With nimble organizing, a district supervisor’s support, lip-synching and many a fake eyelash, Esta Noche, the Mission institution that claims to be San Francisco’s only Latino gay bar, held a fundraiser on Saturday, and came away with $14,000 – more than enough to settle its overdue bills with the city and to live another day.
This spring, the 33-year-old 16th Street bar found itself in crisis because of a 2011 legislative change meant to streamline how San Francisco businesses pay permit fees. Instead of paying them at various times throughout the year, city businesses must now make one-time payments for all their licenses, such as those the Department of Health and the Entertainment Commission issue.
The Board of Supervisors unanimously passed the law in 2011, but this is the first year it’s fully in effect.
“This should be cheaper and more efficient for businesses and the city,” said Greg Kato, policy and legislative manager at the Office of Treasurer & Tax Collector.
Though Kato’s office sent notifications to affected businesses, Esta Noche owner Manuel Quijamo said he did not know about the change, and the $7,000 bill he received was unexpected. It was due March 31, and Quijamo didn’t have the money to pay it. The bar risked losing its operating permits and being forced to shut down.
“Bars in SF often run on the margins; people don’t realize that,” said Nate Allbee, legislative aide for District 9 Supervisor David Campos. “If you’re a community bar, you’re really at the whim of the economy… A lot of bar owners do it out of love of community,” Allbee added.
Campos’ office has been pivotal to Esta Noche’s recent rescue efforts. In April, after the bar had accumulated hefty late fees, Quijamo approached the supervisor for help. Campos’ office agreed to investigate why the 2011 law makes no provision for partial payment plans, but his aides realized that Esta Noche needed more immediate action to survive.
Allbee contacted San Francisco-based queer advocate Anna Conda and other activists at the Harvey Milk Democratic Club to jumpstart a fundraising campaign and to plan Saturday’s event. What started as a modest Facebook page and Indiegogo campaign two weeks ago turned into a large outpouring of support.
By early Saturday evening, Esta Noche supporters had shown up in force. After 780 RSVP’s to the event’s Facebook announcement, the small bar was packed with people and at times overflowed onto the sidewalk. The event featured appearances by Esta Noche regulars and some of San Francisco’s most recognizable drag personalities, including Anna Conda, Heklina, Lulu Ramirez and Mitzy Lee, as well as music from DJs Carnita and Brown, of the popular Hard French party.
Two hours into the event, entrance fees, anonymous contributions and online donations from the Indiegogo page had raised the $9,000 that Esta Noche needed to pay the city, plus an additional $5,000. Prior to the event, organizers said they would donate any extra funds raised to El/La, a local nonprofit that works with transgender Latinos.
“We’ve been here for 33 years,” Quijamo told the crowd. “It’s like our Stonewall. Thirty-three years in the city, 33 years in the Mission. Without you, we would not be open,” he added.
For supervisor Campos, who has held campaign events at Esta Noche, the bar is a key cultural institution in the neighborhood.
“We’re thrilled at the outpouring of support. Esta Noche has been a place where the gay Latino community and its supporters have felt welcome for years,” Campos said at the event.
“I ran away to San Francisco to be gay, and this bar is where I came,” said comedienne Marga Gomez, whose Comedy Bodega series appears every Thursday at Esta Noche. “For the gay Latino community, this is the only home we have.”
For drag performer Sandy Shorts, Esta Noche was the first gay bar she had ever been to. “I was blown away,” she said. “Of course, they all wanted to blow me too; I was 21 at the time.”
Ruth Valdez, who lives in Albany, said she has been coming to Esta Noche for 10 years. “You can be yourself here,” she said. “I have to come all the way over here to be myself. I would never go out if Esta Noche closed.”
Though many of the supporters were longtime fans, others were stepping into Esta Noche for the first time.
“Let’s save Esta Noche, so we can take over it!” joked one attendee, who said this was his first time at the bar and wondered about its future as a distinctively Latino space.
Though Esta Noche’s owner said its current financial crisis is largely the result of the transition to the city’s new payment requirements, performers throughout the night pointed to shifting race and class demographics and the growing cost of living in the Mission as the primary reasons for the bar’s crisis.
“We don’t need more overpriced Tex Mex shit in the Mission,” cried out performer Heklina. “We need Esta Noche!”
Persia and Daddies Plastik performed a song titled “Google, Google, Apps, Apps (I just wanna to be white),” which criticized the transplantation of Silicon Valley culture to San Francisco as a threat to the Mission’s cultural identity.
Yet the event’s organizers expressed confidence that the bar will be around for a long time to come.
“Our bars are a little different from other people’s bars, it’s where we organize,” said legislative aide Allbee. “The LGBT political movement started in bars. The queer community of this city is making sure these cultural institutions stay around.”
Correction: A caption for a photograph accompanying this story originally identified Tyler Holmes as Tayler Holmes. It has been corrected.