Tom Finley doesn’t care if you dispute any part of his recollection from the gay Vallarta of yore.
“Other people are going to question what I tell you,” he said, midway through a good many tequila shots one night at his 18-year-old watering hole, Bar Frida. “Sure, of course they are. But I think I’m probably the only one who’s been here for 25 years, so they can question what I say but they may have a hard time authenticating what they’re trying to correct.”
I was interested to learn more about the gay history of this city and Tom’s name came up frequently. He invited me to join him at Bar Frida so he could reminisce. I knew him by his location in the bar where daily he holds court: just inside the door, he’s the one at the far end of the long table immediately to the left. At the opposite end of that table routinely sits Luis, his partner of 16 years, and on that evening, in between the two, sat me and Mike Laking, a Canadian who’s lived in Vallarta the past three years.
The proprietor of this city’s possibly longest running gay-owned establishment is facing a couple significant milestones. Bar Frida is just two years away from its twentieth anniversary—it’s already achieved that distinction, if you count the two years it existed before he assumed control in 2001—and next February he will celebrate his 75th birthday. A Canadian immigrant, Tom has lived here full-time since 1998.
It all started, as it does for many people, with a vacation to Puerto Vallarta and a visit to the original Paco Paco bar. “I used to hang out there for happy hour,” he said. “Everybody went to the beach and got sun tanned and burned, got drunk on tequila or whatever, and then we would move on for act two at Paco’s. We’d all go up there and hang out. It was a great place.”
But upon his permanent arrival, his second attempt at retirement, Tom spent a couple years lounging at the beach and the bars before the idea to run an establishment like Bar Frida took control. “When I got down here, after two years of laying around on the beach I realized that life, I wasn’t ready for it,” he said. “Because everybody was drinking too much, you spent too much time on the beach, laying around and chasing the boys down the beach. So after a couple years of that I decided it just didn’t work and then I found Bar Frida.”
Before its relocation eight years ago, the bar was located where you’ll find Reinas Bar today. It’s just a block away and, according to Tom, the entire area at the time was not so welcome to Canadians, Americans, or gays. “Paco’s was over on the other side of the town,” he said, delineating the significance of the two block span that separated the two locations. “Mine was the first in what was considered to be 100% straight, a Mexican neighborhood. Everybody said, ‘Are you stupid?! Have you lost your mind?!’”
“I knew this territory,” he added, “because I was a real slut. I used to hang out at Paco’s but I lived in this neighborhood, around the corner, and I knew all the local people because there were cantinas on every block, and they were old fashioned Mexican cantinas. They were shoot-em-up, a wild bunch of cowboys. But they were nice people.”
Luis Mendez, Tom’s longtime partner, joined the conversation at this point. “The gay scene was different then,” he said. “Back then you’d meet young Mexican guys and they wanted to go home with you, it was just because they wanted to go home with you. There was no money involved, like it is now.”
“They bought YOU a beer!” Tom said. “Every time you bought a beer, they would turn around and buy a beer, too. You’d sit with these cowboys from up in the mountains, and if they liked you, just by talking to you, you’d get really drunk because they’d just keep sending you a beer. And if you wanted to sleep with them, fine. If you didn’t, there was no questions asked. No money involved. It was just guys hanging out together, having fun. It wasn’t business. It was just fun. And that’s all changed. Now it’s a money town.”
As of last month, Tom and Luis have been together sixteen years. Originally from Merida, Luis discovered Vallarta, and Tom, as one of those “young Mexican guys” he referenced. An endoscopist, he first traveled to this city for a professional convention and coordinated a meeting with Tom before his arrival.
“I knew I was coming here for a week, so I went online,” he said. “There was no cell phones back then, no Grindr, no Manhunt, anything like that. It was 2002. But there was this place, this site, an online thing called date.com and there were only three or four profiles. One of them was him. I sent him a message saying, ‘I’m going to be in Puerto Vallarta, such and such, for a week, blah blah blah’ and he said, ‘Well, I’m a bar owner. I’m very busy so we’ll see if I can fit you in.’ And I was like, ‘You bitch!’ So, anyway, we were emailing each other and he gave me his phone number.”
“So I arrived in town and I called him,” he said. “I was staying at, of all places, Los Arcos hotel. He said ‘let’s go to Cuates y Cuetes, the bar by the pier. We met and we had drinks. Then that night he took me to Bar Frida.”
“So long story short, the next day I went to sign in at the convention and that was the only day I went to the convention” he said. “I spent the entire time with him, going to dinners, going to the bar. That was September. Then I came back for Halloween. Then I came back for Christmas. Then he had problems with his business in Canada, he didn’t have anybody to take care of the bar, so I offered, so he went to Canada and I took care of the bar. And in September, one year later, I decided to move here. And here we are!”
It’s been a long run and, though neither of the two knows what the future holds, they’re proud what they’ve built here.
“We are the only gay bar in town to celebrate things with a 12-piece mariachi,” said Tom. “We’re here to make a living but we’re also here to enjoy the culture and keep the culture alive. You see what we did out here?” He pointed toward the exit and the new mural, artwork hand-painted by Adrian Takano a couple months ago. “We painted this to try and cover what they did next door with that god-awful pizza place. We went the other way, we painted the building with a picture of Frida and the Mexican culture. I stand out there at night and look at it, and it’s so moving.”
“I have an amazing life here,” he added. “And I think Vallarta, in spite of all the changes and the condos and all that stuff, it’s still Vallarta. At night, when I look out my window at home and see the bay and the stars, it’s still magic. And running Bar Frida is a pleasure, and a treat. And a privilege.”