Most people think of Oaxaca as a typical Mexican restaurant with a strategic location right near the state capitol. Come at lunch, and you can bump shoulders with local political luminaries. Come on a Sunday afternoon after 4, and you can bump and grind -- sloooowly.
As the weekend winds down, old-school Mexican fare is matched with classic R&B, oldies and Latin standards in the sunken area near the bar at Oaxaca. The man kicking out the jams sits behind preprogrammed keyboards. He's a stout, bald fellow who resembles a Mexican version of a mean Mr. Clean, if Mr. Clean were cast in a Chicano prison movie.
Once the leader of the Majestics (the '60s/'70s-era band that just missed the big time), J.J. Saenz took a break to sing God's praises. He still leads his church band, but like Al Green, Saenz has broken out his secular songbook -- one that would make Art Laboe and Dick Clark proud -- to croon songs like "I'm Your Puppet," "Your Daddy's Home" and other cruising favorites like "Sitting in the Park" and "Earth Angel."
The Sunday afternoon Oaxaca regulars, who look like cast members from the never-to-be-made hit La Bamba-meets-Grease, shout out enthusiastically to songs that only a few in attendance can remember when they were on the charts.
Manny Ruelas, from the Chicano band ViVa, joins Saenz occasionally. They nail "Tell It Like It Is" well enough to make some in the crowd hang their heads.
One recent evening, J.J. has some groupies from the past in the audience, hangovers from his days with the Majestics. The dozen or so 50-somethings are all laughing, dancing and singing. And reminiscing. Two of the ladies join J.J. to deftly sing "Sabor a Mi."
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"We used to see J.J. at the old Bridge Inn," says Mary Reyes, whose brother Danny Cañez played bass in the Majestics. She was also once the object of J.J.'s affection. He played a cha-cha version of "Sitting in the Park" when he first spotted her.
Although the two never got together (he was in the band and, thus, a bad guy, so she thought), tonight the two friends are reunited by the music.
And it feels so good.