Crossing the (Belltown) Border

Everyone claims to love salsa in Seattle’s hottest dance clubs. So why don’t Hispanics feel welcome there?

I'm at Belltown's Barracuda Lounge on its hugely popular "Sultry Night," which features reggaeton and salsa music every Saturday. It's packed to maximum capacity, with guys paying $10 cover and ladies getting in for free. All around me sweaty people grind against one another while clenching Coronas and cocktails. One couple alternates between spinning in dizzying circles and making out. Large television screens flash the words "Warning: Muy caliente!" before offering close-ups of Hispanic women jiggling their asses.Beyoncé's "Naughty Girl" is blaring on the speakers. In English. And most of the people around me are speaking English, not Spanish.What's so caliente about that?Belltown has become a hotbed for Latin-themed dance nights. Clubs like the Barracuda, Tia Lou's, and See Sound Lounge offer Latin music almost any night of the week. Seattle club owners, like many across the country, have recognized the wide crossover appeal of Hispanic music. But during an intense week of club-hopping I discovered that even as downtown clubs profit from the craze, many local Hispanics feel unwelcome.I start my adventure at the cusp of Belltown at See Sound Lounge. It's surprisingly busy on a Sunday night (with a $5 cover), perhaps because it offers free salsa lessons. Women in sexy getups practice their steps in front of a mirror. They can also attempt to emulate the moves on overhead television screens showing a salsa competition.At the bar, a well-coiffed Anglo in his early 20s inquires loudly in English, "What sort of Mexican spirits do you carry?" Mexican spirits? Why not just ask for tequila, dude? If he is sincere about seeking an authentic Hispanic experience, he's shit out of luck. The only person there who looks remotely Hispanic is the salsa teacher.On Thursday I head over to Tia Lou's Latin Night ($10 for guys, ladies free). I struggle to make my way across a floor that's sticky with spilled drinks. The crowd is more ethnically diverse at Tia Lou's, but the men stare me up and down, hoping for eye contact so they can approach. The star of the night is a tiny girl with dark hair that cascades down her back; she's attracting about a man a minute. Upstairs, near where I'm observing, there's a stripper pole. Muy classy! Salsa music blares over the speakers, but the place mainly resembles a fraternity party full of horny bros."It's more of a meat market than it is a dance floor," says Tracy Watson, an avid clubgoer. "Everybody's hitting on each other downtown." She tells me I should check out Selena's Guadalajara.So I head north the following night. Selena's is a small 25-year-old Mexican restaurant in Wallingford that's easy to overlook as you're driving past on 45th Street. It's owned by Laura and Miguel Santibañez, both Mexican immigrants.The food at Selena's is satisfactory, but the place gets hopping on Fridays and Saturdays, when it's open late for dancing. It was a successful business decision shaped by the Santibañezes' own unhappy experience in Belltown.Laura recalls that she and her husband were excited when she heard Belltown clubs offered a slew of Latin-themed dance nights. So they changed into their best shoes and hit the Barracuda Lounge. But the Santibañezes' first visit there ended up being their last."I didn't feel comfortable there," Laura reflects, shaking her head. "The people are too flashy. They watch Dancing With the Stars and take dance classes. Suddenly they think they can dance better than Hispanics."It's not a competition," she continues. "It's not about who can be the sexiest or spin the fastest. A room full of people dancing should feel warm and welcoming. They should care more about feeling the rhythm and enjoying themselves than how they look in the crowd. It's a different idea of dancing they have going on."The salsa music that patrons at Selena's are accustomed to hearing actually originates in the Caribbean and Latin America. By the '70s, however, the genre had been embraced by citizens of Mexico, the Dominican Republic, and Venezuela, to name a few.Today, Selena's has accumulated a loyal customer base, most of whom are Hispanic, that shows up regularly on weekends (with a $10 cover). The waitstaff clears the center area of tables, hits the lights, and starts up the fog machine. Miguel disappears into the back and reemerges in a sharp dress shirt and matching shoes. His wife has on three-inch heels that wrap around her ankles. She sneaks onto the dance floor every few songs while Miguel tends the bar.The majority of her patrons are in their mid-30s. It's not the 20-something pickup scene of Belltown. During one visit I watch an overweight man—surprisingly graceful on his feet—dance with a new partner each time the song changes. But his manner is friendly, not sleazy. I wouldn't have a problem with my little sister coming here alone. The small dance floor is friendly and familial, with no stripper poles or posers in sight.Some of Selena's regulars tell me they prefer it to the trendier clubs. "There are a lot of these places downtown that play salsa," says regular Gonzalo Rivera. "But really it's just people drinking and looking at girls all night."DJ Edgar (Edgar Evangelista) spins once a week at Selena's. Typically he has free rein over the music selection, opting for rare salsa records from the '60s and '70s: plenty of upbeat tempos and the occasional schmaltzy ballad. I ask the Mexico City native why I hear Beyoncé at a designated salsa night in Belltown. He explains that DJs are typically hired by club owners with certain conditions. They can spin their personal preferences—but only up to a point. On a good night, clubs downtown see hundreds of patrons, most of whom are Anglos in their 20s. That means the DJs have to weave Top-40 hits into their sets.He says this out of direct experience at Tia Lou's: "I used to play there."Later I ask See Sound Lounge bar manager Woody Bell about the neighborhood's rather de-Latinoized Latino nights. Is it, as some Hispanics have told me, akin to gentrification?"Gentrified?" he retorts. "I hate that word. We are an extremely multicultural lounge, and we don't cater to a single population in the Seattle social scene...You can ask some of the bartenders who are there every night."See Sound bartender Scott Smith suggests that it's "other bars" in Belltown that have made Latin Night an Americanized commodity. But, he admits, "I'm not really familiar with the other ones...I don't really go to salsa nights."Like most Anglos, he probably hasn't driven to White Center, where Club Revolucíon (formerly Club Evolucíon) on 16th Avenue Southwest is the most notorious Hispanic hangout in the city.Revolucíon owner Alfredo Lopez began in December 2000 his plan to create a locale for young Hispanics. Today, despite being open only one night a week and serving no booze, Revolucíon attracts hundreds of Hispanic people of all ages. Since its inception, the police have also cited it numerous times for gang activity and drinking in the parking lot. Belltown hipsters would piss their pants in a club like this."[White Center] has always been a rough neighborhood," Lopez acknowledges. "When we first opened there was a lot of gangs, shootings, prostitution, and drug dealing...I didn't want to walk the streets either when I first bought the building."In an effort to cut down on crime, Lopez now employs three King County sheriffs and eight security guards each Saturday. His wife and two children work at Revolucíon as well, and Lopez says he wants to know that they, along with the rest of his patrons, can walk safely out to their cars at the end of the night.But despite the problems, I spoke with several Revolucíon patrons who feel more comfortable there than at any of the "safer" Belltown clubs.On a recent Saturday, my girlfriend and I pay a $10 cover each and get patted down for weapons before having our hands stamped. There's a $5 re-entry fee in case we want to go out to the parking lot and drink.Revolucíon features both live mariachi bands and mainstream hip-hop—the latter draws droves of young Hispanics who are less interested in the more traditional sound at Selena's. A couple of these guys stand outside the women's restroom, blocking the entrance and leering at those who attempt to pass. They reek of cologne. "You wanna drink?" one offers with a smirk. "I have some drink in my car if you wanna go."I decline the invitation and step back outside, where I smoke cigarettes with a soft-spoken guy named David Cruz and his silent friend who grants me a shy smile. I mention the four cop cars parked near us and the slew of security cameras inside. Cruz laughs and acknowledges Revolucíon's bad rep. But he also says he drove all the way from Everett to get here and "meet some girls and do some dancing.""There's more Spanish people here than anywhere else," Cruz explains. He motions toward his friend. "He doesn't speak much English except a few words. He doesn't meet many people downtown. We go there sometimes...white people, black people...they're having a good time...but those places are not there for us.""We're the only all-ages Latin club in Seattle," Lopez points out. "That's what attracts all our patrons. Think of it this way: If you like disco and there's only one place that's a disco club, then that's where you've gotta go."

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