A message from Zaza in 2020:
Oscar Wilde said, ‘the one charm of the past is that it is in the past.” Things have certainly changed and improved for the LGBTQ family in the intervening 24 years and that is as it should be.
Zaza Montenegro took the name from Sasha Montenegro, the famous Mexican actress. Interview has been edited for length.
Zaza: His name was Pepe Da Costa. I guess he lived in Cd. Juárez. He was probably in his sixties. And that was back in 1980. He died in like 1985 or 1986, Gilbert (Salazar) and Bob (Bonaventure) went to the funeral. A lot of people attended the funeral. In his younger days, in his twenties or early thirties, he believed he was the sensation of Europe because he went there and sang in cabarets and clubs. He sang rancheras. He said they had never seen anything like it before. He had the sombrero, the whole outfit, the sarape and everything. He said that they were just amazed. They had never heard this kind of music before.
MJ: Did he sing specifically in gay bars?
Zaza: No, no, no, that kind of thing didn’t exist openly at the time. He did have experiences. He told me one time he had some married man in one room and the wife in another room and they were both trying to get him and all this stuff and the guy who was like a count and all that sort of stuff. When I met him, he hung out in a place called the Cellar Door. It was a place that a guy from Albuquerque had opened up. He had bars in Albuquerque by the same name. I started doing drag there.
MJ: Here in El Paso? That’s where you started to do drag?
Zaza: Here in El Paso. It’s where the police had their parking lot, that parking garage they had There’s a restaurant there now, you would go downstairs into it. What’s the street that runs in front of City County Health? It’s that street. I guess Campbell; it might be Oregon. For sure it’s there, but the police parking, the painted white multi-level parking lot. It’s right across from the police substation. I guess it had been a bar once and a restaurant too because it had a huge kitchen. And Pepe DaCosta hung out there.
And I began to notice more and more that he always had these young boys around him, of all different shapes and sizes. Then one day, we were rehearsing. I was just sitting there watching. And he would sit where you’d walk down, at the bottom of the steps, there was a banquette. And he was sitting there not unlike a Turkish pasha and his court and this Anglo with his beer came down the steps. They whispered for a few seconds and then the Anglo went back upstairs. Pepe leaned over to one of these boys and he whispered something and then the boy left.
And during shows, sometimes he would sing things like “Autumn Leaves.” His voice was cracking a little bit, you know, but he would get out there and sing his heart out.
Zaza: Yes, that’s where I started. Jessica Wells [another drag queen] was working there. She’s the one who got me started. The first number I took any part in, was a production number with her of “We Need a Little Christmas,” from Auntie Mame and the first solo number I did was “Guava Jelly,” by Barbra Streisand.
MJ: Who were some of the people who were doing shows then?
Zaza: Oh, quien? Henry Lewis. He was a real cute, in and out of drag. Of course, Rose Quintana, who was the Madam of the scene. I think Gilbert had pretty much stopped doing shows. He was the assistant manager of the bar [The Old Plantation]. I can’t remember who the manager was. All I remember was that he was a big bearded guy who they used to call “Mae West” because he had such a big chest.
The first thing I ever did at the O.P. was “Dime Que Sí,” by a Spanish singer Antonita Moreno that no one had ever heard of. Do you know where I got that cassette tape? In a music store in Saudi Arabia. It was a very Carmen Miranda sounding song.
MJ: At that time, how many people were doing performances?
Zaza: Fifteen or twenty.
MJ: Fifteen or twenty and now?
Zaza: About the same. Yes, about the same number. The difference now, of course, is that everybody is nostalgic and looks back and says the old days were better.
MJ: How about Miss Las Vegas?
Zaza: Oh, Miss Las Vegas, yes, that was her nickname. His real name is Manuel. He worked for years and years for Orlando Fonseca at the Hamburger Hut. Evidently, he worked at the location which is now the San Francisco Grill. It had been, I think, a Hamburger Hut. When they closed that down, evidently Orlando gave him a big ol’ severance package. He made a nice bit of money. I went to Miss Las Vegas’ house. I took Rose to his house in Juárez. And it’s right in back of the Federal police headquarters. And it’s this little tiny house with all kinds of vegetation, flowers and trees growing up in the front yard and it looks right onto the back door on all these young metro police officers. It’s hilarious. And I think they all know that he lives there.
MJ: So, was he Miss Las Vegas when he was younger?
Zaza: I think so. I think he was always Miss Las Vegas. And according to Rose he started out in Juárez, in the bars, years and years ago. He’s in his sixties, he might even be close to his seventies now. When he was younger he was pretty, but he grew older and his numbers had all become caricatures. But he takes them seriously. I think he knows to a certain extent that people laugh, but he always comes out at Christmas and in Easter–it’s tradition. You don’t do Christmas and Easter shows without Miss Las Vegas, always, always.
MJ: He still does shows?
Zaza: Oh yeah. All we have to do it call him and he’s out there. And he’s got his feathers, his boas and he uses all the glitter eye shadow–the whole deal.
MJ: The history has included a lot of people from Cd. Juárez, performance places and bars in Juárez.
Zaza: We used to have this queen who did shows. She was a member of that national female impersonation troupe from Mexico, “Chaquira.” She was a member of it and she lived in Cd. Juárez. I don’t know if she quit or retired from working with them. He did shows here every now and then. I used to have a picture. It was just beautiful. She had this picture, it looked like it was from the fifties. She looked so real.
MJ: What was her name?
ZaZa: I don’t remember. We have one right now named Joann, she’s very beautiful, and she’s a transsexual now. There a few other ones, there’s Carla and some of them are so strange. When Alberto was alive, we got a hold of an article about the transvestite that this magazine interviewed who was like from Oaxaca? The same people who printed our magazine [El Paso Style] were printing it. They had walked into this bar, like in the middle of the day in Cd. Juárez and here sat this transvestite, very obvious, the wig was really ratty, and the clothing, it was horrible, and the hair on the arms, and bad make-up..
In the article they asked him, what are you doing here? Where are you from? They said, “You’re all alone here, you live in the streets? Do you enjoy this?” And he told them:
Look, I’m from this little village in Southern Mexico, people here leave me alone. What do you think they did to me where I’m from? They hated me. They drove me out of town. Here, I have a beautiful life, no one bothers me. I do what I what I want to do.
And I think there’s a lot of that over there too [in Cd. Juárez] and there’s also a lot of it over here.
It’s interesting the symbiotic relationship between the straight world and the world of gay/transvestism because these people are the world between us. On a certain level, they would never interact, but on another level they do. We have many problems which emerge from that relationship. One of the problems and we’ve discussed it, is that so-called straight men pick up transvestites and have unprotected sex with them. Then these men go back to their families. Some of them have AIDS and it’s introduced into the home, the babies are born with it, the wives get it.
Another person to talk to who’s fascinating, his nickname was Moby. He used to have a flower shop on Alameda. He would do drag shows, just for the hell of it, drag pageants. I think he knew he’d never win. He’d just do it. He’d walk in and say, I ran the Miss Diamond Lil Pageant. He would just walk in and say, “I don’t care if we’re going to pick numbers–I’m going to be last, get over it!”.
MJ: Did you ever do any shows at the Diamond Lil?
Zaza: Yes. And what a hoot!
Zaza: The only places that were here when I got here were the Cellar Door, the Mining Company, the Old Plantation and the Diamond Lil. And over the years, the Cellar Door, opened and closed, I did shows there, and the Overland Station, I did shows there and Our Memories, the Lesbian bar.
MJ: Besides Our Memories, were there any other bars?
Zaza: For lesbians? They’ve come and gone. There used to be one called the Scorpion, it was over by Thomason.
MJ: Then it became Candy’s?
Zaza: Yes, only the ones who knew about it went there. Overland Station was begun by a brother and a sister. They ran adult bookstores in Albuquerque. But somehow or another they lost interest or were thrown out or something, so they opened this bar. They did really well for a while until they started snorting their proceeds up their noses and drinking everything. They would have these wild parties after two o’clock. They had these male dancers that they had brought in from outside and they would bring people in. I only went to one, one was enough. It was just outrageous! And they went out of business too. The only one that has stayed in business, you know, is Bob Bonaventure, but his business is his bottom line.
MJ: Did Bob Bonaventure come into town with a suitcase and just [built his businesses]. Was it during the Korean War?
Zaza: That I don’t know. I think Alberto was the one that told me, that he says he heard, was that Bonaventure was in the Army because he comes from a well-to-do family from back East. And goes to visit them still. I heard that he started working at one of the gay bars that was here as a waiter or a bartender. Of course, this is all third hand…only Bob or Gilbert know the entire story.
Frank Cavin of Cavin Enterprises owned a chain of gay bars throughout the Southwest. Louisiana is not in the Southwest, but they were in Louisiana, Texas and maybe even in California and they were called Old Plantations. Later Cavin got rid of all of them except Bob at that time had a partner, it’s very mysterious, I heard it was a woman. Bob bought out the name and everything. It’s the only one left. Frank Cavin was a power to be reckoned with in business in the 1960s and 1970s.
Bob told me once about how he and Cavin, and this must have been in the early 1970s, that there was a state law against same sex dancing and he and Cavin and other people too, mobilized certain state representatives and people and got them to change the law.
MJ: But he’s the sole owner of the Old Plantation at this point?
Zaza: He’s the sole owner of the San Antonio Mining Company, the Old Plantation, and U-Got-It. I think he helped the guy that opened the Whatever Lounge with money but he preferred to remain a silent partner. Floyd ran the Whatever. This gives you an example of Bob, Floyd had a bad heart condition and the family and the doctors decided not to tell him but Bob kept him in his house in his last couple of months of his life and took care of him.
MJ: What was the name of the owner of the Diamond Lil. Don. And what happened to the Diamond, did it just go broke?
Zaza: He told me because I was doing a lot of shows there. He was barely making enough money to buy the next day’s beer supply and it finally got to the point where it was just got too much.
MJ: And of course, one of the more famous bartenders was Chiquita.
Zaza: Who still works at the Whatever Lounge. And if you can get her to sit still, you can get some interesting stuff out of her.
MJ: So, with all these businesses and the opening this gay community center, how much do you think gay bars and gay related industry contribute to the local economy?
Zaza: I think it must contribute a lot. If, as I have pointed out many times, if it’s true that even seven percent of the total population or let’s even say five percent, if there are a million people in Juárez and let’s say there are 500,000 here and in this immediate area, Las Cruces, and all that, another 200,000, what are we looking at, let’s say nearly two million, maybe that’s too much, maybe it should be 1,700,000 people–what is five percent of this number? If ten percent is 100,000, then five percent is 50,000, potential and this the only, well, there’s bars in Cd. Juárez, this is the only, the kind of thing Bob provides, it’s the only game. You always meet people from Las Cruces, Alamogordo and other places in the region.
MJ: But it’s not a political lobby like in other cities?
Zaza: Bob stays out of politics in the bar. I know he donates money to certain campaigns but he also donates money to water projects in Ysleta, Socorro and places like that as well as the EL Paso Zoo. I think there’s a side to him that very few of us see. In some areas he’s very silent about it and in other areas he wants people to know.
He was either brought during or up close enough to the Depression and even though they were well to do. He knows that and his bottom line is that there needs to be cash in the bank, none of this everything on credit.
MJ: And then with all the other bars in town like the Realm, is there concern?
Zaza: Bob is concerned about all the new night clubs opening up in downtown El Paso, but then Bob is opening up another Old Plantation. They’ll close the other one. It’s right across the street, in the building, like right across the street.
MJ: So, he’s redoing?
Zaza: Yes. He’s redoing the inside of another building. It’s a huge building, the dance floor in the new building will be twice the size. And it’s 600- square feet now.
MJ: It’s right across the street?
Zaza: It’s going to have two or three floors. He wanted it to be open this month in February, but Gilbert doesn’t think it’s going to be opened until March or April.
One of the things, is that they’re trying to make a balcony. They have to take out one of the supporting columns in order to do this and the only way they can do it is that they have to have this brace made, some kind of metal brace and nobody in El Paso can make it. It has to be brought in from some place out-of-town.
MJ: At the same time, Cd. Juárez has a lot of discos.
Zaza: There was one over there that opened up a few months ago. Everyone was just going crazy going over there all the time and now they’re slowly trickling back. And the reason this will always happen, as long as Bob is living and he continues to pursue things the way he does is because no matter what place opens, that for the majority of homosexuals living in El Paso, that’s where they first came out. Whether they complain about the music, whether they complain about the drag shows, whether they complain about the prices of the booze, whatever, that’s like their home away from home, literally.
It’s an attitude you know and again you and I and Alberto have all talked about it–it’s an attitude. They cannot in their work life and some of them even in their daily life, they cannot let on that they’re gay. They have to be very closeted and very careful, but walk through those doors and you they can do anything they want; they can be anything then want and that’s the glue that holds them together or keeps them coming back there.
There’s this bar over there, that opened in Juárez, I was going to tell you all about it, it’s called the G&G. And I think the sign even said something about you know: “El Lugar del Ambiente,” or something like that. Of course, you know el ambiente. They’re over there and what they were doing is bringing in male dancers from Mexico City that stripped all the way down to nothing, so there was a big to do, so everyone was going there. And maybe they still are, I don’t know, but I’m beginning to see the same ones that used to go to the G&G return to the OP.
MJ: What are the bars in Cd. Juarez?
Zaza: I really haven’t gone to too many places over there. I know about them–there’s El Olympico but there’s two or three. But according to the people I talk to, you can’t have a gay bar in Mexico. Because the Mexican government, according to Alberto, doesn’t recognize gays. That’s why he says that when you ask one of them, “Well, you have laws against homosexuality, right?” [And they say] “No, we don’t have laws against that, it doesn’t exist in our country.”
MJ: But they have tranvesti bars?
Zaza: Yeah. And they have them all over, I’m sure. And then of course, the Noa, Noa, which I guess started out as a Lesbian bar and that’s where our buddy, Juan Gabriel, started.
MJ: Is the lesbian community organized?
Zaza: No. There have been many attempts and they have come and gone and failed. The closest attempt is the one that’s going on right now. And you know, that I’ve had my differences with LAMBDA Services. Though I will have to admit, in certain respects I’m one hundred percent behind them. They’re doing what they set out to do. I think that they got off course, for a while.
It’s something that I think needs to be there but again the bars and Bob’s bars are going to be overwhelming attractions. I mean, how often are these people going to go and play monopoly at the gay and lesbian community center? Or go see an exhibit of photos of gay families? Or go watch movies, unless they’re porn? I mean, there is a group who will do that, and that’s fine. How many of them will come down and listen to political candidates?
MJ: And SWAC?
Zaza: How about SWAC? You’re talking to the newly-elected president. Scrambling for dollars, you’ve got to look ahead and see that it’s going to be a big scramble. And as difficult as Terry Call can be, he’s the only one who has the nerve and the pelotas to go out there and fight for this stuff. And right now, there’s are a couple of similar groups are that close, to losing their money because they don’t do any outreach in the gay and lesbian community.
The only outreach that we can see that they’re done is with migrant farm workers, which is fine, but I’m not saying that they need to concentrate on the gays and lesbians, because SWAC does.
He and his lover started it. He and Doug Carnell. And a lot of people come on the board and they can’t believe this guy and it has to be explained to them that it started out as a phone answering machine. That was SWAC, a phone answering machine. And that was from Tony Bengart.
MJ: Do you feel that a sizeable percentage of the gay community has been lost to AIDS and what impact has that had?
Zaza: Not here. Not yet. We have a number of them. We do have a number of them. But a lot of people again, are people that have come back from other places–Orlando, San Francisco, Chicago, L.A., New York, come back here, Dallas, Houston, they come back because their families are here, I do believe that one of the reasons we have lower numbers here is because of SWAC and because of the outreach they do. And we could have a lot more, because of us living on the border. Living across from a border city (Cd. Juárez) that says that they only have like 1,000 cases, phhhh! C’mon, evidently, that was their last projection.
MJ: So any fun projects coming up for you in the near future?
Zaza: I’ve decided that I’m going to have him do a full-length portrait of Zaza, and it’s going to be very Goya. I’ll have somebody do a photograph and he better take out a couple of my chins out at least–maybe just leave one in. I’ll bequeath it to my niece. I want to make sure she gets it when I die. Maybe she’ll donate it. Maybe I should give it to you?