Go to West Hollywood or the Gayborhood in Long Beach any day of the week, and it’s easy to find some form of community. But some of us can still feel marginalized, even in our own spaces. Latinx folks for example, are often reduced to “themed” nights revolving around sombreros, margaritas, and other caricatures of our identity, rooted in stereotypical representation aimed at taking those two five-dollar bills in our pockets.
Right now, bars are in a tough spot, with COVID safety measures forcing them to adapt for survival. Noa Noa Place, which opened at the end of last year, is set to be a fully functioning bar and restaurant when all restrictions are lifted, but for now the owners are making the best of the situation in a pretty special way. The Boyle Heights locale’s to-go experience and dine in option (they have limited space on the patio and use a reservation system) offer more than a one-night event, they represent a lifestyle, injecting nostalgic elements with great food and drink. In the process, Noa Noa Place is setting itself up to become a cornerstone of Latinx Queer identity in L.A. and an alternative to establishments that appropriate the culture rather than truly celebrate it.
Filled with music reminiscent of the songs our mothers and abuelas would clean the house to on weekends, and colorful knick-knacks and decor you’d see in nearly any Latin home, Noa Noa is filled with (socially distanced) photo ops including neon sacred hearts, an infinity piñata and Virgen de Guadalupe-inspired backdrops, and so much more. They even have a luchador working security. After all, nothing has a stronger presence than El Santo in the ring.
Spaces fill up quickly here, but that doesn’t mean the fun stops if you opt for takeout. The bar also has ways to take the fiesta home with themed to-go cups and boxes that capture the flavor and colors of Mexican life in an authentic way.
Owners Donaji Esparza (of 107.5 K-Love), Luis Octavio (of the Latinx marketplace Molcajete Dominguero) and Deysi Serrano (of the fast-casual Mexican cafe Milpa Grille) have dedicated themselves to ensuring this space continues to be a homage to the past and a beacon of hope for the future of Queerness and Latinx identity. Aguas Frescas spiked with your choice of spirit and Micheladas served in brightly hued containers as well as plays on classic dishes like a molé pizza and al pastor tater tots decorate the menu.
Noa Noa Place is named after the Mexican anthem, “El Noa Noa” by Juan Gabriel. Its lyrics – “lo que se ve no se pregunta” (“what is seen doesn’t need to be asked”) reflect everything the establishment is and means. As Octavio describes, “This is a Queer Latinx space for and by Queer Latinx individuals.”
Opening a new bar during a pandemic is no garden walk, especially for a space run solely out of the wallets of the owners. The pandemic is hurting small businesses everywhere, and Noa Noa, despite its tremendous popularity, is not immune to those hardships.
“We want to have a great time, but understand that this is not a big corporation,” Ocatvio adds “Leave a good review, spread the word, every little bit helps. What doesn’t help anyone right now is the pretentiousness of wanting something top shelf during this mess of a pandemic. Your purchases and your support directly impact Queer people here, and we want everyone to be conscious of just how far their dollar goes here.”
This is true for almost any establishment. Things are not “normal” right now and any small semblance of normalcy comes with a cost. At Noa Noa, that may mean opting for more affordable alcohol. But it’s not about that. Noa Noa opens its doors every weekend for folks to have a moment of celebration, and it continues because the owners feel they owe it to the community and to their own dreams.
As we look to the future of Queer and Latinx spaces, it’s important to understand where the histories of this identity have led. Along with bars like The New Jalisco, Club Cobra, and Tempo, Noa Noa offers a new inclusive form of bar and entertainment. At a time when these spaces are struggling, with no relief being provided amid the global pandemic, Noa Noa is striving to not only stand on the shoulders of past giants but aims to pull those that came before, back up with them.
Currently, The New Jalisco Bar in Downtown Los Angeles has a Gofundme campaign, following the example of many other bars. After seeing the success of spaces like Akbar in Silver Lake -who started their fundraising campaign a week before- Jalisco hoped to find its survival in the community it served for so many decades. Akbar was able to reach its first goal within 24 hours, while as of this writing Jalisco has yet to reach its initial goal. Now the oldest gay bar in Downtown Los Angeles is in danger of being no more.
The community knows it owes something to the impersonators who performed in these bars night after night, surviving in a world that chastised the way words rolled off their tongues, the way they dressed walking down the streets, and mostly, the way they expressed their gender and sexuality. The ladies of New Jalisco Bar refer to themselves as Showsetas– a term coined to separate themselves from the drag performances of other bars and clubs. These women, after surviving so much, are icons and treasures of an old school form of pageantry. Though many of these women were put on a shelf to collect dust as the older bars closed for the pandemic, they are now hoping to find a home at Noa Noa when things open up. They are already moving in that direction with al fresco limited seating shows.
The legacy being created every day at Noa Noa weighs heavily on its owners. “It’s sad to think we may very well be the only ones after the pandemic,” Octavio laments when asked about Latinx bars that have shuttered and bars starting Gofundme campaigns. Club Cobra was the first to see its doors close forever, and it was a haymaker punch for Latinx folks in North Hollywood. “It is important that these spaces exist in our neighborhoods, that we shouldn’t have to drive out to find our space,” Octavio adds.
He speaks often about the importance of representation and how it was the spark for the creation of his newest endeavor. Hopefully, it will only be a matter of time before another space opens for Queer Latinx people in North Hollywood and other areas around the city. For now, those looking for “a place of atmosphere that is different” (“un lugar de ambiente, donde todo es diferente,” as Juan Gabriel sings) have Noa Noa Place to go to.