Thirsty for Company

P.J. Tobia, Nashville Scene, June 28, 2007

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Amid this unhappy neighborhood is a bar like no other in the city of Nashville. El Dos de Oros—its name a reference to a lucky draw in the Spanish card game el uno—is little more than a cement bungalow not far from the I-24 on-ramp.

But on Friday—payday—the place is jammed with men from Central America, the majority from Mexico, El Salvador and Guatemala. Most of them live in nearby apartment complexes, sometimes eight to a single room. A night at El Dos de Oros is their only respite from a life of drudgery and low pay, spent far, far from home.

Here they can drink and dance to blaring norteño or conjunto music, the kind with whomping bass lines, screeching harmonicas and weepy accordions. Here there are buckets of Coronas, cans of El Tecate and pool tables in the cement-floored, brick-walled basement. But these men don’t come to El Dos de Oros for the music or the beer. They could get that at Uno Billiard’s down the street or even Fandango over on Nolensville Road.

They come here for the girls.

The vast majority of laborers who come to the U.S. from places like Mexico, El Salvador and Guatemala are men. These laborers live with men, work with men and drink with men. Walk into any Mexican restaurant in South Nashville, and you’ll see tables of six, eight, even 12 men dining together on a Saturday night. While it is true that many foreign-born Latina women live in Nashville, most have come with their children to join men who were already here. In short, there is a shortage of female companionship for Nashville’s immigrant labor pool.

Except at El Dos de Oros. Crystal and her two sisters come because the men will give them money just to flirt with them. Rita and Carla, two large middle-aged women, come because they say Mexican men know how to treat a woman and haven’t been softened by middle-class living. Gracia and Ashley, who visit El Dos de Oros with friends every weekend, keep coming back because the hard-drinking patrons don’t seem to realize—or care—that they, too, are men.

These women are of varied ages and fit many descriptions. Yet the most surprising thing about them, perhaps, is the one thing that they have in common. Of the dozens of women who come to El Dos de Oros each weekend, aside from the transvestites, almost every one is white and American-born. What’s more, they speak virtually zero Spanish. What everybody looks for, at El Dos de Oros, can be found with few words.

Nashville may be a city wrestling with the impact of its immigrant population on myriad issues—on language, on laws, on education and social services. In the coming election year, the debate will get even louder and more divisive. But a kind of integration, if not assimilation, is happening on the down-low in the glaring disco light of a Murfreesboro Road dive. Age, race, gender, fuck it: in its peculiar way, El Dos de Oros may be the least segregated place in town.

Walking into El Dos de Oros is like stepping into another country. A very loud, dark and crowded country.

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The night is just getting started at El Dos de Oros. Upstairs, Crystal stands with her sister Shelena at the bar, unimpressed. They come here for fun and to make money.

“Buy me a beer!” Crystal demands. She is short, dirty-blond and pouty. She wears heavy blue eye shadow and a tight sleeveless suit jacket with a neckline that plunges into her cleavage. She is in her early 20s but looks younger because of the bright-blue braces on her teeth. To buy a drink for Crystal or many other girls at El Dos de Oros—including the transvestites—costs $10. With that money they will buy themselves a 4-ounce $1 can of beer. The remaining 9 bucks goes straight into their respective pockets.

What that $9 buys is companionship. The girls whisper in the men’s ears, play with their hair, put their arms around them. Sometimes, if the girls are drunk enough, they might let some of the men put hands up their skirts or feel their breasts. Though Crystal will soon be so drunk she can barely stand up, she and her sister are earning. On a good night, the girls can take home $300 each.

“I’m happy to talk and flirt with ‘em,” Crystal says. “I can say whatever, it’s not like they can understand me. It’s real relaxin’” She chugs the last of a small Bud Light and throws her arm around a man with a bushy beard and cowboy hat.

She and her sisters have always primarily dated Mexicans, she says. Although their father was white, their mother also liked Mexican men.

When Crystal was small, one of her mother’s boyfriends molested her—although she is quick to point out that her father also molested one of her older sisters. She left her mother’s home after that and moved in with a friend whose father let them “drink, smoke, snort coke, whatever.”

They grew up living in and out of cars, foster homes and under bridges. By the time she was 16 she’d had one baby, and before long another. Now she lives in a three-bedroom condo in Antioch, “by the lake.”

More businesslike is Crystal’s sister Shelena, who has three children and lives in East Nashville. El Dos de Oros is less fun for her. She raises her waxed, thin eyebrows whenever men approach to buy her drinks, assessing them.

“I’m not just going to let any guy in here grab my tits,” Shelena says, her straight hair spilling down a white terry-cloth Phat Fharm sweatsuit with sequins down the side. She’s looking forward to later, when she can meet up with what she calls her “real friends.” They hang out at a place on Nolensville Road that she says is like El Dos de Oros, but without the white girls.

“Those are the guys I really have love for,” she says. “The ones I kick it with all night. They’re so close to me it’s hard to describe.”

She reaches into her purse and pulls out a folded brown bandana. “This is what my real friends are about,” she says. The bandana is a symbol of Brown Pride, a local Mexican gang that’s been implicated in drug dealing and violent crime.

“If anyone were to touch me here, or anywhere, they would fuck him up,” she says, showing a measure of her own pride as she spoke. Shelena claims that she never got involved romantically with any of her “real friends,” meaning Brown Pride members, except once. “It was a mistake,” she now admits. After the relationship ended, he became jealous and threatened violence.

“He said that if he ever sees me with another guy,” she says, “he’s gonna hunt me down and have sex with me in front of him.” She added that she didn’t know what would happen if she broke off her friendship with these men.

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El Dos de Oros doesn’t offer the wild-side action of Shelena’s other hangout: she says Brown Pride members won’t even come in here. That just makes it even more of an odd little oasis in the midst of so much strife and squalor.

“These folks are real quiet,” says the bouncer, Sam, maybe the friendliest peacekeeper in the city. “They just want to have some fun, drink a few beers and flirt with the ladies.” There might have been a scuffle once, the young man recalls, scratching his clean-shaven head. “It couldn’t have been that bad, though.”

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Rita (not her real name), who appears to be in her mid-40s, is one of these. On a recent Friday night, she wore a backless, silver-sequined top in a snakeskin pattern. It revealed full thighs and short legs. On her face are oval, rimless glasses, the kind that your aunt or school nurse might wear. It’s not hard to imagine Rita in a sweatshirt adorned with kittens and balls of yarn. If she seems somewhat out of place, the same goes double for her mother, who sits next to her wearing a black blouse and eyeliner that isn’t so much penciled as Magic Markered. The pair sit drinking Coronas and watching the dance floor, which, on this night, is empty.

“A lot of our clientele works in the construction and remodeling field,” says one of the bouncers—this one a lean, bald black man with a shirt that says AGENT on the back. “And it rained for most of this week, so…” He held a gloved hand out and smiled as if to say, “There you have it.”

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“She loves to dance with these Mexican men,” Rita’s mother says. “She likes it more than anything else.”

Rita’s not the only one.

Ben is a white man in his mid-50s. He wears a short-sleeved, button-down white shirt tucked into light-blue jeans, over white sneakers that look brand-new. Ben claims he owns a 20-acre spread outside of Nashville, a condo downtown and a home in Atlanta’s wealthy Buckhead neighborhood. So what’s he doing on Murfreesboro Road?

He’s here with his houseboy/lover, a lithe, handsome young Mexican in his 20s.

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As for why Latino men come to El Dos de Oros, many of them are married and simply looking for a little excitement. “Of course I have a wife in Mexico,” says one man at the bar. “But I can’t be expected to be like a nun!” His friends rock with laughter. Yet not every husband in the room is so cavalier.

Fernando sits at a table in the corner with Melanie (not her real name), a cute, brown-haired white girl in her early 20s with a retainer on her bottom teeth and a soft, dimpled smile.

Fernando comes from Chiapas—”a Mexican backwater, really,” he says through a translator. As he shells out cash for round after round of drinks for Melanie, his hands tremble a little and his eyes dart around the room. He adjusts the collar of his blue-and-white-checked button-down shirt and laughs nervously, if at all. Though Fernando is over 1,000 miles from his wife and two children, he is terrified that she will find out that he is at this bar, flirting with this girl.

“I’ve been in the United States for over a year,” Fernando says, “and I get lonely. What would you do?”

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Further down the bar, Crystal and Shelena’s older sister Stephanie sits drinking and smoking alone. She’s just here to get out of the house for a bit—she has an 18-month-old at home—and she also thought it might be a good idea to keep an eye on her little sister.

Stephanie says that she hates Mexican men “not as people, just for dating,” though her baby’s father is Mexican. “He ran out on me as soon as the baby came,” she says. He’s now living in Texas.

“Mexicans don’t know nothing about love,” Stephanie says, curling her lip. “I don’t think they know what love is.”

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