By Ashley Orona
BOYLE HEIGHTS — Local entrepreneurs have opened a pizzeria-bar called Noa Noa Place, creating a safe space for the Latino LGBT community to celebrate their unique culture.
Inspired by legendary Mexican singer Juan Gabriel, an LGBT icon who wrote a song called “Noa Noa,” the new bar grew out of a need for the queer Latino community to gather without feeling judged or unsafe.
“Not only were we creating a safe space, but we were creating a space where our patrons, our guests, felt comfortable enough to hold their partner’s hand, to take a picture in front of our Instagrammable wall kissing, and more importantly to have them share their stories with us,” said Luis Octavio, one of Noa Noa Place’s owners.
While hate crimes against both the LGBT and Latino communities declined in 2019, both populations were targeted at high rates, according to the Los Angeles County 2019 Hate Crime Report. An NBC News article found that while queer Latinos — many of whom use the gender neutral “Latinx” term instead of Latino — feel that progress has been made, especially in terms of representation in Hollywood, discrimination and violence against them are still issues.
Prior to Noa Noa Place opening, Boyle Heights residents who identify as LGBT would have to travel outside of their community to downtown Los Angeles or Hollywood to find LGBT-friendly restaurants and bars.
The founders all have roots in Boyle Heights. Octavio is a co-founder of the swap meet Molcajete Dominguero; Deysi Serrano owns a restaurant in Boyle Heights called Milpa Grille; and Donaji Esparza is an on-air personality for Univision radio KLOVE.
The unifying theme of Noa Noa Place is Juan Gabriel. The singer had a song called “Noa Noa,” written about a bar in the singer’s hometown of Ciudad Juarez. Known for his diva persona, Gabriel was an icon for the LGBT community because he was not afraid of channeling his feminine side.
“One of the things that I noticed about Juan Gabriel is that he was very flamboyant,” Octavio said. “But even if he was flamboyant both male, female, and everyone really didn’t care because they respected his music.”
Noa Noa’s founders wanted to create a space that welcomes everyone who has a common interest in celebrating their Latino heritage.
The restaurant-bar specializes in pizzas with ingredients unique to Latin American dishes, such as mole, al pastor and chorizo. Their “aguadrinks” are a blend of Latino beverages with a hint of alcohol such as lemon Jarritos with gin and horchata with spiced rum.
The most important aspect, however, is the music. The space plays a variety of music across decades, genres and languages that cater to the different demographics that exist in the Latino community. Octavio said he and the other owners wanted new music that younger generations listen to but also music that they heard their parents listen to when they were younger.
“What we expect to do with this location is when you walk in you’ll be greeted by sounds, by smells, by even the taste of our Latinidad,” Octavio said, referring to the culture that unites the Latino LGBT community.
Noa Noa Place is located at 2321 E. First St. The restaurant is open Thursday to Friday from 4 to 9 p.m.; Saturday from 1 to 9 p.m.; and Sunday from noon to 9 p.m. Only takeout is available due to COVID-19 safety requirements. Staff will enforce wearing masks, social distancing and taking customers’ temperature at the door.
Ashley Orona is a freelance reporter for Wave Newspapers who covers the East Los Angeles area. She can be reached at Oronash@gmail.com.