The old pay phone inside the small East Sixth Street Tejano bar La Perla doesn’t work anymore, but it still hangs on the wall — now just a memory of a time when a ring might have nudged husbands to scoot home earlier than they hoped.
La Perla, a neighborhood bar since about the 1940s, has not only withstood the fads of time but has weathered the rapid neighborhood changes all around it. The Bud Light clocks are still ticking and the pool cue balls are still breaking inside one of East Austin’s last remaining Tejano cantinas.
In an effort to keep the history of the neighborhood and bar alive, filmmakers Daniel Reyes, Erik Mauck and producer and graphic designer Paul Del Bosque have captured the stories behind La Perla for the upcoming short film “Cantina: An Eastside Documentary.” After witnessing many Tejano bars close over the years, Reyes of Pozole Productions and Mauck, known for documentaries such as “The Road to Livingston” and “Zombie Girl: The Movie,” began the project in 2015 without any funding but with a sense of urgency. Plans for a sneak peek of the documentary are in the works for mid-September.
“If you spend any amount of time in La Perla, you’ll discover culture, tradition and stories that you won’t find in other places,” Reyes said. “There is a community that exists in the walls of La Perla unlike any other bar. Some can joke that it’s a Tejano version of ‘Cheers,’ but there’s no script here: this is the real deal where regulars have been coming for years.”
In 2016, the filmmakers received a $7,000 city grant. An additional $3,472 was raised through an online Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign. Donors can still contribute to the project through a collection jar at the bar.
Time seems to slow down when customers walk into La Perla on the corner of East Sixth and Comal streets. Longtime East Austinites perch on bar stools listening to beloved jukebox jams from accordion-fueled corridos to heart-wrenching ballads.
In the 1970s, the Costilla family took ownership of La Perla. Many of bar manager Eddie Costilla’s childhood memories involve hanging out at the family business after school and on weekends. Patrons would stack up cardboard boxes so he could reach the pool table. About 15 years ago, Costilla began managing La Perla and some regular customers worried he’d change the music in the bar’s popular jukebox or create a new look for the bar, but Costilla decided to keep most things like they’d always been.
Longtime Tejano bars like La Perla played an important role in East Austin’s history. Some small businesses created by Mexican and Mexican-American families after World War I in East Austin provided a path for families to move into the middle class and change the course of their families’ lives for future generations, Del Bosque said.
Bars such as La Perla also provided a platform for Tejano musicians to break through. Back in the late 1940s, a young Manuel “Cowboy” Donley would bring his guitar into La Perla and perform for tips. He went on to become a Tejano music pioneer by helping modernize the sound and infusing it with rock ’n’ roll. Donley, who at 90 still performs, is now a National Endowment for the Arts’ lifetime achievement award recipient.
Throughout the decades, Chicano politicians knew they had to stop at La Perla and other East Austin Tejano bars while on their cantina circuit to chat with constituents and earn votes.
At La Perla, “if someone is down or somebody needs some help, we help each other out in some way,” Costilla, 46, said.
Enchilada and barbecue benefits are a big part of cantina culture, Del Bosque said. Over the years, La Perla’s customers have come together to raise money for everything from medical expenses for neighbors to school supplies for students. “That’s how we’ve all grown up around here,” Costilla said.
These days, while a crowd of regulars usually gather during the day at La Perla, newcomers tend to wander inside in the evenings. “After a while you will see them all sit together laughing or telling stories about the neighborhood,” Costilla said. “You want to keep up with the changes, but maintain what you have — the feel of it.”