It took a long time and millions of dollars in redevelopment money, police work, raids, proselytizing, and code crackdowns, but there are now no Mexican beer bars left in downtown SanTana. If paisas in the most Mexican big city in America want get borracho in downtown, they’re simply going to have to take their money elsewhere for the first time since at least World War II.
This development represents a huge victory for the city’s bigoted Carrie Nations. For nearly 50 years, SanTana’s elite have obsessed about ridding the area of Mexican cantinas, claiming their clientele ruined what was once the crown jewel of Orange County cultural life. They openly colluded with politicians and city bureaucrats to replace the Mexican bars with something, anything—and they have won.
The story of this victory involves appeals to nostalgia, government crackdowns, and good ol’ fashioned beaner bashing. And it, of course, involves a hypocritical ending—but we’re getting ahead of the tale.
The idea that downtown SanTana needed to get revitalized and cleaned of Mexican drunks and undergo a “renaissance” became normalized thanks to the help of the Los Angeles Times and Orange County Register. For decades, the two papers served as the stenographers for the feelings and wishes of SanTana’s city fathers, writing article after article slamming “drunks from area beer bars” that patronized what the papers alternately called the “infamous Fourth Street bars,” “rowdy beer bars,” “shabby 4th Street bars,” rundown Santa Ana bars,” bars that made “many merchants moved away” or—most truthfully yet no less race-baiting—”beer bars that catered to illegal immigrants from Mexico.”
“Santa Ana’s downtown today, alone and distressingly shabby, is written off by many landlords and developers as a has-been,” read a typical dispatch, this one from a 1971 Times story tellingly titled “The Downtown That Was,” with a headline after the jump adding “Downtown Santa Ana: Only a Shadow Left.” The reporter breathlessly followed two wabby winos as they “retrea[ed]t deep into one of the dimly lit taverns” to “rehash their lives over warming sips of beer until one man, slighted by something said, lapses into morose silence.”
But even as reporter Herman Wong spun a dark tale of a ghetto in Orange County—Orange County!—he briefly mentioned downtown’s east end, where “Mexican styled cafes, bars and other businesses make it—as one proprietor on that block says cheerily—just like Tijuana.”
Those Mexicans and their bars would preserve 4th Street so it could transform into the gentrified wonderland it is today. And oh, those bars: El Antojo and the Chico Club and El Balboa and El Latino and El Palace and El Zarape, and The Trade Wind and The Inn Step and El Castillo and El Plebeyo and Alma Latina, with The Aztec Palace, West Coast Theater, and the Yost for huge events drawing artists ranging from José Alfredo Jiménez to Los Cadetes de Linares. Closer to the Civic Center was El Infierno; down la Cuatro toward the train tracks was the El Hidalgo pool bar. And there were more.
Ask any Mexican male in Orange County 50 and above, and they’ll wax nostalgic about those days, when they could stumble from cantina to cantina while their kids and wives watched a film or went shopping. Indeed, my dad always likes to tell the story about how my six-year-old self had to drag him out of El Latino on more than one occasion. Now sober for over 30 years, he calls those days “un escándalo retregrande“—a big ol’ shitshow.
For SanTana’s leaders, all those Mexican bars were a brown, boozy nightmare worthy of eradication. They promised the Times in 1982 to place “retail stores and upscale restaurants where beer bars used to be.” In 1984, on-site inspections by police in conjunction with state and county agencies, (including the health department and labor commission. and the state ABC and Industrial Relations), led to shutdowns of 12 bars across the city, but mostly in downtown. “They want to scare them out and get those bars out of there,” someone told the Times. “I don’t think it’s right for them to do that.”
Redevelopment funds got promised to downtown landlords so they could transform Fourth Street into Fiesta Marketplace with one caveat. As Roger Kooi, director of Santa Ana’s downtown development commission, bluntly told the Times in 1985: “A prerequisite for the proposal was that all parties would agree that we wouldn’t have any stand-up beer bars that didn’t fit the design.”
“The design,” of course, was code for “No Mexican drunks.”
“The beer bars are history, come Dec. 1,” then-SanTana City Manager Robert C. Bobb told the papers in 1986. But survivors persisted until last year: Carambola (also known as Broadway Billiards) and The Inn Step and the restaurant-bar that’s now Diego’s and Rancho de Mendoza and that bar below Festival Hall that used to flash photos of murdered soplones while narcocorridos praising El Chapo bounced all over the tinny room. Now, there’s just two spots where paisas can get their drink on: the Festival Hall concert venue (which is open only on weekends and constantly rumored to get turned into a hipster music venue) and Mariscos Hector, which is technically a restaurant and—even more technically—protected since the owners are compas with SanTana Mayor-for-Life Don Papi Pulido.
The grand, hypocritical irony, of course, is that downtown SanTana probably has more alcohol now than at any point in its history: two standalone beer bars, one brewery, one standalone cocktail bar, two wine bars, three craft-beer restaurants, three restaurants with a beer-and-wine license, and 10 restaurants with full liquor licenses. That’s 23 establishments, and there’s more coming. But since those bars cater to IG-worthy millennials instead of wabs, that makes them OK in the eyes of SanTana’s bourgeoisie—that’s progress, right?
So adiós, Mexican beer bars in downtown SanTana. Hasta luego, #borrachoproblems. See you later, paisas. Your good times were an affront to the lords of Orange County, and thus had to end. No one will acknowledge your role in paving the way so your pocho children and grandchildren could stumble around DTSA with their gabacho and Asian pals, just like you did in your youth. But I’ll make sure to pour a caguama of Modelo Especial outside Rancho de Mendoza—and remember.