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Note: this piece contains strong language and sexual content.

“Cruising” for Chacales in La Cantina

“They are, but are not. There are many, but not so many,” Enrique explains to me after I ask him, “Are chacales gay?” We are drinking over fresh chicharrones with two other queer individuals in La Cantina Tobahalá—or just La Cantina—in Oaxaca City, Mexico. Fellow patrons are drinking and singing while giving each other subtle “looks.” Although the chelas (beers) are icy, they only provide temporary relief from the insistent humidity outside. Even if the beers pair well with the chicharrones, I wonder if they are worth enduring the trapped heat radiating from the ever-running fryer inside. Enrique takes another sip and explains, “There are numerous Indigenous men in Oaxaca who are into other men but do not identify as gay or queer. Instead, these men are chacales.”

La Cantina is located three blocks south of Oaxaca City’s central plaza, El Zócalo. Although there are other gay bars across Oaxaca City, like Blue69, La Costa, and El Número, La Cantina stands out. Besides being close to the “cruising” spot of El Zócalo, La Cantina offers cheap, cold beers in the touristy neighborhood of El Centro Histórico. Its proximity to El Zócalo makes La Cantina an ideal place for local men to refresh themselves and “cruise” after work. Centraleros provides a literary representation of these behaviors in Oaxaca City. Despite being warned by some that only “low-class people” frequent La Cantina, I continued going. What made La Cantina a key place in my investigation of Oaxaca’s queer geographies is that it was not initially established as a gay bar; rather, La Cantina became a popular gay bar after one of Oaxaca’s oldest gay bars, La Chinampa, closed during the COVID-19 pandemic. After La Chinampa closed, gay and “straight” patrons began socializing with one another at La Cantina in the cramped bathroom, over the jukebox, and through the bartop mirror.

Among those patrons at La Cantina were the chacales that Enrique had mentioned. I learned that a chacal is a “straight” man who self-identifies as heterosexual due to the stigma located around homosexual practices and identities. Chacales usually are working-class men—often employed as construction workers, water-bearers, or mechanics—who exchange sexual favors with gay men. The postwork “cooling-off” ritual at La Cantina sometimes involved gay men offering ice-cold beers, or disparar las chelas, to chacales as part of the exchange, but I soon realized that while alcohol raised la calentura, or sexual fever, in these exchanges, it ran the risk of rapidly consuming itself without something to refresh or release it. Here, I explore my observations about the burning desires and cooled-off bodies of chacales and their partners in and around La Cantina.

Credit: ISTOCKPHOTO.COM/CARLOS MACOUZET

Fetishizing the “Proletarian Sensuality”

In the twenty-first century, the language used to discuss the lives of gay, lesbian, and trans individuals in Mexico expanded to include terms that captured more sexual diversity and more dissidence; in doing so, the language signified more about the “othered” expressions of gender and sexuality that had been often overlooked in previous LGBTQ+-based writings and conversations. That expansion included more documentation about the chacal, or what Mexican queer social critic Carlos Monsiváis called the “proletarian sensuality.” For Monsiváis, the chacal represents an Indigenous and/or Mestizo man of dark-bronze skin who has developed a muscular, hypermasculine appearance by working in labor-intensive occupations and who is open to various sexual experiences. Within Oaxaca, which is sometimes seen as an exotic place for sexual exploration and experimentation, chacalesare viewed by some gay men as ideal lovers

Maro, one of my collaborators, shared his perspective on what defines a chacal: “A chacal is a man who works rough jobs, like as a mason. He’s a manly man who looks like a cholo, but he likes men. He gets drunk so he can meet gay men.” In Maro’s characterization, alcohol provides an aperture, an opening, for chacales to act on their sexual desires. In the “proletarian sensuality,” chacales are valued lovers among some gay men because they are hypermasculine and often live in “unsafe” neighborhoods due to their socioeconomic class, which heightens the danger and excitement, and alcohol becomes a means of realizing a sexual interaction with these men. The film Semento provides a fictional and dramatized look at the opening alcohol provides for homoerotic relations between men like chacales in Mexico. But some view these interactions and desires toward chacales as classist and racist, arguing that sexually craving the bodies of working-class and darker-skinned chacales fetishizes them and reduces their value to sex, muscles, and sweat.

While we were drinking with fellow queers over a bucket of beers at La Cantina, Enrique spotted a young chacal sitting alone at the bartop. We agreed that Enrique should try his luck by inviting him over for a beer. After a smiling handshake and a couple of nods, the man agreed to Enrique’s offer; Enrique returned to the table with the chacal, Oscar. Shortly after introductions, Oscar indicated that he wasn’t gay. He explained that he’d gotten married a year before and that his wife had just had a baby. We congratulated him while he shyly grinned. Then Oscar unexpectedly revealed that he had recently accepted that he was sexually attracted to other men. He clarified that he began visiting La Cantina after work with the hope of exploring these feelings more. After the beers in the bucket evaporated, Oscar explained that he had to return home to his family. Once he departed, a brief silence fell over the table. Enrique broke the stillness by lamenting, “How I wish I had a chacal like that. A manly man with a beard and big arms like those!”

Enrique’s lament is just one spark in a larger sexual fire across Mexico. As “straight” men, chacales embody “traditional” heterosexual values, and to help maintain this manliness, they also self-label as complemente activos (or “tops”) within their male sexual relations. This display of hypermasculine and virile qualities can attract the attention of many gay men across Mexico, who view these qualities as signs of an ideal sexual partner. Oliver, a young gay man from Oaxaca City, explained, “There are many gay and trans people in Oaxaca, but how do they interact socially? They don’t hang out with other gays. Instead, they pay with drugs or alcohol for their ‘heterosexual’ male lovers.” Oliver’s account indicates that gay men across Oaxaca are more than willing to provide disparar las chelas, drugs, and other gifts in order to maintain a sexual-romantic relationship with a socially “straight” man. These interactions might be commonplace, but they are still influenced by stigma toward homosexual behaviors and identities.

Cooling and Releasing “La Calentura”

In 2021, Mexico began its first national census on its LGBTQIA+ population, which indicated that at least 5.1% of Mexico’s total population self-identified as LGBTQIA+. While Oaxaca reported 6.9% of its total population self-identified as LGBTQIA+ and is widely recognized as a queer region for having Muxe, or Mexico’s third gender, in 2022 Oaxaca was labeled the most dangerous state for LGBTQIA+ people in Mexico. This indicates that stigma persists against and even among queer people about homosexual practices in Oaxaca. As I discovered in La Cantina, this stigma pushes some individuals who participate in queer sexual behaviors to “sexually distance” themselves from gay communities instead of identifying as queer. Thus, Mexico’s total queer population may be larger, but remains generally elusive to institutional metrics.

While it is difficult to perceive these elusive types of queerness, there are some spaces and individuals that can provide insight into these discreet intimate encounters. Antonio, a queer man from Oaxaca, told me that intimate relations among working-class men differ from and even evade common understandings of desire and sexuality. Antonio stated, “In Oaxaca, there can exist two guys who are attracted to each other and who say, after one night out drinking, ‘We are going to fuck.’ And they do it on two sacks. They fuck on a Saturday after carrying bags of maize, working hard all day, full of dust. They do it with their chelas sudadas,or sweaty bottles of beer. They’re going to fuck, smelling of dust and sweat. It is distinct.” Again, alcohol seems to be a key feature in these elusive interactions. Thus, places like La Cantina are strategic: offering cold beers is a vital step in challenging the stigma around queerness and homosexuality, allowing a type of intimacy they might not otherwise permit themselves.

Even if chacales are fetishized by some gay men, some take pride in their “distinctness” by drawing value from the duration and intensity of the la calentura they help create—although the process of both heating and cooling is important. Even though chacales are sexually prized lovers, their muscular and sweaty bodies are often “cleaned up” before a sexual encounter. This includes stripping away any “unpleasant” odors, sweaty clothing, and dirt. In this sanitization process, la calentura is maintained, but mitigated. This sometimes occurs in discreet places like hotels, or expresses, where individuals may rent a room for an hour or two. Across Mexico, these hotels play a key role in the sanitization—but also the maintenance—of la calentura, allowing individuals to rest and sexually enjoy themselves beyond the prying eyes of neighbors, friends, and family, for a cost. In an express, the distinctness of an encounter with (or for) a chacal can be washed away with soap and deodorant.

Ernesto, one of my collaborators, once described how he met a chacal on a popular gay dating app. In order to hide the encounter from family and neighbors, they decided to meet for drinks in El Centro after work. Afterward, they shared a taxi ride and a room at an express outside the city. On the way, Ernesto felt nervous, but also sexually excited. Upon arriving, Ernesto noted that the chacal was dirty from working all day in the hot sun, so he asked the man to shower—but his partner refused. Ernesto explained, “I made him take a shower even though he didn’t want to. I grabbed him out of bed and took him to the bathroom. I wanted to do everything. I wanted to have a good time.” While drinking cold beers, showering, and applying deodorant may cool the sexual ardor temporarily, it also allows la calentura to continue without the passion burning out all at once. Extending the sexual passion has greater potential in satisfying the emotional-physical needs of gay men and chacales. Thus, maintaining the sexual ardor over a longer period of time can keep both types of men invested in continuing these types of intimate encounters and exchanges despite facing the stigma associated with homosexuality in Mexico. Though some consider chacales ideal lovers, part of the process of preparing for sex can erase the real lives in which they’re grounded—keeping the heat of the sexual fantasy while cooling it down slightly in reality.

Between cold beers and hot showers, chacales and gay men find themselves moving amid poles of desire in which more fluid understandings of desire and sexuality are allowed. In a way, by resting and relaxing with a cold beer in a hot bar after a long day of work, these men challenge the stigma around queerness and homosexuality for a moment, normalizing casual, intimate encounters among men in Oaxaca.

Authors

Alejandro Echeverria

Alejandro Echeverria is a PhD candidate at UC Riverside investigating citizenship, queer visibility politics, and queer geographies in Oaxaca, Mexico. He is a cohost for the podcast Unconditional Love, which is dedicated toward the “coming-out” experience under the EthnoLab at UC Riverside. He is also a contributing editor for AnthroPod: The Podcast for the Society of Cultural Anthropology.

Cite as

Echeverria, Alejandro. 2024. “¡Dispara las chelas!.” Anthropology News website, February 7, 2024.

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