At first glance, the Fiesta Ballroom might seem like almost any other Houston Tejano club on a Saturday night. There are the lights, the ear-scorching sounds from the conjunto accordion, and the hybrid Spanglish being spoken by patrons and employees.
In the dusky atmosphere of cheap cologne and cigarette smoke, unattached men with romantic cravings go in search of mates, even if it's only for a brief turn on the dance floor. In groups of anywhere from two to 14, they flock through the doors after a week of intense labor, hoping for a night of pleasure.
At the Fiesta, many of those young and middle-aged men are finding partners, however temporary. Couples keeping time to the recorded music move across the crowded dance floor amid the clattering of beer bottles, the cowbell of the cumbia and the hum of conversation, in a room of silent male-to-female gazes.
Substitute different songs and another socioeconomic group, and the action would seem to parallel similar scenes in Southwest discos, country bars and the blues havens of the inner city.
But when the last note of the accordion is played and a dance ends at the Fiesta, dramatic differences emerge. Men pull out their wallets or reach into their jeans pockets for wrinkled folding money. The women, or girls, reach politely toward the bills and stuff whatever amount was given into their bras or back pockets.
Partnership at this dance hall, and others like it, is a pay-as-you-go proposition. Coupling up for a tune costs cash, anywhere from $1 to $5 per song.
"I always have a good time when I come," says Carlos, 29, a laborer who makes his way here whenever possible. "There are so many chicas here."
The most startling difference, however, is not that dances come at a price. Among the females, heavy mascara and makeup hide a more startling secret -- some of these available dance partners are not women at all. They are girls. A few of them are no more than 14 years old, still at what would seem to be a tender age.
Rather than hanging out with their classmates or engaging in the courtship of young lovers, these middle school students are moonlighting -- making extra money by dancing, and sometimes romancing, with men older than their fathers. Regulars say an evening's work, sometimes stretching to sunrise, earns the youngest and most desirable of them up to $150. And the only cost, it seems, is innocence lost -- a price big enough to prompt some Second Ward activists to protest such clubs.
Law-enforcement and regulatory agencies say they periodically review the dance halls and find no violations, and club operators deny improprieties. They say this is only a clash of cultures. Community activists insist underaged females frequent the clubs, and several girls could be seen entering the premises on recent evenings.
So the peculiar customs of the clubs continue. On this night, young women take the dollars from their partners and put them away in the brief interlude between dances. Then the music resumes, and so does the unusual ritual unfolding at these places.
In late spring, Mary Jo May convened what she thought would be another routine counseling session for girls at the El Centro de Corazon community center in northeast Houston's Second Ward. As the center director, May, a popular former nun still called "Sister Mary Jo" by residents, believed she was familiar with the usual problems of the young females here -- troubles with boyfriends and romantic relationships, and family disputes common to growing up.
But this would be no typical counseling session for her.
"I was halfway through a therapy session when I noticed that some of the girls were yawning," May said. She turned to a 12-year-old girl, the youngest in the group, and asked what she had done the night before.
Went clubbing, she told May.
The others claimed the same.
The counselor asked for the places. The group of girls reeled off names of clubs, large and small -- Henry's, Fiesta, La Luna and more.
What type of dancing? she asked. All kinds, one told her.
When May told them they were too young, she said one of them replied, "Doesn't matter. They let us in."
She told of hiding her disgust while delving deeper into this revelation by the girls. Stories emerged that paralleled those of "taxi dancers" from Third World cities catering to nearby military bases, not unlike the U.S. practice from the Great Depression through the world wars, when men paid for dances. But these accounts flowed from her middle school students right in the heart of Houston. In 1998.
"I was so enraged with what I heard," says May. "I had to do something."
May is no stranger to causes. Catholic Church members and community activists sometimes consider the new warrior "an angel sent to the Second Ward by La Virgen de Guadalupe."
"She is always active in our community," says one resident. "I don't know where this place would be without her."
The founder of a number of shelters and soup kitchens, May comes across as a selfless person pursuing what she believes is just.
"We have an obligation to protect our kids," says May. "If we do not, we will have a generation of young women who will amount to nothing."
May said her other counselors at El Centro de Corazón confirmed the reports that middle school and high school girls were dancing for money. "The way some of them look when they put on makeup," says May, "you can't even tell [their ages]."
She said the motivation to dance for dollars is simple, considering the "easily exploitable situations" confronting them in the Second Ward. Schools are poorly run and have limited resources for after-school activities, she said. Conditions breed "low self-esteem and purpose. They are in "dire need of attention."
"Most of the girls who dance at [these clubs] come from abusive situations at home, either with their boyfriends or family," says May. "Dancing at the clubs gives them a sense of belonging, even though they are being used."
"These guys [owners of the clubs] know exactly what they are doing to these young women," says May. The most frightening aspect of the clubs is that they become a place for runaways to support themselves, sometimes leading toward prostitution, the former nun said.
The girls are "the poorest in the city," she said. Many come from single-parent, working-class households and have limited job skills. A number of the girls are below the legal hiring age. Needing quick cash, they are drawn to sources ready to offer it, she said.
That assessment mirrored the background of one dancer who was killed in an auto accident after leaving the Fiesta club in 1992. Documents in a lawsuit filed by the relatives of Laura Ann Robali described her as an unmarried 19-year-old woman with three children. She had dropped out of high school in the ninth grade and existed on welfare and food stamps, together with occasional earnings working at a hot-dog parlor and fried-chicken outlet.
The wrongful death suit, later dismissed, said Robali was "lured and enticed to come to Fiesta to make money dancing and drinking with men."
According to Dr. Nester Rodriguez, associate professor of sociology at the University of Houston, taxi-dancing clubs, such as La Luna and Fiesta, are hardly unique to Houston. They have been an "institution in Mexican-American communities for generations." He says that many of these clubs and their patrons, often diverse in age, can be found along Canal Street near downtown.
"You see taxi dancing predominately in areas where women, who are marginalized in the labor market, have limited means of income," Rodriguez said. "Their work is not a career, it is not attractive, but it is a necessity."
Rodriguez says that many of the women who dance for cash are single mothers with little education. Men are drawn to these clubs looking for companionship and the opportunity to dance with women who won't turn them down. The combination makes for a thriving underground business.
"This occurs all over the world, not just in Houston or Latin America," says Rodriguez.
Such worldly enterprises seem far away from the light brown hair, shyness and occasional wit of Joanne. Her appearance, at the young age of 17, belies her past as a taxi dancer. She has already lived on her own and has known her share of abusive boyfriends. She agreed to an interview if her last name was not revealed.
Joanne said that a year ago, she heard from friends that she could earn from $50 to $150 a night from drunk men paying her up to $5 a dance at the La Luna and Fiesta clubs. Other friends were already doing it, so Joanne could easily find a female companion for trips to the clubs, which would sometimes last until 7 a.m., she said.
"I started going [to La Luna] with my friends and stuff," says Joanne. "But I would go just for the money. Some of the others would go for the attention."
Joanne says that at the clubs she would often encounter viejitos (little old men) who "thought they could do anything to me since they paid money to dance." The men would try to "get close" and offer to pay more money if she left the club with them.
"I would just ignore them and not dance with them the next time," says Joanne.
Competing for the men's attention were older women without immigration documents, who also taxi-dance for needed cash. Unlike Joanne, they come from south of the border and speak mainly Spanish. Like her, they lack job opportunities.
Joanne said that even at age 16, she was older than some ex-classmates she recognized dancing at the clubs. Men would often try to take her home after the sessions, she said.
May discovered Joanne's dancing-for-dollars trips and set up counseling sessions for her and her father, but he refused to believe what he was told.
The community center director advised him to see for himself at the clubs. May said he returned, shocked at what he had witnessed.
Joanne has left her moonlighting work at the clubs, saying the men "got on my nerves." She is now a student in a program to get her high school diploma, and is learning art and job skills at the center. May says the regimen is a method to instill self-worth in the young women to counter the "exploitation" by the clubs.
While May continues in her mission for the girls, patrons of the dance clubs embark on their own missions for what is in effect rental romance.
Two of those customers, Antonio and Carlos, arrive at their destination shortly after 10 p.m. in an '80-something Oldsmobile. They have finished their warm-up forays through the small Second Ward bars resting in the chaos of Canal Street. The two allowed a reporter to accompany them if no last names were used.
Antonio, 33, announces, "We want to go to los gran chingones," -- loosely translated as the "big fuckers." He refers to La Luna and Fiesta Ballroom, near the corner of Jackson and Franklin in the northeastern part of downtown. The dance halls are indeed big, bold and macho -- with dance floors large enough to turn partners during the corridos, and combined interior space to accommodate a few hundred patrons. Even the neon lights outside the clubs are dancing.
Brightly illuminated Fiesta and La Luna are contrasts in the midst of abandoned buildings the drab color of decay. Fiesta, which has been in existence for over 15 years, is a light blue structure with a rainbow-colored neon sign overhead. It's impossible to ignore its loud presence. Outsiders might mistake Fiesta for a rental hall for family events. But look a little closer, and the pool table and lamps with beer advertisements reveal that this isn't a place to bring children.
La Luna, formerly called El Tipo, is surrounded by a wire fence with a gate that is only opened an hour before the clubs let people in. Unlike Fiesta, La Luna stays open for business until 6 a.m.
At these clubs, Antonio and Carlos know women and girls who won't turn them down for dances, as long as they pay them. As a DJ or live band plays, they find plenty of females to talk to and dance with, never mind that some of them have just entered their teenage years.
The ages of the dance partners hardly bother either man. "Back home [in Mexico]," Antonio says, "they can get married at that age."
In the hour and a half after my arrival, Carlos and Antonio are two of nearly 100 men who make it through the front door of Fiesta. Others come from all over the greater Houston area -- Rosenberg, Sugar Land, Conroe, Lake Houston and as far away as Bryan and College Station. Most are migrant workers, with or without immigration papers. Most are of Mexican descent, although it isn't uncommon to see a few whites, blacks and Asian men in the club.
Like other men who have traveled miles to Fiesta, Antonio and Carlos did not come to eat at its second-rate lobby taqueria or to shoot pool at the small table. They stream in -- wearing their tight jeans with large belt buckles and cowboy hats -- carrying $20 bills in their quest to dance and socialize.
A quick glance shows that male patrons range in age from about 21 to their late 40s. They are men with low metabolisms, rough faces and a few gray hairs.
Antonio is a native of the Mexican state of Chihuahua. His hair is combed to the back of his head, where it dangles in a long ponytail. He travels from place to place to train and take care of horses. His current job is on a ranch five miles south of Rosenberg. Every payday, he wires money back home to Mexico. After saving enough for food and rent, Antonio takes what is left and heads to La Luna and Fiesta with a group of friends.
"There aren't many girls where I work," Antonio says.
Carlos, more private about his origins and his job, says he is from northern Mexico, somewhere near Reynosa.
At Fiesta, Antonio and Carlos buy $2 beers and listen to their favorite conjunto and norteno. In an hour span, no females the two ask out on the dance floor turn them down. The women accept as if they had been waiting for Antonio, and gracefully allow themselves to be led to the dance floor. They laugh, smile and touch his face when he says something they might deem to be witty.
Diana, Jess and Maria are three of the females Antonio and Carlos dance with while at Fiesta. Diana and Jess are high school students; Maria is in middle school.
"I always walk in [to Fiesta and La Luna] with no problem," says Diana. "They never asked [me] for ID."
The others say that they are also never asked for identification upon entering Fiesta's club room. They pay no cover charge and merely wave at the door woman as if they were old friends.
Once inside, the women stand at the dance floor to wait for someone to ask them to dance, or they sit down close to the bar to attract men who have just bought drinks.
Unlike the men, they are not searched for weapons. Maria says she and her friends would be insulted by such a gesture, because it would mean their appearances were too masculine and might repel potential customers. It's important to have desirable appearances if they are to make money. In fact, women who frequent La Luna and Fiesta often go overboard in the effort to make themselves look "feminine." Some of the young women have eye shadow layered heavily on small eyelids. They wear tight black dresses.
A number of women enter the club room with small cowgirl hats, Wal-Mart-bought blouses, and an aroma of inexpensive perfume, so as not to intimidate potential dance partners. Diana, Jess and Maria wear trendy Gap-type clothes and shoes with thick soles.
Though Maria and Jess have badly dyed yellow hair and excessive layers of makeup and are slightly chubby, they still chuckle at the appearances of other women. "Some of these people need to learn how to dress," says Maria.
Like a grand old patrone of earlier eras in South Texas, the man carefully overseeing the operations of the Fiesta and La Luna is owner John D. Austin.
According to Austin, he receives none of the money exchanged for dances. His take instead comes from the streaming lines of men handing over $5 cover charges and reaching in their wallets to buy drinks for themselves and the women. At this place, soft drinks, often ordered by the women, are $4 each, twice as much as the beer.
"Business is great, as you can tell," Austin boasts while his employees count stacks of $20 bills in his back office. "We are the longest-running club in Houston."
The operator is obviously proud of his past, too -- quickly advising a reporter and, later, an editor, that he is a retired Houston police officer.
However, the Houston Police Department has no record of a man by his name ever working there. Instead, Houston city personnel files reflect that Austin went to work in October 1969 as a rabies control officer. He did transfer a year later to become a patrolman for the Houston parks department, and was terminated in 1982 -- before the park police became a part of HPD.
His departure was hardly cordial. The city fired Austin when he was charged with third-degree felony theft. Prosecutors initially alleged that Austin stole over $5,000 by claiming overtime pay for working security at Miller Outdoor Theatre, when he was actually working at El Tipo -- the forerunner of La Luna.
Austin, though, was found guilty only of a misdemeanor, and the 14th Court of Appeals overturned that conviction and ordered an acquittal in the case in 1985. Austin maintained his innocence and told reporters that the ordeal destroyed his marriage.
Courthouse records show that Austin, 55, returned to the altar to marry a 22-year-old woman in 1989. He told a reporter in a 1993 interview that he met his bride at his club. That four-year marriage ended in divorce.
A paternity suit indicates he fathered the child of a 25-year-old woman in 1994. In a suit last year to gain managing custody of his child, Austin alleged the mother suddenly took the child to Wichita, Kansas, where she worked 16 hours a day in a "sweatshop" making aluminum cans. Apparently, the problems were resolved, because the suit was dismissed after no one appeared at the court hearing.
Documents obtained through the secretary of state and the Harris County Appraisal District show that La Luna is owned by Austin & Associates and Fiesta Ballroom is owned by Sancho's Inc. ("Sancho" refers in Spanish to a man involved in an affair with a married woman.) The registered agent and president of both companies is Austin.
Listed under a variety of different addresses on official records, Austin says he is also an owner of apartment complexes and a private security company. None of his businesses, he says, are involved in any "illegal activity."
"My places are family places," he says.
As to the minors seen inside his club and the community complaints about underaged drinking, Austin laughs and says, "That is a lie. We check everyone's ID."
Those under the legal drinking age have their hands stamped with an "M," he said. "Everyone here [drinking] is of age," he adds. However, on recent visits to the club, I saw females who were of high school age with no marks on their hands and with alcoholic beverages.
Austin said that any young teenagers must have been accompanied by a parent or guardian, and that no law was therefore violated. He said Hispanics often take their young with them to such clubs. That explanation, though, was not consistent with the sight of groups of young women entering without an adult.
Austin has long maintained that the women dance for fun, not profit. He says that now, more couples are making their way through the front doors.
In a 1993 news interview, Austin told of banning anybody -- male or female -- who engaged in prostitution.
He has a team of bouncers watching over his clientele. Dancers are instructed to inform this security squad about nonpaying customers so that those men can be thrown out. Ejections, though, are hardly limited to such patrons, or even rowdy customers.
On a recent night, his bouncers took a Houston Press reporter, who had been asking customers about the club, to a back room for what was called "questioning." The club owner had not responded to several calls seeking an interview.
(In a later call to the Press, Austin maintained that the reporter had been acting suspicious and "harassing" customers. Austin blamed the community criticism of his clubs on unnamed "competitors" trying to stir up opposition to his businesses.)
"A guy who said he was a Houston Post reporter tried to do a story on me once," Austin told the Press reporter in the back-room session. "I got him fired." He did not elaborate, and former employees of that paper who were contacted could recall no such incident.
"We have no problems here," he adds. "There are tons of HPD officers here, including this gentleman right here." He pointed to his right, to a seated man who claimed to be an HPD employee.
"I've gotten no complaints from the police nor the mayor [about my clubs]," he said again, before telling the bouncers to remove the reporter.
There have been complaints, and even lawsuits, against the clubs.
Two suits stemmed from the 1992 accident that killed motorists Robali and Lisa Skok, both 19. Relatives of Robali filed a suit accusing Fiesta of gross negligence for allegedly allowing the underaged woman to get drunk in the club and cause the wreck.
Attorneys for the club fired back in legal documents that denied any wrongdoing, saying the woman could have become intoxicated in the 90-minute span between her departure from the club and the fatal accident with Skok. Robali caused her own intoxication, they said.
Skok's relatives also sued the club, repeating the allegations and saying that negligence of the club caused their daughter's death. Neither case came to trial, and it was unclear from court records if there had been any settlements.
Austin, before he orders a reporter removed from Fiesta, says, "I'm a retired Houston police officer and want no stories written about my clubs."
City and county officials as well as the Houston Sports Authority, concerned about Houston's national image, want the Port Authority to replace its blighted building with a park entrance to the baseball stadium under construction downtown.
Concerns about image, however, are lacking when it comes to other next-door neighbors of the stadium -- the La Luna and Fiesta taxi-dancing clubs. In fact, at the time the Houston Press began making inquiries, all indications were that Houston officials showed little interest of any kind in the allegations of underaged drinking and girls and women dancing for dollars at such clubs.
May and some others in the community believe the inaction could stem from the persistent rumors about links between police and the clubs, possibly started by Austin's own fondness for referring to his past occupation.
"Since everyone thinks that [La Luna and Fiesta] are owned by cops, no one will speak out against them for fear of retaliation," May says. Parents of the girls, she says, are terrified of the police and have no one else to turn to with their problems.
She said she complained about the clubs in a call to the HPD Magnolia substation, and was referred to the Southeast substation. An officer there relayed her to the vice division, where she said an officer told her he knew the owners of La Luna and Fiesta, and couldn't promise her anything, but he would look into it.
That was in May. She did not hear back from them until late June, when she said they reported that they saw no one younger than 14 years old. An officer wondered why she was so upset, she said, because young females taxi dancing was something happening "all over town."
May turned her efforts to the office of Mayor Lee Brown, who campaigned on the theme of helping Houston's youth. She voiced her concerns to a member of the mayor's Hispanic Advisory Council. The member brought it to Brown's attention and received assurances he would take care of it.
A spokesperson for the mayor said that Brown looked into the clubs to see if any member of the HPD had a partnership with La Luna and Fiesta. According to the documents accessible to him, Brown determined that the accusations were unfounded.
After inquiries by the Houston Press and after May convened a recent meeting with various community officials to press her case, police and the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission said they had started an investigation into reports of underaged drinking and dancing at the clubs.
Representatives of the police and mayor's office said they would not discuss details of the investigation, and said they were unaware of any past complaints against the clubs.
"What I think is mind-boggling is that the mayor campaigned on our city's youth and is allowing this type of activity to go on under his nose," says Gasper Mir, an adviser and board member of El Centro de Corazón.
"I think this is devastating to our young Hispanic women and to our Hispanic community as a whole," says Mir. "I wouldn't expect it to happen here in Houston. Maybe in a Third World country, but not in Houston, Texas."
According to a spokesperson from the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission, both La Luna and Fiesta have wine and beer permits. There are no laws preventing minors from entering establishments that serve alcohol, although no one under 21 years old is allowed to drink alcohol.
However, a city of Houston ordinance requires that customers be at least 18 years old to attend dance halls such as La Luna and Fiesta Ballroom, unless the minor is accompanied by a parent or legal guardian.
"On the one hand, you can't blame the young women for going to these places. It is a matter of survival," says Mir. "What upsets me the most is that these places are there. We have to, somehow, offer an alternative means of income."
City Councilman John F. Castillo, whose district includes La Luna and Fiesta, said that his office never received any complaints. He said any that came in would be referred to appropriate departments or agencies.
The district bordering the area is represented by Councilman Felix Fraga. He said he was unaware of problems and had received no complaints about the clubs. "I wasn't aware that young people were doing these things. I wish there was a way that this wasn't permitted."
Councilmembers also wince at the prospect of such clubs operating adjacent to the new baseball stadium. Fraga said, "It wouldn't be a neighborly thing to keep around." Castillo said the area should be used for "something more productive, like, an overnight hotel or something."
Austin, however, is firm in his response to questions about the future of his clubs -- there are no plans to move anywhere. "I will still be here when the stadium opens," he says with confidence.
Only feet away from a chain-link fence marking the stadium construction site, two drunken young women weave toward a cab, one of several taxis waiting for customers outside La Luna and Fiesta.
One female with short black hair is being held by her annoyed friend, the one with long brown hair in a slowly unraveling bun. They say they are students at Milby High School.
"This guy was buying her drinks all night," one says of her companion. "He got mad at her because she wouldn't go home with him after he spent a lot of money on her."
Inside the club, the mix of loud music and alcohol is also beginning to make its impact. A DJ retires for the night and a band begins playing bad versions of Miguel Salgado songs. Those who know Salgado's work realize this band cuts the songs short, apparently so more money can be exchanged for more dances. The man named Antonio is near the end of an hour of dancing with the young woman Diana. For that pleasure, he ran up a $30 bill with her.
Asked if she likes Antonio, Diana says, "Hell, no, but he pays me good." She then goes on to say how many times he told her she was pretty and that he wanted to take her home.
"What should I do?" she asks her friend Maria. "He's old!"
Jess, the girlfriend of Maria, gets disgusted with the man who had been paying her to dance. "It was so gross," she tells Maria. "He tried to grab me close to him and I felt his 'thingy' get hard." She says that his hands were sweaty and his breath smelled.
He follows her back to the table after the first dance, but it is clear that Jess wants him to get lost. After holding her hand and trying to flirt, he walks off.
Across the hall, an argument flares. A young girl yells at an older man as he laughs. The bouncer approaches the man and escorts him out with the help of another patron.
"Pendejo," Maria says, using derogatory Spanish slang. "Probably didn't pay her right."
As closing time approaches, some couples leave together. A few inebriated men hug on annoyed females as if begging to marry them. Some respond.
Antonio is doing the same to Diana, who is trying to get her friend Jess's attention so they can move next door to La Luna. Diana has no intention of leaving with Antonio, but she does accept one last dance.
Jess is left playing with an empty plastic cup. Her face, still childlike in many ways, tells strangers that she is a girl. She says she will spend the money she has made to buy clothes and indulge in teenage shopping sprees.
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She is asked her opinion of the crusade by this former nun known as Sister Mary Jo, the one who wants to keep minors from dancing for dollars in these clubs.
"She's stupid. She is just trying to act like someone's mom," Jess says. And what does Jess's mother think of her work at such clubs?
Jess pauses, then says, "I don't got no mother."
E-mail Russell Contreras at firstname.lastname@example.org.