Rolling up to La Perla’s on a balmy Friday night riding a Lime Scooter, wearing a denim jacket and skinny jeans is almost a parody of life in Austin, circa 2020. The bar is usually pretty full around this time, however on this particular night, the crowd is spilling out into the front yard, clearly celebrating something special. Despite being a relative interloper, I’m jubilantly welcomed by three patrons and the bouncer, who all seem to know each other like kin. One of them informs me that I’ve stumbled into the owner’s wife’s birthday party, who is easily spotted via the pin on her chest, which sports dozens of $10 and $20 bills dangling down to her waist. I’m immediately swept up in the celebration, order their trademark Ar-Modelo Beer (a Modelo dressed with lime, salt and tabasco on the rim) and forget all about my original goal of interviewing the owner. There are clearly much more important things to be done, like dancing to Selena with an Octogenarian and her family.
At risk of sounding cliche, climbing the steps to La Perla’s is like stepping into a time machine, travelling to the often mystified “Old Austin” period when vibes were decidedly more eclectic and cheerfully lowbrow. The tiny Tejano dive occupies a converted house at the corner of 6th and Comal, in the heart of what is now arguably the hippest nightlife strip in Austin, currently undergoing its 3rd or 4th wave of gentrification. Sandwiched between Hotel Vegas, a sprawling rock-and-roll venue, and Ramen Tatsuya, a line-out-the-door date spot, La Perla’s looks like a property ripe for redevelopment. Locals often speak of such properties in a not-if-but-when tone when discussing the original business’ demise, which seems to happen at least monthly on East Sixth.
Yet La Perla’s, along with Cisco’s Restaurant just across the street, have found ways to survive, and even thrive, in a district that has almost completely gentrified from its Chicano roots. Just 20 years ago, Cisco’s and La Perla’s would have been among dozens of Tejano and Norteño bars, Tex-Mex restaurants and small businesses. Today, La Perla’s and Cisco’s are the last bastion of the decades long era when East Sixth Street was the heart of Chicano culture in Austin.
Thus begets the question, how are these businesses able to keep their doors open and their clientele loyal, when the neighborhood around them is almost unrecognizable? Dozens of Chicano establishments have shuttered in the past 20 years, and most of their buildings have been demolished and replaced by gleaming mixed-use condos. The buildings that haven’t been demolished are dwarfed by the condos, appearing comically vintage next to the new developments.
It’s exactly this vintage character, however, that seems to be the staying-power secret sauce for La Perla’s and Cisco’s. Rather than trying to keep up with the times by rebranding or rebuilding, they have hardly changed at all relative to their neighbors. Both establishment’s original owners have now passed away, but both have kept the business’ in the family. The new generation of owners have made it clear to their longtime clientele: as long as you keep coming, we aren’t changing.
Cisco’s success is perhaps a bit more obvious than La Perla’s. The Tex-mex diner is buoyed by a 65-year tenure in the building and a long history of patronage by powerful people, including President Lyndon B. Johnson. Over a dinner of Carne Guisada, the Cisco’s bartender Roman was eager to share anecdotes from Cisco’s colorful history. Despite being only a month on the job, Roman was a veritable expert in Cisco’s lore, guiding me through the restaurant’s extensive collection of ephemera. I learned, for instance, that LBJ was longtime friends with Cisco Cisneros, the restaurant’s founder and grandfather of current part owner, Ruby Cisneros. According to Roman, LBJ was so fond of Cisco’s that he would regularly make unscheduled landings in Airforce One at Austin’s old Mueller Airport, just to have an order of Cisco’s famous biscuits. Cisco would host political leaders for regular games of poker, where high level political gossip and lobbying took place in the humble back rooms of the diner.
Cisco’s long legacy has other perks, chief among them being designated an Austin Historic Landmark in January of 2019. The designation brings with it significant property tax relief, a big come-up in a neighborhood where Ad Valorem taxes have skyrocketed in recent decades. The Historic designation limits the owner’s ability to make significant changes to the property, but that doesn’t seem to be in the plans of the current owners. They have done little to change the look, feel, or even the menu over the years, down to the antique jukebox that still holds dozens of vinyl gems in its well maintained, mid-century case. Except for extending the restaurant’s hours and adding a full-service bar, Cisco’s operates much as it has for decades.
After dinner at Cisco’s, the obvious next move is to head across the street to La Perla’s, where hipsters, crustpunks and bewildered tourists rub shoulders with longtime clientele, many of whom are double or triple their age. There are few establishments in Austin where you can find such generational, cultural and racial diversity – and the current owner, Eddie Costilla, recognizes the benefits of a diverse clientele.
In a 2017 Documentary, “Cantina: An Eastside Documentary” about La Perla’s, Eddie describes how they have adapted to the changes: by welcoming newcomers, but not compromising the Tejano character their longtime patrons have come to cherish. As cantina after cantina closed down on East Sixth Street, the longtime patrons who have not been displaced from the neighborhood are keen on keeping La Perla’s open, and La Perla’s is keen on keeping them in the neighborhood.
However, La Perla’s is particularly vulnerable to losing their aging clientele, to time or to displacement. So the cantina often hosts BBQ’s on behalf of struggling community members and local causes, which has ingratiated the cantina to their patron’s children and grandchildren. La Perla’s values familiarity over following trends – their walls are covered with photos of beloved patrons, dusty ephemera, decades-old beer advertisements and Catholic iconography. They only recently replaced their antique jukebox with a modern soundsystem, after it became too difficult to find repair parts. It is clear that La Perla’s is not interested in changing their character to match the times, gentrification be-damned.
Meanwhile, La Perla’s has opened their doors to a new generation of Latinx patrons who have made the effort to connect with their core community. They now hosts low-key DJ nights with Chulita Vinyl Club, a DJ collective of “women, gender-non-conforming, non-binary, LGBTQ+ and self-identifying people of color.” CVC plays meticulously curated vinyl sets, designed to be inclusive for people of color who struggle to find music that suits their tastes and dancing styles in most American clubs. CVC DJ’s and fans also cherish La Perla’s, perhaps not as longtime patrons, but as an oasis for Latinx people in an increasingly rich, white neighborhood. The CVC parties at La Perla’s are always multigenerational, full of joy and free of judgement.
This multigenerational clientele, along with in-the-know tourists looking for an authentic slice of Old East Austin, are now the lifeblood of La Perla’s and Cisco’s business. As long as there are owners who are willing to carry the torch and resist the mounting pressure to redevelop the property, it looks like these bastions of Chicano Austin are here to stay. However, it is clear that simply encasing La Perla’s and Cisco’s in amber, while not supporting the communities that have long patronized these establishments is not enough. The powers that be have an obligation to reverse the systemic causes of displacement, and empower those already displaced to return to their communities. La Perla’s and Cisco’s demonstrate that diversity creates economic strength and maintaining a shared history is crucial to sustain a dignified community. Austin should learn from these examples and reverse the current patterns of gentrification, before they erase these communities and their history forever.