Oakland -- On a recent Saturday night, men in cowboy hats and women perched perilously on spiky golden and glittering stilettos climbed the stairs of La Tropicana, which until December was Sweet's Ballroom.
The men and women moved, chest-to-chest, where generations of dancers before them whirled across the same floor, now worn smooth and pale.
Instead of Count Basie, they were pulsing to Mexican Norteño ballads by Los Tucanes de Tijuana, silhouetted occasionally by glimmering sparklers served with entire bottles of Grand Marnier and carried through the crowd.
Bartenders popped tops off bottles of beer in a steady stream and mixed icy margaritas as the band sang chilling stories (corridos) of modern-day bandits to a carefree um-pah-pah polka beat.
A few hours later, flushed from the heat and dancing, the dancers poured out onto Broadway, buying up bacon-wrapped hot dogs from a sidewalk food cart. They slowly made their way down Broadway, tired but satisfied.
The scene perfectly reflected the current Latin nightclub focus of the decades-old venue. The new owners are Harry Avanessian and Robert Simpson, who stepped in after a shooting in 2010 left nine people injured, capping a tumultuous few years.
Opening night at La Tropicana was Dec. 1. The first act was Noel Torres y Su Comando del Diablo along with Los Pezados Del Norte. There will be salsa nights soon, and Saturday, Heavy Nopales took the stage at the downtown venue, still best remembered for shows by Duke Ellington and the Benny Goodman Orchestra.
Mambo kings Tito Puente and Xavier Cugat also played there. Sweet's and Latinos in Oakland share a common history. The city's roots go back to Spain and Mexico, beginning with Don Luis Maria Peralta, a soldier granted 44,000 acres in 1820 by the Spanish crown. When California joined the United States, families like the Peraltas made up about a third of the state's population. The Californios, as the elite Spanish-Mexican pioneer families were called, provided eight of 48 delegates to the 1849 state constitutional convention and won a provision that all state laws and regulations be translated into Spanish.
Today, the only Peralta house left standing in Oakland is in the Fruitvale district, now the heart of the city's Latino community, which as always has ties across Latin America but is still distinctly Mexican.
The Fruitvale has bars and clubs catering to them (although this year no Cinco de Mayo celebration). And the New Parish is as likely as any club in Oakland to cater to the "Latino market."
But none of the bars and clubs carry as many memories as Sweet's, founded in 1920 by brothers William and Eugene Sweet, who loved dance. They operated several ballrooms, and Sweet's moved to multiple locations over the years. La Tropicana's building, 1933 Broadway, is the last surviving one.
The father of Latin jazz master Pete Escovedo used to sit in with visiting big bands playing Sweet's.
Roy Mejia, co-owner of the 19th Street Station, who has an encyclopedic memory of the city's entertainment venues, remembered those days when Mexican bands would play there during Sunday afternoon tardeadas. Whole families would fill the ballroom that in one of many incarnations was called Sand's. The owners kept the teenagers downstairs, but Mejia managed to get his brother's driver's license and, he said, made it "upstairs to the bar."
Eduardo Carrasco wooed his future wife, Quiteria "Katy" Cruz, at Sweet's. There, "native and foreign-born alike intermingled to the latest tunes from both sides of the border," according to the Latin History Project, which recorded Carrasco's stories.
He romanced her on the dance floor to the songs of the Andrews Sisters and the beloved Trio Los Panchos. Their courtship, according to the project's curators, reflected a mix of the traditional and the modern, new and old played out on the floor of "Oakland's most famous dance emporium."