La Gitana Cantina

by Mary Kasulaitis

For many Arivacans, the center of town life has been La Gitana Cantina. Besides a dance hall and saloon, at various times the building has been used for a church, a courtroom, a store, a hay barn, and a restaurant. There had been at least one saloon in Arivaca since the 1870s but not always in the current building. Sometimes there was enough business for two or more. The little building that now houses La Gitana has been a cantina since at least the 1940s, but its origins goes back to a dance hall made by Doña Teresa Celaya. She ran a saloon and pool hall next door (in what is now the ruin) from at least the turn of the century, and probably well before that time, so the south side of Main Street has always had a bar. She then decided a dance hall was in order so built what would be the rear part of La Gitana, visible in a 1905 photo. In 1915 she was using it for a private girls school, besides for dancing. Doña Teresa came to Arivaca in the mid 1880s from Altar, Sonora. Frank Krupp remembered her as “Lady Bountiful and the friend in need of rich and poor alike throughout the area. . . In addition, the Senora ran the cantina, and in that capacity was her own bouncer, and an effective one.”

During the 1920s, Armando Membrila remembered, “They had a pool table in the saloon. I remember my dad used to go there and shoot pool with the guys and I wasn’t allowed in there but you’d look through the door.” (this would be in the ruin, not La Gitana.) Then Teresa retired and began renting the building out. Armando said, “When the Galvez family had it they made it into a little store. They didn’t sell groceries, they sold merchandise. I remember one of the things they had were these surprise packages. You paid a quarter for a box and you might get a dollar’s worth of stuff or you might get a nickel’s worth of stuff. They used to hold dances in that little joint and they would charge admission to dance. You could go in to see, but if you started to dance a lady would come around and put little ribbons on your lapel and you would have to pay. They would sell food. They would make the food outside. Tamales and things like that.” In the late1930s the main cantina and dance hall of Arivaca was Caviglia’s Cafe at the west end of Main Street in the house most recently owned by Emily and Uno. They are making it into a dance hall again!

In the 1940s, Charlie Boice of the Arivaca Ranch used that building for a hay barn.

One time the Bar became a courtroom. In a house across the street, Cowboy Tom Reneer and Customs Officer Pat Sheahy got into an argument and Pat pulled out a gun. He shot Tom, injuring him (in an embarrassing place) but not killing him. The Sheriff came and took Pat away to Tucson, but apparently the trial was held right there in Arivaca in the bar. Some of the bartenders in those days included Foy Evans, Bill Steen, Bill Kennedy, Bill Ammonett, and E.B. Garner. In those more blatantly segregated times, mostly “gringos” frequented the bar.

Charles and Helen Brouse and his brother Bill bought the bar from Carmen Zepeda (Teresa’s daughter) in the early 1940s. The front room, now used as a restaurant, was added by Gene and Helen Louise (Brouse) Casey in the late 40s. They brought adobes from a ruin down on the Sasabe Road and built it themselves. For years the front room was the bar. Gene and Dan Solvey installed a new wooden dance floor. It was Helen Brouse who named it La Gitana, after a poem in Spanish that she liked. In about 1950, Lucille Depper, a friend of Helen’s and artist from Magee ranch, painted the first gypsy on the south wall of the dance hall. Lucille later repainted the gypsy. She was much happier with the second one, but my own best memories are of the original gypsy with her pensive gaze. In those days the bar had a family atmosphere with piñata parties in the patio and children climbing on the cottonwood logs that lined the front of the building. Every holiday was an opportunity for the community to have a dance. Bill Walls taught many an Arivaca youngster to dance. In those pre-electricity days they even showed movies! The Brouses were active in Veterans activities and began hosting parties to commemorate Memorial Day and Veterans Day, beginning the tradition that continues 70 years later.

In 1957 Marge and Fred Schwanderlik and Tony Prevor bought the bar. Many will remember the square dances called by Ralph Smith, who brought his little record player out from Tucson. Also during that time a priest would come out from town and say Mass in the dance hall, since there was no Catholic church. In those days the bar had better facilities for community activities than did the school, so most events were held there.

Louie and Emily Schwanderlik took over the Bar in 1962. Emily ran a tight ship. A sign said, “No knives or guns allowed!” and she enforced it. Mrs. Schaffner, who worked there for several years, remembers lots of dances and potlucks, with people coming all the way from Tucson. The jukebox played old time favorites like “Put your little foot” and “La Bamba.” Joe Pianka tended bar and told jokes. His visage still stands guard over the old dance floor. In the early 70’s Louie put up a sign, “No hippies allowed!” But eventually he had to give in to changing times.

Since the Schwanderlik era, a number of different people owned the bar. Bill and Ruth Larson had it from 1971-76 with their son Jack Larson. After that came Dorothy Adams, who put her face on the gypsy. Then followed Vi and Bob Leeds. The Leeds renamed it the Silver Belle Bar, which it remained for several years after Rudy and Jan Cyprian bought it in 1980. Jan Cyprian remembered it as a family place where adults and children were welcome. She had birthday parties as well as a book and clothing exchange, as there was nothing of that kind any place else in town in the early 1980s. The next owners, Mike and Kathy McCarthy, had the bar from 1984 to 86. They changed the name back to La Gitana. They renovated the front room to be used as a restaurant and moved the bar to what had been the dance hall. A door in the south wall replaced the image of the second Gypsy. The next owner was Jackson “JR” Reynolds. In the 80’s Susie Kromenacker painted a Gypsy on the east wall of the restaurant.

Over the years a number of people have run La Gitana’s restaurant, including Maggie Milinovitch and Meg Keoppen, who had it for a time in the 80s. Steve and Penny Shepherd had the restaurant for seven years from 1994 to 2001. The bar continued to be used for community activities such as the Arivaca Clinic pancake breakfasts until the Old School and Community Center facilities were up and running.
Jerry and Mary Beckham, of Tubac, had La Gitana from 1987 till 2007. He said, “I love the history behind the bar. It’s an old cowboy bar. There’s something about it that draws you. Money has nothing to do with it.” He commissioned Robert and Nancy Fricchione to make the bar of mesquite wood in 1997. The painting of the Gypsy was replaced by a colorful, dancing Gypsy done by C Hues in the front room. In 2006 Mark Stern painted a wonderful version of the Gipsy on the wall of the patio.

Much of Arivaca’s reputation as a “cool, strange little town” is built on outsiders’ perception of La Gitana. (Yelp) Chuck Bowden, local writer and “Friend of Arivaca,” put La Gitana on the map in 2006 when he named it one of the Best Bars in America in Esquire Magazine. It did have a reputation. Esquire claimed that “there were has bloodstains on the floor, bullet holes in the walls, and the occasional free dental extraction on the pool table from a pliers-wielding biker. Seriously.” Sinclair Browning had already brought attention to La Gitana in 2001 when she described it in her western novel, Rode Hard, Put Away Dead. Her main character (female) felt the need to bring in an illegal concealed .38. British writer Richard Grant’s lengthy negative description of Arivaca and La Gitana in 2003 (describing the dangers to his beautiful but armed now former girlfriend so that anyone could find her) spread the news via Telegraph Magazine to Australia and Canada, but he didn’t know the word would get back to town within a week of publication. We’re not so provincial here. So it’s not to say that La Gitana didn’t get a lot of press in the early 2000s. When Jerry decided to sell, he had had La Gitana longer than almost anyone. But who would buy it?

Along came a group of locals interested in buying it with the intentions of upgrading and operating it as a safe, comfortable place for locals and visitors to gather, like a pub but still quirky. The idea came about one day, at La Gitana’s Happy Hour, when a group started talking up the idea. The initial group included ten people, (who met for soup-potluck dinners to discuss the possibilities) but eventually it came down to just four who then formed Soup Group, LLC. The sale papers were signed in late April, 2007.

The group included Fern Robinson, Michele Fournier, Rich and Maggie Milinovitch. Fern had lived in Arivaca back in the late 80s. She left in 1991 to go back east, but always kept an eye on what was going on here. She said, “the wonderful, diverse crowd here in Arivaca fascinates me.” Michele Fournier was the only one with experience in managing a bar – her parents owned a bar back east so she grew up in the business. Rich and Maggie Milinovitch have lived in Arivaca for many years. Maggie published the Connection for many years. Rich was and is their go-to guy for all the repairs and maintenance needed. After a couple of years Michelle decided to go back to teaching. Penny Shepard had been working in the restaurant and bar and she bought out Michelle. Fern became the bar manager. Maggie is the cafe manager. Penny keeps things organized. They have redecorated La Gitana, but not too much. A lot of the work, much of it done by Rich, was restoring a 100 year old building, bringing it up to code. They have redecorated the patio and front room. Maggie’s beer cap mosaics adorn the patio and she painted the mountains on the horizon.

Having a great location for the tourist trade, as well as sometimes the only place locals could “eat out,” they reorganized the kitchen and reopened the restaurant as a sandwich bar. It is limited by its size and lack of hooded grill. They have a good standard menu with specials and desserts that are wonderful. Over the years many locals have worked as bartenders or in the kitchen. There is now a new Executive Chef, Nathan Casebolt. He was raised in Arivaca and has now come back, after cooking all over the world from Paris to Munich to Hawaii. Arivaca is now on the foodie trail!

So La Gitana is closing in on 80 years of operation. Covid took a toll, but it’s better now than ever, in terms of its community life. Live music is featured frequently. It has continued to provide fund raisers for local needs like the Arivaca Animal Clinic. It’s more than just a place for friends to meet.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: