La Gitana has a bit of a history, but if you want to see a fight at Arivaca’s only bar, you’ll probably need to invent a time machine.

Despite the infrequency of fisticuffs, the bar’s reputation as one tough place to get a beer has died hard, and the regulars know it all too well. Some just laugh it off while others are flat-out ticked off. One thing they all agree on, though — the perception by outsiders is undeserved and outdated.

“It’s really safe, compared with what some people think,” bartender Vanessa Mead says as she sits on the bar’s patio on her day off, sipping a cocktail and petting a light-yellow mutt named Gambler. “From the stories I hear from everybody, it used to be kind of rough. But with the new owners, they’ve completely turned that around.”

Mead, 34, moved to Arivaca from Minneapolis a couple of years ago after visiting her parents in the small community of about 800 souls, just 12 miles from the Mexico border.

“My parents came here to retire,” she says of Arivaca, a 23-mile drive down the gently curving Arivaca Road off Interstate 19. “I have to laugh, because when they first moved here they wouldn’t come in to the bar. Now they know what it’s really like.”

Co-owner Maggie Milinovitch has been around quite a bit longer. She’s seen some of the stages that La Gitana — “the gypsy” in Spanish — has gone through.

“When my husband and I first moved to town in 1980, it was a family bar,” says Milinovitch, who bought the place with her partners six years ago. “The kids would sleep in the corner while the parents talked and danced.”

“Then it was sold, and it progressively went downhill. It was really bad. Women couldn’t even come here without being bothered.”

But Milinovitch was determined to re-establish the safe and friendly vibe the bar once had. She is proud of what she and fellow owners Fern Robinson, Penny Shepherd and her husband, Rich, have done with it. The four have transformed it back into a spot where people probably worry more about not getting their favorite song played on the jukebox than any unpleasantness.

“We’ve had two fights here in six years,” says Milinovitch, who publishes a local newspaper,  Connection. “Can you imagine that? We made it very clear early on that there’s sort of a code of behavior.”

In it together

Built in 1880, La Gitana has a past that reads like a passage straight from an Arizona history book.

It began as a dance hall, drawing area miners and ranchers who were looking to kick up their heels. Next door stood a brothel, so dancing wasn’t the only attraction. Later, the Arizona Land and Cattle Company turned the building into a hay barn, an identity it retained until 1950. That year, it became a bar and restaurant, which it has remained to this day.  

The indoor section of the tavern is on the smaller end of the scale. The patio is more spacious, and accommodates bands and partygoers at least once a month.

La Gitana has been recognized for its renaissance by sources near and far. Esquire magazine put it on its 2011 list of best bars in the country.

Closer to home, Annette Zampatti praises the experience the bar offers, too.

“This is probably the best bar I’ve ever been in,” says Zampatti, who joined her sister in Arivaca three years ago. “As a woman, being alone and single, I can come in here without feeling afraid because I know everybody.”

Like many small-town watering holes, La Gitana just feels like home.

“It’s like a family reunion every time I come in here,” 2010 Sahuarita High School graduate Alexis Nuñez says. “Everybody’s looking out for everybody.”

Former Minnesota resident Omar Rood draws a distinction between Arivaca and other places on the map.

“We had neighborhood bars up there,” he says. “I think this is actually more friendly, really, as far as neighborhood bars in small towns go.”

“I think that’s just a reflection of the town. We have an eclectic mix of people here, and everybody’s pretty accepting.”

Another aspect of small-town life the bar embraces is the patrons’ practice of raising funds for friends in need, often in the form of throwing a party or holding a dance.

“Doing a benefit for someone who needs help is a pretty regular thing around here,” says Rood, the chairman of the board for the local fire district. “Just one example — a friend of mine here in town had breast cancer and didn’t have insurance. She had to pay for the treatment up front, and she got enough money to do that from one of our benefits.”

La Gitana regular George Huesler echoes Rood’s sentiments.

“Around here, you ask someone for help, even if they can’t help you, they’ll find someone that can,” he says. “Town’s that way. The bar, too.”

A group of originals

For Mead, a professional photographer, the de facto community center’s charm lies in its diverse collection of people.

“Everyone is so different here,” she says. “It’s kind of like that TV show ‘The Office.’ You fall in love with all these characters and the stories they kind of bring to the table.”

John “Arky” Acklen is one such personality. The 80-year-old Arkansas native has been in town 35 years and has faithfully ridden his three-wheel Cushman utility cart the three blocks from his home to the bar for much of that time.

Before putting down roots in the southeastern corner of the county, Acklen made a life running whiskey and riding freight trains all over the United States.

Like any self-respecting bar, many of the regulars have colorful nicknames. That can be especially helpful when it comes to telling people apart.

“We’ve got people down here with the same names sometimes, and you’ve got to identify them,” regular patron Michael Armour says. “At one point we had Dave, Curly Dave, Banjo Dave and David. Kinda funny.”

La Gitana also dedicates an entire wall to members of its bar family who have passed away. Framed photos of gone-but-not-forgotten friends look out on the area where the pool table and jukebox sit.

“In the three years I’ve been here, a few very good people have been added to that wall,” Rood says. “Those folks all enjoyed it for a while. And 20 years from now, there will be an entirely different group of people enjoying it just as much as I did.”

Steve Choice | 547-9728

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