Tortillas and Trannies at Dallas Taquerías

"Pistol-whipping" dick jokes, littered with chingas and pinches, spill from the glossy lips of an eye-poppingly beautiful woman in a rat-a-tat rhythm that keeps time with her hips as they shake to the beat of a Selena Gomez song. Colored lights above the corner stage whir back and forth, accentuating her dance moves at a taquería in East Dallas.

The restaurant, one-room Los Altos de Jalisco on Abrams Road, is decorated with beer flags and framed pastoral scenes leading back to a galley kitchen, where the cook is better at flirting with the waitress than reheating tortillas. It's a sleepy place during lunch hours, when, if more than one table is occupied, it's a rush. But that's not uncommon among the scores of tiny taco shops across the city. The only thing that makes Los Altos stand out from other taco joints is the white delivery van parked outside. Pasted on its sides are colorful ads for weekend drag shows.

Somehow, the brightly made-up images of women who were once men don't attract much of a lunchtime clientele. At night, it's a different world.

The woman on stage this night is Gaby Duarte, one of the most acclaimed acts in the small DFW transgender and drag show (called travesty shows) circuit, who can pack a restaurant from wall to wall.

The short, olive-skinned 35-year-old Salvadoran native, born Gabriel Duarte, claims her popularity is born from her true audience. "I perform for the babies," says Duarte before she dons a wig and takes the stage. "It's very family friendly." Two transsexuals—Duarte and the bulbous, grizzled-trucker-voiced Chantal—join drag queen Cesar Martinez (aka Karina Duarte) to lip sync hits of Latin American female pop sensations and chug beer given to them by mustachioed men in denim and cowboy hats.

There are men from Durango and Chiapas, Colombia and Chihuahua. They are thin, muscular, chunky, single, married— and clearly fascinated by the show.

Offstage, Duarte, who has been featured on Spanish-language TV network Univision, chats frankly about how donning her first dress at age 16 led to her stage career—and a garage filled with $150,000 worth of outfits. Duarte says travesty (or sometimes "tranvesty") shows became her calling when, more than 15 years ago, she was asked if she wanted to perform at a Hollywood gay club's amateur night.

"It felt right and was fun," she says. "So I did it again."

The same frankness fills her act. Within minutes of taking the small elevated stage, she is peppering her jokes and anecdotes with foul language. A toddler dances near the stage, clutching a dollar bill for Gaby. It's 10 p.m. on a Sunday. Duarte works her way to the girl, picks up the tyke and gives her a peck on the cheek as the little one stuffs the wrinkled note into Duarte's cleavage. Hefty Chantal also homes in on the babe.

The irony here is as ample as the fake breasts Duarte got in 1993: Latin American culture is stereotypically homophobic, so chock full of machismo that any perceived threat to masculinity is often met with violence.

Or that's how it used to be.

"Our culture is changing," Carlos Cortez, the DJ and master of ceremonies of the show at Los Altos, says nonchalantly before displaying a photo of his son born the previous week.

Latin American culture is indeed experiencing a paradigm shift. In Mexico City, the city council in 2009 voted to legalize gay marriage. The Holy See and many conservative Catholics bristled at this decision, but it's too late. Businesses have already dug in their claws. As one local restaurant manager told me, "It's a way to promote ourselves. It doesn't matter if it's through women who were once men. Things are slow during the day."

Not all the shows at local taquerías feature transvestites and transsexuals; there are the usual mariachis, but musicians don't bring in the revenue sexy performers do.

Some of the jokes at Duarte's Los Altos performance might stretch the boundaries of what's considered family friendly, but at El Parral in Carrollton, another establishment where Duarte shimmies and shakes and mouths lines into a microphone, that isn't an issue. There are no kids at a recent show there, which features Vegas-showgirl headdresses and PG-13 wit.

Sandra Cavalli, headliner of the La Catharaita show on Thursday nights at El Parral, struts across the floor. Her shtick involves direct interaction with the audience, such as caressing a shoulder and begging a married father-to-be to be gay for her. Cavalli walks the line between grotesque humor and vaudevillian zinger. Equally risque is her onstage "sister" Camilla Cavalli, a young male performer transitioning into womanhood, a 5-o'clock shadow juxtaposed with nascent breasts and long black hair, who hikes up her skirt to reveal a cleanly shaven thigh and gyrates to the cumbia blasting over the sound system.

A man in the audience, sitting with an attractive female date, whistles and catcalls during the numbers. He even bends over and digs his butt into a performer's crotch and is ignored as if he were part of the bedazzling act pushed along by the DJ at the back of the stage, ready to add a prerecorded rim shot to a cheesy punchline. As Duarte and Cavalli both said on separate occasions, "What we do is comedy."

That helps explain the mass appeal. "I like the show," says El Parral's manager, a gentleman who would not share his name. "It's humorous."

Throughout the Dallas-Fort Worth area, these shows are a popular form of entertainment, advertised by cheaply printed and photocopied fliers posted on restaurant doors and walls and word of mouth. It's not life on the down low, but neither is it promiscuously open.

Some female fans bring their husbands. A Chilean man with a salt-and-pepper mane and sporting a white T-shirt, who is more interested in tortilla chips than thigh-high 6-inch heeled boots and sequins, says he tolerates the shows for the sake of marital concord. "It's fine. I come here because my wife likes the acts. To me, it's just OK. I don't really care for it."

"I love the costumes, the music," his wife pipes in.

Duarte earnestly strives for consummate professionalism, making her own wigs at a cost of $500 with 70 percent human hair. She rehearses for long hours on her two days off, an ethic that has earned her accolades from her peers. Trophies and tiaras awarded by nightclub competitions and pageants going as far back as 1991 are displayed behind a glass case in her living room. That dedication and celebrity has, in turn, earned her a four-bedroom house with a manicured lawn in southern Dallas.

Her home is decorated with family photos, mementos, a religious altar with a framed photo of the Sacred Heart on a heavy wood dining table. Oprah was on the flat-screen television. It's an almost unremarkable place. The garage, repurposed into a commodious wardrobe, is the only distinguishing feature. Some of the dresses were custom-made by Duarte and her mother. The latter, whom Duarte calls her best friend, owns Gaby's Illusions, a beauty salon bearing the name of Duarte's show. Duarte's goal is to become a beautician once she retires from performing in her mid-40s.

She relates this while sitting at poolside at her house during a weekend party. While she speaks, a toddler runs past. His mother, Gallo, a butch lesbian in sagging jean shorts and an extra-large polo shirt, urges the child to slow down lest he slip and fall. Camilla Cavalli and Duarte's roommate, her cousin Luis, splashes about in the pool. A young, shirtless man lifts weights. Two young ladies in painted-on polo shirts and hot pants are attempting to push one another into the pool. The adults are drinking beer and eating overcooked, rubbery shrimp. It's a typical weekend scene of food and family.

Food, family, music—perhaps that explains why shows like Duarte's are so popular in Dallas' taquerías. Food is a cultural touchstone for Latinos. Food and family go together like chips and salsa, and where there's food, there's music.

And where there's food and music, there's a chance for a small restaurant to make a profit, even if draw isn't always what's on the plate. While the dishes at Los Altos de Jalisco are excellent, El Parral's fare is oily and overpriced—four tacos are $12. But food is not why people come to El Parral. It's the nightly acts that draw the crowds.

Despite the gaudy jokes, nothing particularly seamy appears to be at play at these sleepy restaurants, places where waitresses spend more time watching soap operas than refilling water glasses or running combo platters to tables, most of which sit empty until show time. Once the shows start, what rakes in more money than the food is the beer—beer that is freely given to the performers by working-class men wearing wedding rings.

These shows, raucous as they are, smothered with colorful language and sexual innuendo, are captivating spectacles, made more so when juxtaposed with the banality of the performers' lives.