Cinco de Mayo is not a celebration of Mexican Independence nor is it a national holiday in Mexico. But you would not know it from the promotion it gets in the US where it is an excuse for many sombrero-and-cactus themed parties, much drinking of Mexican beer, and lots of nachos – all consumed mostly by Anglos. There are some local Mexican fêtes, but they tend to be institutional and very low key. I wanted to see how my friends from Mexico celebrate the temporary victory of a ragtag Mexican militia over French troops in the village of Puebla like real Angelenos. So I went to a cowboy bar in Little Tokyo and ordered a Schlitz and a vegebuger.
The Escondite Bar is another of one of LA’s hidden secrets. Literally “the hiding place” in Spanish, it is an obscure, long narrow building on a dark and deserted street in an industrial section of the Little Tokyo neighborhood of DTLA. And it is the classic cowboy bar. Inside there are wooden Indians, antelope antler hanging lights, silver inlaid longhorn cow skulls, a Duck Dynasty video game, and a good selection of American longneck beers to go with your hamburgers (meat, turkey and veggie – hey, this is still LA), strip steak , burrito or buffalo mushrooms. It has a tiny stage next to the front door with a crackerjack sound operator named Sean Rosenthal. There is also free parking – unheard of in DTLA or anywhere else in the Car Capitol of the World.
But most important, on #5mayo the Escondite had the Mexican Standoff.
The Mexican Standoff is another LA treasure. An elastic, socially conscious band with a comedic twist, it is comprised of producers, performers and songwriters of the LA Latin Alternative scene. A core group of musicians form the Standoff by clustering around the founder, Fernanda Ulibarri, a character and a force of nature. “Fer” was born and raised in Mexico, moved to the US, graduated from the famed Berklee School of Music, worked in recording studios in NYC and later taught Pro Tools at The Institute of Audio Research. She married Grammy nominated Hip Hop Engineer (Kanye West, Wu Tang, Brandy) and saxophone/accordion/melodica player Eugene Toale and they moved to LA. He became the go-to producer for bilingual bands and she toured with the Grammy-winning Mexican pop star Julieta Venegas. Somewhere in there she founded Uli and the Gringos which morphed into The Mexican Standoff.
The Standoff is “elastic” because its expands and contracts to fit the venue and the schedule of its members. Uli sings and plays the auto harp. Her husband plays sax, melodica or accordion, Mexican-born jazz singer/mariachi leader Nancy Sanchez and Dominican Republic native Grammy-nominated blues guitarist Alih Jey join Uli in front while Mexico City native Moises Baqueiro backs them on the bass and vihuela (small, Mexican guitar). In keeping with the band’s elasticity, Sanchez was not there that night – she was playing with the Latin Grammy winning Flor de Toloache mariachi band – and a drummer by the name of Compánico was sitting in.
Before The Standoff took the stage (or squeezed onto it), the rapidly growing crowd in the bar was treated to the refined indie pop singer Madame Récamier (Gina Récamier), a delicate Mexican-based Latina with a voice like gold. Singing in Spanish but talking in English, she delivered four stunningly beautiful songs: “Quiero”, “Te regalo”, “Luz Verde”, and “Jamás Pensé”, the standout single from her album Mi Corazón. She sang perched on a stool under a soft red light in the center of the Escondite’s tiny corner stage and literally quieted the conversation as her voice sailed past the cow skulls and antler lamps like a flight of angels. I could not help but notice in a booth in the back the grinning faces of Gil Gastelum and Lana Mack of the Cosmica Music agency that represents Recámier.
The mood shifted rapidly as The Mexican Standoff carefully arranged itself on the stage (it was so tight that Toale actually had to play standing on the floor in front of the stage while the monitor speaker landed on the bar). As they were setting up, the front door next to stage swung open repeatedly as happy groups of Anglos and Latinos pour in, jockeying for drinks and standing room with the crowd that had already filled the bar for Recámier. It was a happy room, but no one said anything about Cinco de Mayo.
The Standoff members donned their traditional police sunglasses and cowboy hats to match their western boots and they let loose with a brace of songs in both Spanish and English. They delivered traditional and modern music including the Flaco Jimenez classic, “El Pantalón Blue Jean”, Dolly Parton’s “Do I Ever Cross Your Mind”, Kanny Garcia’s “Ya Me Voy”, and the band’s original songs “Muro” (the wall– you can guess), “Elotero” (about an attack on a corn vender that went viral), and “One Way Ticket to TJ”. About halfway through the set, Uli said they would celebrate Cinco de Mayo by singing “Those Old Cotton Fields Back Home”, with Toale on the saxophone giving it a kind of Mexican-country western-jazz feel. The band wrapped up with their unique rendition of “Wheel of Fire” in Spanish.
Altogether a low key celebration that was nothing like the revelry in the nightclubs in Hollywood and bars throughout the city, the Escondite’s non-approach to Cinco de Mayo was just right. Beer was drunk, but it was mostly American standards. There were tacos but no nachos. There were photos of hockey players on the walls but no Cinco de Mayo signs emblazoned with logos. Everyone had a good time and they didn’t need to celebrate a Mexican holiday that doesn’t really exist. All it took was a Mexican Standoff.