every weekend, only when he can find a friend who has a car, and even then he doesn't always go. Fiebre is more like a bizarre and guilty pleasure to him. On Columbia Avenue in Old East Dallas, where he lives in a one-bedroom apartment with seven other immigrants from rural Mexico, he can walk down the street and spend what little money he has on women. Natural-born women. The first time he went out to the bars on Columbia Avenue, he was surprised to learn that a beer costs $4 if you're a man, but $15 if you're buying one for a woman. He'd been talking to a woman one night and offered to buy her a beer. He is 20, thin and shy but good-looking, and women wanted to talk to him, he says. He handed $4 to the bartender, who said, "You need $11 more."
"They say they aren't prostitutes," Enrique says in the sharp, sing-songy accent of rural Mexico. "But you're paying for their time." He doesn't have to pay for sex with men, however, something in which he occasionally indulges. He was careful to point out that he doesn't initiate those encounters, but he's still in charge: "Sometimes I let them give me oral sex," he said, and shrugged his shoulders.
Enrique wires home half of the approximately $600 he makes each month and pays $90 in rent, all bills included, for the tiny apartment he and his roommates live in with seven twin beds plopped down in the living room and bedroom. He has been lucky to find regular work for the past month; not all of his roommates have, so he loaned them money last month to make rent. "It's more or less like a family," he says. The men work together in construction, laying cement or brick; they carry their lunches in little coolers, which saves money. But even then, he doesn't have a lot to spend, and although he talks about wanting to learn English, he often zones out at the end of the workday to one of the Spanish-language TV stations whose names he doesn't know: "Twenty-three, 26, 29, 39, 44 and 49 are my favorites," he says.
Enrique has lived in Dallas since May. Last October, after he got a ride to the Mexican city of León, where his girlfriend lives about an hour away from his tiny hometown, he took a bus north to the state of Sonora, just south of Arizona, with seven guys he knew from his neighborhood.
He precisely remembers crossing: The group left Sonora at 3 p.m. on a Wednesday and arrived in Phoenix by Saturday morning. By Sunday afternoon, he'd hopped aboard a truck that took him and one other Mexican to the border between Oklahoma and Arkansas. For eight months, once or twice a week, he was able to scrounge up work digging rocks from the earth and loading them onto trucks for use in home construction, but he'd heard there was more steady work in Dallas.
Some relatives of the men he'd worked with in Dallas already had a lease on the apartment on Columbia Avenue, so it was easy to find a place to stay. But the notion that Dallas, because it's a big city, would offer up constant work turned out to be false. There were months when he had to scrounge to make the rent and was looking everywhere for work. Enrique hadn't quite learned how to market himself. "We just stand out on Columbia, and sometimes los patrones [moving-company supervisors or men from construction sites] drive by looking for workers. There were a lot of days when I wanted to go back to Mexico," he says. He used to call home every week but has altered that routine to once every two weeks to stave off homesickness.
And there's the distraction of Fiebre Latino. The night I saw Enrique there, he ended up paying one of the women to give him oral sex, as some of his friends did. Sometimes, he says, they will take a woman home and have anal sex with her without a condom, because "I don't like those things." That night, though, she was standing by the corner of one of the buildings adjacent to the bar. Enrique and two friends drove by her in the loud stampede of trucks and cars that circle Fiebre Latino late at night.
The bar staff was patrolling the parking lot, making idle observers like me move on (to try to prevent sex from taking place in cars). A policeman had conspicuously parked his patrol car across from the club and occasionally drove it around and around the area, just like the patrons do. But no one caught Enrique and his friends. How could they? As they drove their red truck near the woman in the corner, she subtly raised her hand, and they drove toward her. She climbed in, but that's not a crime.
Talking openly about sex, particularly gay sex, is not something most Hispanic immigrants have been raised to do. When I asked Enrique about what happens after he goes to Fiebre Latino, he fidgeted and kept putting his fingers up to his mouth, as if that could stop the words from coming out.
Enrique's isolated circumstances (everything he needs, from work to friendship, is available on Columbia Avenue) are the conditions that lead to increased HIV rates among immigrants, says Dr. Jacobo Kupersztoch, a retired professor of microbiology at UT-Southwestern who grew up in Mexico City and advises the Mexican Consulate in Dallas about health issues. "The infection happens when a large number of people live in the same quarters, in the absence of women," he says. "Two things happen there: A prostitute is brought to that place to have sex with large numbers of males...and the other route of the infection is in the Mexican way of thinking." He used an American sports metaphor to explain himself: "The pitcher is not a homosexual," he said. "The catcher is a homosexual." In other words, if you're the top, you're not gay.
Enrique, for one, wants nothing to do with the idea that he might be engaging in gay sex. "Sometimes that happens, yes," Enrique says. "But not in my apartment! I'd hit whoever was doing that."
Getting into the mind-set of male Hispanic immigrants who insist they aren't gay but still have sex with men is a task that has remained elusive for many AIDS organizations, not the least because the details of Hispanic immigrants' lives are already so hidden from mainstream America. Some immigrants may not even be aware of the sexual danger they face. "In rural Mexico, you may never have heard of HIV," says Marie Camacho Bellows, an HIV researcher at Southwestern. "They come here and they have no idea that this is an issue they need to worry about. And obviously, they're not being reached. So many of the messages we've had haven't been culturally competent."
That's something Ceasar Ruiz is trying to change. Almost any night in Dallas, you can find this young, long-haired Mexican-American man having furtive conversations with guys right in front of most gay bars around town. An interviewer for Southwestern's Community Prevention and Intervention Unit, Ruiz and his colleagues stop men outside of local bars and ask them about their sexual behavior for a scientific survey that Southwestern is conducting on the transmission of HIV in Dallas.
He has become an expert in finding mayates. "Sometimes they feel like if they sleep with another woman, they're cheating on their wives, but if they sleep with another man, it's not cheating," he says. "I tell them that even if they're the top, they can still get infected. Some of them are aware that there are diseases out there, but they're not aware of how it's transmitted. I don't think you gain anything if you try to convince them that they're gay."
Eight years ago, before he started working for Southwestern, Ruiz happened to meet a rural Mexican immigrant named Jorge at a dinner party. The education they ended up providing each other was strange and unexpected. It was also highly useful, occurring in places far removed from a typical laboratory setting. Ruiz, who grew up bilingual in Odessa, says that he intimidated Jorge at first because of his perfect English and his relative ease as a gay man, comfortable in his own skin, which seemed so inexplicable to a recent gay immigrant.
Ruiz had a car, which was helpful for Jorge, a mayaton, a gay man who "lives for the thrill of having a straight man in his bed," as Ruiz puts it. So he would call Ruiz and ask him to take him out. "Vamos a coger viejos," Jorge used to tell him. Ruiz offers a diplomatic translation: "We're going to pick up guys."
They used to set out into the night, Ruiz at the wheel and Jorge not revealing their destination. Ruiz endured the strange ritual because he'd decided that he was "going to expose myself to HIV before I got exposed to it," and it seemed as if Jorge might be a good guide.
Ruiz's campaign of self-education involved much more than packing up and moving from Odessa and happening to meet Jorge. One day in high school, his mother was flipping over his bed so that its innards wouldn't settle, and she came across a journal in which Ruiz had written about his emotions. He'd prudently kept the language vague, but that didn't fool his mom, a strict Jehovah's Witness who had immigrated to West Texas with Ruiz's father from Mexico.
His mother was sitting on his bed after he got home from school with the journal open, but Ruiz denied that he was gay. Five months later, however, when he thought she hadn't returned from a trip, he decided to go to a gay bar for the first time. He almost made it back to his bedroom at 1:30 the next morning when a light suddenly came on and his mother demanded to know where he'd been.
She kept badgering him until he told her he was, in fact, gay. Ruiz tallied up for me the damage inflicted on him that night: three cracked ribs, one black eye, a busted lip, three kicks to the stomach and assorted missing patches of hair, all courtesy of his mother, he says. But Ruiz didn't wallow in self-pity: Several days later, he told his boyfriend to call his pager if the dis-fellowship meeting at the church lasted more than an hour. The boyfriend kept paging him until one of the church elders asked what the noise was. "That's my boyfriend calling; I've got to go," Ruiz said, and he moved to Dallas.
And so driving around with Jorge, not knowing where he was going, was Ruiz's way of compensating for the limited world experience West Texas had to offer a young gay Mexican-American. One night they ended up at Fiebre Latino. "It freaked me out at first," Ruiz says. "I had more delicate features then, and I still had long hair, so a lot of guys would hit on me, but these were all these Mexican macho, intimidating-looking guys."
Ruiz realized that Jorge was using him as bait. "He's effeminate," Ruiz says about Jorge, "and he's not very cute." If a gay man were to show up at Fiebre because he wanted to end up with a Mexican immigrant, he would need to be almost aggressively effeminate. "They don't go for a guy who acts like a guy," Ruiz says. "I was very successful at attracting them, but I never went home with anybody. I would get them, and then he would take them."
This became a symbiotic act for the duo. Ruiz got tutored in the transmission of HIV. "I thought that these guys thought that they were really dancing with girls," he recalls. "Some of them did. But after a while, when I started to notice that they were paying attention to me as well and I was wearing jeans and a shirt, then I knew that it was more than just being on the down-low."
And late at night, amid the catcalls and sly winks of the immigrants at Fiebre and other bars, Jorge got his men.
Ruiz didn't return to Fiebre Latino for a long time after he started working for Southwestern. But he and the other interviewers in Southwestern's Community Prevention and Intervention Unit are engaged in a behavioral study--the Health Information Survey, or H.I.S. --that attempts to track how HIV is being transmitted among men in Dallas who have sex with other men. There is an oddly scientific way that they go about corralling the MSMs, or men who have sex with other men. In order for a particular nightspot to be certified as a legitimate venue in the H.I.S. survey, interviewers like Ruiz must prove that at least 75 percent of the men who gather there are sexually interested in other men. Once they do, they start visiting the place if the owner allows it. Stationed outside the bar, they ask the people going in and out if they'd like to take part in an anonymous survey that will pay them $25 (and another $25 if they agree to take an HIV blood test). Seventy-five percent isn't a difficult number to attain at a place like Bamboleo's. But Ruiz wanted to include bars such as Fiebre Latino and El Amanecer ("The Dawn") on Shadybrook Lane, off Northwest Highway, where he had heard there were mayates.
So he called up Jorge and struck a deal with him. "I found this place where there's mayates," Ruiz told him. Jorge got excited and made Ruiz promise that he would buy the beer. Since they got to El Amanecer just before 2 a.m., there wasn't much time for drinking. Besides, they had to get down to business.
Because Ruiz had said that El Amanecer was a popular place for mayates, I went there thinking I'd find hard evidence as to why HIV is escalating among immigrants. But the men there were dancing with women, and if they were into other men, they were doing a good job of hiding it. A man in jeans, a white cowboy shirt and a white cowboy hat came up to the bar and ordered a Corona. He vigorously shook salt all over the lime stuffed into the lip of the bottle. The band's baleful little accordion--painted to resemble the Mexican flag--wheezed out a song about being drunk on love. No one was dancing, but a couple of cowboys in the bathroom were drunkenly talking with a guy who told them he was a chilango, from Mexico City. They joked with one another that they didn't care whom they ended up with at the end of the night.
A man sitting next to me at the bar assumed, because I was the only white man there, that I was interested in picking up a Latina. "You can have any of them here for $12 to $14," he said. They were the prostitutes Enrique referred to as "mujeres sucias," "dirty women." After all, no one believes that it's only through gay sex that HIV is increasing among immigrants. Enrique first heard about AIDS when he was 12, he said, and he heard that men who have sex with dirty women get AIDS, and then those men give it to other women, "como una cadena," like a chain. In his little hometown, though, he never heard about men getting AIDS from gay sex.
Talking to a mayate requires the ability to stomach public humiliation, something Ruiz has learned to endure while conducting Southwestern's behavioral study. The night Ruiz took Jorge to El Amanecer, "there were some guys dancing with women," he recalls, "and there were some guys standing by the bar by themselves, not really blending in but not standing out too much." The lights came on and everyone started to amble out. Jorge and Ruiz stood by the door, where some mayates noticed them and delivered a few taunting catcalls. Jorge whistled alluringly right back and blew them kisses. "Some of them called us muchachas," Ruiz says. "And then they would say jokingly, but halfway-serious, 'I'll get the blondie and you get the bigger one.'" (Ruiz had blond highlights at the time.)
"It served my purpose, because it proved that there were guys there that were willing to go home with another guy," Ruiz points out. "Unfortunately, it didn't yield the 75 percent that was required in our protocol to conduct our research."
Had he come to the United States earlier than he did, Enrique could have been one of the mayates Ruiz and Jorge met that night; he mentioned that he'd also been to El Amanecer. Enrique isn't as confused by his mayate behavior as it might seem. He is quite certain that he is derecho, straight.
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But he knows that having a girlfriend in Mexico and occasionally having sex with men in the United States is, at the very least, a complicated situation. "We don't put words on everything like you all do," he says. "We don't have all the labels that they have in America to describe ourselves."
He told me that he wanted to go back to Mexico for Christmas, and when I called him late last month, his apartment mates told me he had already left. He missed his family, but he wanted to see his girlfriend most of all.
It would have taken him about a day and a half by bus to get back to his rancho, his little hometown. Many AIDS workers in the United States have been worrying about Enrique's trips back home, and the trips of all the other male immigrants who go back home and have sex with their wives or girlfriends. The University of California's university-wide AIDS Research Program published a study in November that found that HIV rates are three times as high among Mexican migrant workers in California as in the general population, and that pregnant women at Tijuana General Hospital are four times more likely to have HIV than the general population in both Mexico and the United States.
But Enrique wasn't thinking about AIDS data. Back in Mexico, "everyone knows me," he said, and he wouldn't have to scrounge around for work or pay a woman to have sex. He, for one, isn't worried about his health. "Some people have diseases," he said, "and some people don't."