“Let’s hope there’s no phone calls,” Barajas said. “Ready to do this?”
The phone calls had begun weeks earlier, in the days leading up to the restaurant’s monthly drag brunch. On the other line were unidentifiable voices hurling homophobic slurs and threats to kill the staff and burn the business down, said the restaurant’s owner, Anna Bran-Leis.
At first, the staff ignored the calls, Bran-Leis said. But during the drag brunch and a separate drag trivia night, the calls intensified, numbering more than 20 a day.
When Bran-Leis’s daughter called one of the numbers back, the man on the recorded voice-mail message identified the number as the Loyal White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, based in Pelham, N.C. The white-supremacist organization is one of the largest Klan groups in the United States, according to the Anti-Defamation League.
The staff called D.C. police and reported a suspected hate crime, prompting an investigation that is still ongoing. But the calls continued, as recently as last Sunday.
The threats have shocked the employees and regulars at the neighborhood taqueria, which has become a popular destination for drag performances and an unofficial safe haven for the queer community. Almost all of the 15 or so members of staff are LGBTQ, and almost all of them are people of color.
The owner has tightened security, instructing staff to never leave the restaurant alone after closing and to keep the back door locked at all times. Police officers have been in and out of the restaurant, keeping watch. One employee, who Bran-Leis said is a gay single mother, stayed home from work the day after the calls intensified, saying she didn’t feel comfortable coming in.
In the days that followed, neighbors organized a support rally in front of the restaurant. Other regulars stopped by just to make sure the staff was doing okay. On the last day of 2019, the taqueria’s employees decided to carry on with the first drag event since the threats became public.
They poured free glasses of champagne. They extended happy hour, offering $5 margaritas, and booked a night of booty-shaking, lip-syncing, sashaying drag trivia.
“We’re not going to close and we’re not going to play it light,” Barajas said before the drag trivia night. “We’re going to go out and end the year with a good time.”
As “The Ellen DeGeneres Show” played on a TV and a D.C. police officer sat at the bar, a drag queen known as Maxxi Overdrive began brushing her long purple ombré ponytail and long fake eyelashes. In the back bathroom, another drag queen known as Vagenesis, the host for the trivia night, dabbed at the sweat on her forehead while powdering her face and contouring her beard with highlighter.
Just years ago, bearded drag queens were considered “alternative” drag performers, queens who often had a difficult time getting booked at major drag queen events. But Bran-Leis has made a point of hiring performers that may be considered “different,” she said. “Different doesn’t scare me.”
Bran-Leis has loved drag since she was a young girl. After moving to Silver Spring from Guatemala, Bran-Leis’s mother befriended a group of gay Latinos, some of whom competed in drag pageants.
“These were my uncles when I was a kid,” Bran-Leis said. “For so many of them, they didn’t have another family. We were their family.”
It made sense that drag would become a part of the fabric of Taqueria del Barrio. But the restaurant is not as well-known for drag as other establishments in town, such as Nellie’s or Perry’s Restaurant, which claims the longest-running drag show in the District, since 1991.
Yet the owner of Perry’s Restaurant said he has never experienced an incident like the threats reported at Taqueria del Barrio. Drag performers from other venues across town also said they hadn’t heard of similar pushback.
“I would expect Nellie’s or some other bar to get it, not our little restaurant hidden in Petworth,” Barajas said.
Almost half of suspected hate crimes in the District are aimed at the city’s large LGBTQ community, according police. The number of attacks investigated by police as bias-motivated in 2019 had reached 194 by the end of November, putting the city on pace to set a record.
As Vagenesis prepared to begin the show on New Year’s Eve, the tables in the back trivia area were filled with neighbors and regulars who were dismayed to hear the news about the threatening calls.
“It made me feel personally attacked,” said Susie Drumond, 29, who was sharing dinner with her fiancee, Mary Jessup, and her soon-to-be mother-in-law. The couple are getting married this year and are hoping to have the reception at Taqueria, where they have been coming since it opened.
“Hello Taqueria, how we doing?” Vagenesis said to the crowd, speaking into a rhinestone-studded microphone. Wearing a floor-length black and turquoise gown, she led the patrons through trivia questions related to pop culture of the past decade, pausing between rounds for the queens to dance.
In a blond wig and black plunging dress, drag queen Hunter Paris Cartier lip-synced to Taylor Swift’s “Blank Space.” Barajas reached out to give Cartier a dollar bill, and she dropped down to the ground, crawling to the next table.
“Make some noise for Maxxi Overdrive!” Vagenesis said while introducing the next queen, who strutted to Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep,” lifting up her fishnet-clad leg as dollar bills scattered on the hardwood floor.
About an hour into the show, Vagenesis took a moment to address the fears.
“We are having an interesting moment as this restaurant right now in this neighborhood,” Vagenesis said. “We are making sure that everybody knows we are here, we are queer, and I get paid so you’re not getting rid of me.”
The crowd erupted in cheers.
Moments later, four officers with the D.C. police’s Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Liaison Unit walked in.
“You wanna play, too?” Vagenesis asked them. Barajas hugged one of the officers, thanking her.
Toward the end of the game, Vagenesis stood up for her own performance. She began mouthing the words to “This Is Me” from “The Greatest Showman,” sung by the bearded-lady character Lettie Lutz. Those sitting by the bar stood up and gathered around her. A toddler in the front of the restaurant began to dance. “Get it, Vagenesis!” someone yelled.
Then Vagenesis walked outside, raised her arms in the air and spun around in circles as the song went on.
“When the sharpest words wanna cut me down
I’m gonna send a flood, gonna drown them out
I am brave, I am bruised
I am who I’m meant to be
This is me.”
Standing in the restaurant’s front entrance, beneath a string of lights, she ended the song with a fist full of cash in the air.