Still Loca After All These Years

Beneath swirling lights and a disco ball, cowboy hats tower over the other heads. Mocha-colored young women in up-to-the-moment attire throw pelvis alongside fresh-faced couples and open-shirted Latin lovers with Ramon Navarro mustaches. One arch-backed pair grope one another, his thigh her crotch, her hand his, while keeping even beat with the waltz-time tune.

Along the mirrored periphery of the large room, small groups of weathered Latinos drink Bud Light from cans, and single men scan for chicks. White-shirted waiters and waitresses with exhausted expressions serve drinks from the bar.

The unsullied harmonies of revved-up, Tejano-styled group Emosion Tropical splits the ears of the 200 packed into the hall. The night's other house band, Los Marianos, a group of middle-agers who formed in Sonora 30 years ago, is off somewhere in the crowd. Both bands offer decidedly authentic versions of the current cringe-inducing Yankee rage dubbed the "Latin Explosion."

The club owner, Jose Luis Araiza, doubles as DJ, playing Latino hits between the bands' sets. And 95 percent of what Araiza spins and spiels is in Spanish.

It is a happening Thursday night at Club Orfeon, a dance club on 16th Street between Jefferson and Van Buren. The place jumps every night that it's open; Thursdays through Mondays from 9 p.m. to 2 a.m. And there is security for everything. There's door security, interior security, parking lot security and DJ-booth security. Two stoic off-duty cops sit at the entrance.

"I want people to feel comfortable when they come," says Araiza. "And when the police are there, the people who are afraid of the police will think twice about doing rowdy things."

Araiza was born in Sonora and moved here in the Seventies as a kid in his teens. He became a professional musician, playing rock en español in now-perished inner-city Latin clubs. In the late Eighties, he opened Club Orfeon with his brother-in-law.

For 10 years, Club Orfeon has been host to Latin dance music -- the sound currently skewering the American pop charts and the TV-generated minds of American youth, kids with too much disposable income and no culture to call their own.

Not since Michael Mann's Vice vision of South Beach has it been so diplomatic to get yourself a sunned torso, throw back your head and chirp confidently any combination of "La Vida!" "Viva!" or "Loco!"

Currently, four Top 20 "Latin-tinged" singles are in the U.S. Billboard pop charts. Even crusty Carlos Santana is torquing a new million-seller. Five years ago, a Santana album couldn't move from a Salvation Army nickel bin. Of course, for this album, Santana had the good sense to invite Dave Matthews, Eric Clapton and Evergreen to join him.

The blending of cultures moves both directions, and so the Jennifer Lopez/Ricky Martin flourish is in malls, computers, ubiquitous car stereos and schoolgirls.

Club Orfeon is unchanged, spirited and brimming with people expert in the art of celebration. The alcohol-intake and merriment levels are high.

The dancing is insinuative, percussive, almost primal, with loads of sexual energy. None of that four-buffed-guys-sitting-around-a-pitcher-staring-at-sports-on-big-screen stuff.

Yet if the Latino Explosion is conquering our collective consciousness, as our media suggest, then why are the New Times lensman and I the only gringos in one of the city's few Latin dance clubs on a packed night?

Because white people have always been afraid of brown-skinned people -- particularly those who don't speak English -- despite the gringo's penchant for procuring peasants from Latino lineage and swiping liberally from Latino culture.

Club Orfeon doesn't promote to an Anglo crowd; PR consists mainly of sporadic advertising on local Spanish-speaking radio and television.

Still, you wonder. Where are all the Shakira/Enrique Iglesias-loving college students who bound for Nogales or Rocky Point to experience a "real" Latin disco? Maybe they are too busy posturing as participants of this vital American music genre in Scottsdale or north Phoenix clubs on "Salsa" or "Latin" nights, gaping at sports on TV and, we can only hope, saving up in their bloodstream enough alcohol for a DUI en route home.

Does Araiza think these theme nights popping up in predominantly white Valley nightspots trivialize his club and whitewash his culture, that it could be taken as insult?

"We were born Latin," he says. "If this Latin fever thing is taking over the place, I am happy, I'm glad. Because we as a people will be exposed to the people in other clubs that are not familiar with us, and maybe they'll give in a little bit.

"There is a wide range of Latin talent and they haven't really exploded here," he continues. "And now that there are a few out there performing and being accepted here, people are going to come and accept that there is a different way of dancing or a different way of listening to music. Now Ricky Martin has a pop hit song and it is huge all over the world. He was known all over Central, South America and Mexico long before he was here. I'm glad for him and the people."

"Livin' la Vida Loca," the Ricky Martin hit that made him an instant household name in America, was co-written by the same guy who co-wrote nearly every huge Bon Jovi hit back in the Eighties. Ricky Martin proves that if you are Latino and sing in English while softening the African-Puerto Rican rhythms, you can succeed here.

Has the widespread U.S. embrace of Latin culture tripled Araiza's business -- as one would think?

"You know, that is why I sometimes speak English here, too, because I see people that I haven't seen, and I know that they don't speak Spanish. But not that many," Araiza says. "Few people come to the club who don't speak Spanish, but more than before. You are here, aren't you?"

Club Orfeon's traditional Thursday night finale is a dance contest called "La Chica Sexy." The competition is a consistent fave. The battle sees Latinas dance solo, blending an exhausting and peppery mix of salsa and cumbia with hip-hop jigs. In the end, the dancer with the most crowd adoration wins.

After preliminary rounds in which a handful of contestants come and go, Karina takes to the dance floor. The throng encircling the checkered dance floor yelps approval whenever the shapely brunette resorts to such cheap tricks as lifting her snug dress to breast level, revealing a Gstring. She works the male senses in the crowd like a cabaret master.

From the DJ booth, Araiza chimes things like, "Ooooh, go Karina. Ahhhh, go Karina," over the thump of a Cuban chorus throbbing through the sound system.

Rosita, another symmetrical dancer wearing a velvet maroon dress, handily offers herself up like a shared experience. A thicket of hip movements. She, too, wins much warmth.

Facing off in the finale to one of the few English renditions of the night -- of course, "Livin' la Vida Loca" -- Rosita and Karina end up in a straight tie. The prize -- a wad of cash and tickets to see a Ricky Martin show -- is split down the middle. The dancers go away contented. So does the crowd.

KEEP PHOENIX NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Brian Smith
Contact: Brian Smith