The Importance of Banging on Doors.by Tony Diaz on 06/11/14
"The Importance of Banging on Doors" by Russell Contreras, NP Founding Member; Reporter, Associated Press.
When I found myself thrown into a small backroom of a Houston night club -- packed with menacing men and stacks of cash on the table -- I knew Nuestra Palabra was family.
‘Who are you?’ a man in front of dollar bills asked me.
‘I’m a reporter, and I'm here doing a story on the women dancing here,’ I said. ‘Do you know some of them are girls?’
‘You’re lying,” the man said. ‘My places are family places.’
I was on assignment to investigate allegations two clubs were allowing girls, some as young as 12, to taxi dance-an old ritual where men paid dancers to sway together (sometimes closely) per song. Innocent as it seemed, advocates told me they believed it was a path to prostitution. Many of the young taxi dancing girls and women were poor Mexican Americans or immigrants.
I had visited the club a couple of times by myself, but needed to get more dancers to talk. Each time I went, I felt I was being more closely watched. So this last time, I asked Alvaro if he wanted to tag along.
‘Sure,’ he said. ‘Let’s do this.’
Alvaro and I recently had become friends through this new reading series called Nuestra Palabra. An U.S. Army veteran, he had a talent for crafting (and performing) humorous short stories about life in Houston’s largely Mexican-American Cottage Grove neighborhood. But underneath those stories simmered the pain of poverty, coming of age, and making farfetched wishes.
I, on the other hand, wrote memoir pieces about growing up Mexican American in the largely black neighborhood of Houston’s Greenfield Village. I also was deciding whether to finish my Master’s Degree in History or take up a life of a journalist/nonfiction writer.
Hosted by novelist Tony Diaz, Nuestra Palabra forced closeted Latino writers to jump on stage and read whatever they had in their notebook, be it poetry, a short story, a piece of a novel, a dramatic piece, and in one case, a mariachi ballad. Its popularity grew from a small gathering in the back of a Mexican restaurant to a standing-room only event that would eventually lead to a radio show, and later, a sister group on the campus of Columbia University in New York.
But on that night in the fall of 1998, I wasn’t thinking about some broad legacy. I was just hoping the vet I met was documenting what might happen to me while I was locked in this smoke-filled room.
Another bang on the door.
‘Here’s what I think,’ the club owner said. ‘I think you were sent by some other club to shut me down.’
‘No, I’m a reporter,’ I said. ‘I just write for a living--‘
‘No, you are some sort of spy,’ he said. ‘I know all the reporters, and I’ve never heard of you.’ (But he would, eventually).
This back and forth game went on as I tried to get as much as I could on the record without a notepad, working to store what I could through memory. I had been trying to get the owner on the phone for weeks, but he had failed to return my calls.
‘What do you want me to do with him, boss?’ a bouncer asked.
‘There’s nothing you can do with me,’ I answered for him. ‘I’m a reporter.’
The bouncer shoved me against the wall. ‘What do you want me to do with him, boss?’ bouncer asked again.
‘Throw him out.’
The door opened and I saw Alvaro at a pay phone. He was leaving a message on his machine to let people know where we were in case we were never heard from again.
‘What? You calling a taxi and abandoning me?’ I joked.
‘Nah, dog, I was leaving a message. Just in case,’ Alvaro said. ‘Hey, some dancers think were La Migra, and they're running out of here.’
A crowd followed us to my car, and we sped away.
Then, we got tacos.
From that night, I wrote a piece that appeared in the Houston Press. The story eventually led to the city adopting an ordinance banning taxi dancing for underage girls and later appeared in Latina Magazine, my first national piece. I would submit that piece with my package to the creative writing program at Columbia University, where I would go in fall 2000.
A year later, Alvaro visited me in New York City. I insisted we go to the Brooklyn side of Brooklyn Bridge to snap some photos. I got one of him with the bridge fading into Manhattan and the towers waving ‘hi’ in the background.
That image wouldn’t have existed had Tony Diaz not come up with Nuestra Palabra. Hell, I probably would have never made it to New York. Likely, I would have been forgotten, even to myself.
I’d like to think I could have escaped the backroom of that club, run out to my car and wrote the story. But I would have never known about the stage, and what that meant. Every story needs a stage.
And Nuestra Palabra taught me the importance of banging on doors.
Russell Contreras, reporter, Associated Press