The Smallest Bar in Mexico City — with the Biggest History
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because bigger isn’t always better!
By Dora Ballew
A white dog with pretty red eyes shuffles through 40 or 50 shins in this bar that’s smaller than many bedrooms. While everyone laughs and screams, she plays used-water-bottle fetch and snacks on queso Oaxaca, the superflavorful mozzarella sold like string cheese rolled into a ball. The few hands that aren’t holding the ancient Aztec drink pulque, a plate of fried quesadillas or an instrument reach down to pet her as she passes. When she finally finds enough space to lie down, Fura gets her belly rubbed.
Tenabari’s storefront is less than two yards wide, but the loud local music and dozen or so jolly people spilling out onto the sidewalk make it hard to miss. It’s located on the edge of Condesa, Mexico City’s most fresa (meaning both “strawberry” and “posh”) neighborhood, a block away from one of the city’s several urban highway intersections. By day, Carmen Cajeme sells coffee and cooks everything from pizza to enchiladas. But by night the bar fills with young, hip and very happy customers when Carmen’s son, Fabricio, takes over, selling the pulque and mezcal he drives two to three hours to buy fresh each week.
Fabricio’s dreads seem ample enough to tip him over, his track record with the ladies is formidable (verified by several sources) and he knows or gets to know everyone who comes in. When not passing around drinks or making food, he’s singing and playing sones, traditional repetition- and improvisation-based music that originated in Veracruz, with as many customers as will join him, using the many instruments on hand. The music is interrupted only when the occasional wave of nods and nudges starting at the door hits Fabricio, alerting him that a new customer has arrived.
Fabricio built the bar four years ago, when he was 25. He’d studied ecology for one year at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM), Mexico’s near-free public university with an acceptance rate that sometimes dips lower than Harvard’s, until he dropped out, annoyed after being assigned too many books in English about Mexico’s history. He says he learned more in his travels throughout the country than he would have in class.
I like that Tenabari connotes rebirth.
You might recognize the name Cajeme: Fabricio is the great-grandson of Jose María Bonifacio Leiva Pérez Cajeme, who led the native Yaqui people in their war against Mexico in the 1880s. Because of this, officials of the Yaqui tribe, which still controls land in the U.S. and in Mexico, come by Tenabari when they’re in the city. Fabricio proudly tells me the Yaquis have never been conquered — and that Tenabari is about continuing that tradition of resistance and autonomy. In the Yaqui language, the word teneboi means cocoon; tenebari is the latinized version of that word. As he labors on a pizza and answers the occasional call for a mezcal refill, Fabricio says the most important dance in the Yaqui community is the Deer Dance, in which dancers wear pants fringed with empty butterfly cocoons filled with pebbles. “I like that Tenabari connotes rebirth,” he says.
Hugo Díaz, famous tonight for bringing Fura and every day for being the drummer of Arbo, comes to Tenabari whenever he’s in the area. He tells me the story of a guy who arrived dangerously drunk; everyone in the bar rallied around him to make sure he got home safe. Díaz likes the bar not only because “there’s always interesting people and fantastic food,” but also because there’s a sense of security there. When you enter Tenabari, you subconsciously slip into a world where everyone is friends.
At 2 a.m., Fabricio starts proclaiming closing time. But it’s not until about nine more drinks have been served and four more songs have been played that the customers find it in them to leave. As they hesitantly mosey out, Fabricio asks, “So, where’s the party?” After discussing their options with urgency and excitement, the group charges onward in a rollicking and irregular progression, nurtured to new life by the pulque and pizza of Tenabari.
- Dora Ballew, OZY Author Contact Dora Ballew