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JUÁREZ — When night falls on Avenida Juárez, the neon green lights of the World Famous Kentucky Club Bar and Grill come to life. Behind a simple awning façade, one of Ciudad Juárez’s enduring institutions tells its story in the decades-old decor and the people who fill the wooden chairs once occupied by heroes and celebrities from Mexico and the United States alike.
Inside, the dark wood of the back bar that was carved in France in 1932 sets the tone for the vintage atmosphere. At the base of the bar, a shallow tiled canal with running water recalls the days when only men were allowed in downtown bars and celebrity visitors relieved themselves as they drank — no need to leave one’s seat to find a bathroom.
The Kentucky Club — uniquely juarense, uniquely fronterizo — has survived a century of depressions, a world war, border hardening and waves of violence. The global pandemic, though, brought tragedy when owner Sergio Peña, 71, died of COVID-19 in July 2020.
With the sudden loss of its owner and the social distancing and uncertainty of the pandemic, the bar’s 100th birthday in October of that year was not a moment for celebration. Now, Peña’s children, who inherited the establishment, are making plans with the city government to celebrate the missed anniversary of the club that first opened in 1920.
Mixing margaritas on a recent Monday night, Peña’s son and current owner, also named Sergio, ran through a list of notable personalities that have visited the Kentucky.
“Al Capone. Marilyn Monroe was here. Tommy Lasorda. Some Chicago Bears. We had Oscar de la Hoya, all the Mexican (boxing) champions. Miss Universe, she was here,” Peña, 51, said as he leaned across the antique wood bar to count on his fingers. “(Rick) Perry, when he was the governor of Texas, came. Beto O’Rourke. Oscar Leeser.”
A few seats down, patron Michael Silva sat with his arm around his girlfriend. Hours earlier, Silva had pointed at the neon green lights on Avenida Juárez and impulsively pulled out of the line of cars waiting to cross the Paso del Norte bridge into El Paso. After an hour of hearty singing with the mariachi band that walked in from the street, he was energized but hoarse.
“I just like coming here because of the history. I can’t explain it with words,” Silva said. “You’re sitting in history. El Paso is missing out.”
He turned to his girlfriend to say, “Al Capone was here, babe!”
The Kentucky Club encapsulates border life, with bilingual bartenders serving juarenses and El Pasoans every day, and welcoming the tourists that come from around the world to see the Paso del Norte region.
Though it seems strange to have a bar called Kentucky in Mexico, even the name is linked to its border identity. It was founded by Francisco Montes during Prohibition after distillery owner Mary Dowling moved production from Kentucky to Mexico so she could produce bourbon just across the border — far enough to escape pesky American dry laws, but close enough to continue to access American customers.
Today, apart from its museum-like interior, the Kentucky Club is most well-known for its claim as the birthplace of the margarita. A bartender named Lorenzo “Lencho” Hernandez invented the tequila concoction with his coworker, Jesús Morales, in 1946.
Peña said that according to the story he learned from Hernandez, Morales’ girlfriend drove from Albuquerque to visit him. When she arrived at the bar, “Jesús told Lorenzo, ‘Hey, Lorencito, go ahead and start making the drink,’” Peña said. “When she took the first sip, she was amazed. She was like, ‘Wow, what is the name of this drink?’ And Lencho said, ‘The name of this drink is like you: Margarita.’”
Hernandez worked for the Kentucky Club for 57 years, retiring shortly before his death in 2005. During that time, he served over a million margaritas.
Peña’s story is confirmed by Carlos Velasquez, 53, a current Kentucky bartender who also knew Hernandez. Velasquez painted a picture of the heyday of Juárez’s nightlife tourism.
“All of this,” he said, gesturing toward the strip of Avenida Juárez visible through the front door. “It was like Vegas. In the 30s and 40s, people came to get divorced or get married. There were a lot of people from El Paso, a lot of soldiers from Fort Bliss.”
Much of that international traffic slowed after 9/11, when new restrictions were placed on federal personnel and new requirements made crossing the border a more tedious endeavor.
But one El Pasoan is such a fixture of the establishment that the bartenders greet him by name. Christian Rodriguez has been coming to the Kentucky for eight years.
“The first time I came, I ordered a ‘bucket’ and they said, ‘No, we don’t do that,’” Rodriguez said as he sat beneath a taxidermied eagle. “I became really good friends with Sergio (Peña) and his uncle and they take good care of me. I come at least once a week and on the weekends I am always here.”
For Peña, who lives in El Paso and has another job as a respiratory therapist, the responsibility of maintaining the historic and cultural institution that is the Kentucky Club keeps him crossing the border almost daily.
“It’s an iconic place. I do feel responsible to keep up with the legacy of Francisco Montes and my dad,” Peña said.
Even while violence overtook Juárez in the early 2000s, “we never closed our doors,” he said.
Despite the fear that caused many other downtown business owners to close shop and even leave the city, the Kentucky Club endured. Peña credits their survival during that time to their status as a “family business.”
The bar’s nine-month closure due to the pandemic “hurt,” but the Peña heirs still managed to reopen in November 2020.
Peña views the Kentucky Club not only as a business and his family’s livelihood but as an institution that belongs to the border region. The Kentucky Club is listed in tourist guides published by the cities of Juárez and El Paso.
“They say that it’s a must for (tourists) to stop here because now it’s considered like a museum of the city,” Peña said. “This is now a historic place because we’ve been keeping it originally the way it was for so many years.”
The celebration to honor that history will take place this October. Peña envisions a public event “out here in the street, right here in front of the Kentucky” that will draw visitors from both sides of the border and benefit the city.
When asked to sum up what has made the Kentucky Club the place to be for more than a century, Peña has a simple answer.
“That special touch that Lorenzo left us,” Peña affirmed with a smile. “That’s what makes a difference.”