Wednesday night’s theme sounded like something an ad team coined: “Chicks and Salsa!” Had said team realized the final name sounded like an all-female Cumbia quintet? I like the idea of five beautiful women dressed in short ruffled skirts à la Carmen Miranda pounding out some mambo. But “Chicks and Salsa!”? The title left me ambivalent, contemplating whether it was brilliant, insipid or both. All good theme nights suffer from the same dilemma.
For a Chicano, I don’t know many Latinos. But then again, I’m out of the loop. And I need to find the loop to search, locate and infiltrate that narrow ribbon at the fringe where the Latinos are—that mysterious 19 percent of Washoe County’s population—and where they party, because they aren’t at the casinos and clubs around town. With its Spanish name, the Hacienda Restaurant & Bar seemed like the place to go.
The Hacienda off N. McCarran Boulevard pitches its wares in varying degrees of Spanish, but the guy who took my $5 cover was patently not Hispanic. His lower lip was pierced, and his nylon baseball cap was cocked slightly to the side. As I entered, he scrutinized my notebook, “Are you an artist?”
I felt the desire to say, “No, I’m a drunk.” Instead, I spoke sheepishly, “Um … sort of.” I could understand his curiosity. I should have acted drunk. That would have been normal.
I came on the wrong night. Damn.
My intel was all wrong. The place was wall-to-wall 20-somethings with the mandatory low-rise jeans and baseball caps. The music was hip-hop, and the most authentically Mexican things in the place were the Dos Equis and Coronas. I am Chicano, and I could not compete with the beer. Even I was not that Mexican. How to do a story about Latin club venues in Reno when there is a marked absence of Latinos in the club?
I would return Saturday on Salsa night. Christian Bryan, co-owner of the Hacienda, would tell me later that I’d been there too early. “This place doesn’t even get going on Wednesday nights til after 12,” he says.
Bryan brims over with good-natured sincerity and cheer. The word perky comes to mind. He’s so good-natured, in fact, that it’s down right off-putting. He and his much more matter-of-fact manager, Miguel Perez, sit down to talk to me the Sunday following my strange Wednesday night. These guys have been doing something right for almost five years now with their Salsa night. They have worked an angle nobody else seems to be tapping into and managed to bring two cultures together.
“There was a void to be filled,” Bryan tells me. “We’ve had four years with Salsa night, and we’re looking for an older professional crowd that [doesn’t] have to worry about environment.” Bryan gives the majority of credit for the success of the weekly event to Perez.
“When we started [Salsa night], we wanted to reach everyone from Mexico to Chile,” explains Perez. “We were the first place to open up and attract a Latin community. The first year, we had people coming from Carson City and even Sacramento.”
Perez recognized a good clientele when he saw it. “The Latino is not looking for drink specials,” he says. “They pay full price for the product. They don’t mind paying for good service and a good time.”
Bryan understands the importance of the Latino community from a business angle, but perhaps more so from a cultural standpoint.
“Ultimately, we want everyone back all the time, and the Latino section [of the community] is still untapped,” he says. “They’re driving a huge part of the economy. It’s an interesting phenomenon. [Here] it’s intimate. It’s relaxed, like being at home. I think it’s the music and the service.”
Perez says it’s a natural outgrowth of the area’s changing demographics.
“I already see a change in the whole Truckee Meadows area,” he says. “I think that [the way] for businesses to reach a Latino audience is to have more bilingual staff and bilingual signs, menus.”
“I think sometimes you have to step outside of your American box,” says Bryan. “You don’t invite someone in by saying, ‘Be like me.’”
With such a narrow variety of venues for Latinos to choose from in Reno, the community is ripe for the fleecing. The result is that most Latino clubs charge, on the low end, $10 for a cover on any given night, whereas drink prices at these venues could easily compete with those at a nightclub in Los Angeles or in San Francisco. This vacuum can’t exist forever in a place like Reno (and possibly all of Nevada), which is known for its cheap entertainment. The Latino community eventually will get sick of having the screws put to it.The Hacienda on Saturday night. They’ve dropped the “chicks” and opted for the straight Salsa-night pitch that works the place over like a shot of $100 tequila.
In a country that is obsessed with shining a light on the problems of race, the melting-pot myth can take on aspects of some crackpot sham—the sociological equivalent of snake oil.
But tonight you could sell me the melting-pot myth for the price of my left hand, and I’d buy it with a straight-faced smile. The three guys in front of me are Mexican and talking Spanish—not English, not Spanglish, but Spanish to each other. There’s a sexy blonde that could have come off a thousand-acre farm in Nebraska cutting a rug with a well-dressed, dark-skinned potential candidate for the Univision network. The place is packed. The DJ makes announcements in both English and Spanish, and the couples taking the impromptu salsa lessons are about half Anglo and half Latino. There is a wide range of ages here—from 20-somethings to my parents’ age—and they obviously don’t feel uncomfortable or out of place.
Gina, an Anglo brunette in her 20s, says, “I come here because it’s the only place I know of to dance salsa.”
Jesús, a 25-year-old Mexican man, comes for another reason: “There are a lot of Raza [Hispanic people] here, and you feel comfortable.”
At Salsa night, you still have to step out of your comfort zone and ask for a dance. The person on the other end of that dance could be any number of races.
The race question in the United States has become as insular as the communities and spheres in which it’s discussed: court rooms, affirmative action, committees and employment boards, and the creases that hold our minds’ prejudices. The unrecognized reality is that the real strides in cultural relations occur in places like the Hacienda, where in a packed room with dance music playing, the new version of America is evolving at the end of an endless series of questions—questions like, “¿Quieres bailar?” (Want to dance?”)