Documenting the Gay Community with El Paso Style

By Miguel Juárez

It is the early 1990s at the Old Plantation Miss Cherry “Miss OP 1978,” a local performer is readying herself for her show.  The dressing room is frenetic energy, but Miss Cherry sits calmly smoking a cigarette and gets ready for her performance.  The cameraman zooms into Miss Cherry who looks straight at him as she is coiffured by a stylist.  In the video, we get a glimpse of the time and preparation needed before her performance.  These historic images are part of an important collection of photographs and videos which document the life of the gay “drag” performers in El Paso documented by Manuel Rivera, legendary El Paso, Texas DJ, photographer and videographer. 

Rivera has documented the LGBTIQ community for decades.  He took his first courses with photographer Bruce Berman at the University of Texas at El Paso who now teaches the University of New Mexico.  Rivera said when the Old Plantation wanted to use multimedia in the late 1970s, he shot the slides and it was then that he transitioned into shooting video. 

For the last ten years, Rivera has built one of the most important websites on the LGBTIQ community called “El Paso Style,” which documents the history of drag in El Paso.  He said one of his favorite photographs is of Ronnie from Albuquerque doing Marilyn Monroe.  One of the notable persons he has photographed is Jak Kalinowski because as Rivera stated “We’ve both been around such a long time.”

Rivera was born and raised in El Paso, Texas.  He attended Cooley Elementary, Henderson Elementary, Burges High School and the University of Texas at El Paso.  He is one of El Paso’s most important DJs.  He began DJing at Steve Crosno’s dances at the Ascarate Pavilion in 1969.  He later became the DJ at the Pet Shop beginning in 1975. The Pet Shop closed at the same time that the Old Plantation opened and he became the DJ at The Old Plantation continuously until 1983.

At the Old Plantation, Rivera worked for Bob Bonadventure whose history is detailed in a 1996 Interview with ZaZa Montenegro.  Rivera said that Bob Bonaventure was very influential in his life although “he was a very tough guy.”  Rivera said that in spite of being tough, Bonaventure “completely trusted my judgement about the music that I played.”  Bonadventure came to El Paso for Frank Gavin, who according to Rivera, was stationed at Ft. Bliss in the 1950s.  Gavin opened a nightclub called “The Goldfinger” on San Antonio Street in the early 1960s.

Other notable people in El Paso’s gay community include Gilbert Salazar (Miss Cherry), a gifted performer, subsequent manager and then owner of the Old Plantation, as well as Rose, who Rivera said “had a great sense of humor.”  Rivera also knew the late Steve Crosno who was a radio pioneer and invented mobile DJing.  According to Rivera, Crosno is also credited for inventing the Oldies radio format. 

Rivera also had numerous of your photographs of performers displayed at the Centennial Museum’s presentation of the 2015 “Engendering Community Exhibit” organized by Dr. Brenda Risch and Dr. J. Aaron Waggoner.  Rivera’s photographs were also featured in the LGBTQ Pride Exhibit at the El Paso Museum of History, June 1st to November 7, 2019. Rivera continues to document the rich and varied history of local performers.  The DJ, photographer/videographer stated he can’t rest on his laurels and he shoots video of performances to document the community when he has the opportunity to do so.  Below are photographs of Rivera’s favorite images and videos from “El Paso Style” (what you can do here is add the links you want for me to download and feature–that way I can get the titles right.

Rivera’s videos and photographs are located at: www.elpasostyle.com. He can be reached at: manny915@elpasopartydj.com or at www.elpasopartydj.com

Happy Pride!