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Feature Thu Feb 17 2011

Hanging on by a Sequin

This story was submitted by Rachel Rabbit White. All photos by Edmund X. White.

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The stretch of 26th Street that makes the heart of Chicago's Little Village neighborhood is vibrant on a Friday night. The smell of taco stands is warm and inviting in the cold, as people bustle amongst the colorful stores -- joyerias and a chain of boutiques named, curiously, Brazilian Seduction Jeans. In the midst of this is a bar with no sign. But locals know this is La Cueva, a Spanish speaking-only bar where women with false eyelashes and hair like exotic birds writhe and lip-sync to Mexican pop music.

La Cueva is an LGBTQ historic site -- it is known as the oldest Latino drag bar in the country. This is a bit of a misnomer, as the performers are women -- male to female trans women. La Cueva has been around for 30 years, providing a place for trans Latinas to work and gay Latinos to belong. But the bar has recently been the center of controversy: in September, Little Village residents began protesting for La Cueva to close. Opponents say the bar has become a site for drug dealing and "transgender prostitution."

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Ketty Teanga started the drag shows at La Cueva. Having successfully done drag at mainstream clubs in New York and Puerto Rico, she wanted to bring the same to Chicago's Latino community. Now in her sixties, Ketty can still be found watching the shows from the bar on most nights -- her hair still coiffed, lips puffed but body now shaky. She says what set La Cueva apart was the sexual energy. "I was singing, the saxophone was playing. And I just started to take off my clothes. And my body was so curvy from the hormones. That is when the shows became about femme, not men in drag," she says.

Teanga presses that La Cueva has become much more safe over the years. "There were a lot of gangsters and they'd throw bottles and shoot at us with BB guns. You had to park your car and run inside." Teanga explains that the neighborhood has always been rough, that this area of 26th has always been known for prostitution and drug dealing.

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According to La Cueva's manager, Ruben Lechuga, the bar itself was feistier in the beginning, with fewer bouncers and more fights. The patrons were more macho -- straight males. "It is all gay now and more lesbians. In my day, it was straight men," says Teanga, a little longingly. "Not even in New York or Puerto Rico was it gay. In my time, I was seen as a woman, so it was [straight] men who came."

On a slow snowy night at La Cueva, two lesbian couples arrive just after midnight to cuddle at dark tables while gay couples slow dance under the disco ball. At the bar, there remains a few solo Mexican cowboys.

Even as La Cueva becomes a gay safe haven, the focus remains on the trans performers. Off stage, sans make-up, they are radiant and beautiful. Onstage they are transformed into glamorous creatures, their acts perfected with glittering evening gowns, teeny bikinis and lip-syncing. In between acts, the women wait tables and chat amongst each other. It is easy to sense a strong bond between them.

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As each girl opens up about her story in an interview, the others listen and nod. "I would play with my sister in Mexico. We played tea party and made cookies with sugar. My mom would get mad because I would wear her dresses. That's how my life started," says Paula, a petite performer. "As an adolescent, they knew. My aunt had seen me go to different towns with dresses and makeup on. I have five brothers and I thought they were going to beat me up or kick me out."

Though Teanga came of age decades before, her story is similar. "I was nine years old and wearing my mother's heels. All my life I knew. I decided to really be a woman when I was 15, and started doing shows in Puerto Rico." But what has changed, according to Teanga, is how much easier it to to transition. "I took hormones from a Mexican doctor in New York, in the '70s. It was very different back then. You could transition, but you still had to dress like a man on the street, because you would get harassed. Only on the weekends could you be a woman -- this was in New York, not even Puerto Rico! Now, the door is more open for the girls."

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La Cueva has become a place where Spanish-speaking Latino trans women can find work -- which is no easy task. "The girls come here looking for work and if they are needed, we offer them a job," says Lechuga.

"I have worked here for 10 years," says Vanessa, who is soft spoken in contrast to her persona onstage, where she dances seductively in an outfit made of perfectly taped leaves. "Before, I worked out in the fields in Mexico, but I always dreamed about working in a place doing what I do now."

When the topic turns to the protestors' claims, emotions bubble over. "I've been working for La Cueva for nine years," proclaims Paula. "I worked in other places like restaurants and temp office jobs and I had problems. People frown upon us. When you apply, you must use your male name, but you look like a woman. They have issues with you going to the women's bathroom. The truth is, there is a lot of prostitution in our community, but here we have jobs. We are all waitresses as well as performers, so we don't need to do that." Vanessa adds, "This is not the first time there have been protests. The people who are protesting in reality don't know us. I encourage them to come in and look."

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Turning to prostitution out of necessity has long been an issue of discussion within the trans community. "Transphobia has curtailed employment opportunities," explains Richard T. Rodriguez, associate professor of Latina/Latino Studies at University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana and recipient of their LGBT Resources Leadership award. "Latina trans women, like African American trans women, are also subject to racism. But when you add language to the mix, Latina trans women may find it increasingly difficult to find jobs outside of sex work. It must be clarified that not all trans Latinas (or trans women in general) resort to sex work, but sex work remains one of the few employment opportunities available to them given the phobic attitudes directed at them by employers."

Teanga adds that while there has always been prostitution in the neighborhood, it is mostly gay male sex workers. "I don't see the girls in La Cueva on the streets. A lot of girls working in nightclubs will clean offices during the day."

Lechuga worries that the protestors will force the bar to close. "They are blaming us for prostitution that goes on a few blocks away. There are people in the neighborhood who try and get signatures to close the place down. I'm worried because those people don't know La Cueva. They've never been in here; they only imagine what goes on."

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According to the performers, these residents are protesting because they are highly religious. Mexico may have legalized gay marriage but Vanessa and Paula assert that homophobia within the Mexican community remains. It seems as gay issues get more press, this tension grows. "In Mexico they changed the law to where gay marriages are allowed, but they will still call you out on the street or yell dirty things, much worse than here," says Paula.

Vanessa, like most of the performers, has had this affect her relationships. "There are some members of my family that will never take to me. We never talked about it, they found out because of my surgeries. But my mother has come to understand and respect me, and that's all that matters."

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Lechuga, while straight-identified, is no stranger to this problem. He had two gay cousins who both died of AIDS, one who lived in Mexico and one in LA. "My cousin who lived in Mexico had a hard time getting proper medical attention because no one wanted to get close to him or touch him," he says.

But in her 50 years of being out as transgender, Teanga has seen a change in the attitudes of the Latino community towards gays. "Latinos are just more positive about it, they are becoming more proud. Yes, of gays and somewhat of transgender."

According to Rodriguez, as the gay rights movement moves forward, so must trans issues. "While educating people on transgender lives is key, I also believe there must be a more concerted effort by queers and straight allies alike to advocate for the rights of transgender people. Unfortunately middle-class, privileged issues like gay marriage continue to overshadow the blatant racial and economic discrepancies faced by those purportedly accounted for in the LGBT community."

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What sets La Cueva apart is its history. The bar now stands as a truly open and inviting place, accepting anyone with an interest in what goes on behind its mysterious doors. But still yet, it is all about the girls. "I do believe that we are a bit different from the rest because Puerto Ricans have come and said that we are one of the best shows in Chicago," says Paula. "They say it's that the women here are the most beautiful. And so that inspires me, and if I see they are giving good tips then I'll add more fuel and perform better."

The performers as well as La Cueva remain strong after three decades, even without a sign on the door or an official listing by the City of Chicago's neighborhood website. Whether the protestors succeed or not, the Latino LGBT community is undeniably vital and La Cueva's people are part of the village.

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~*~

This feature is supported in part by a Community News Matters grant from The Chicago Community Trust and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. More information here.

 

MrBrownThumb / February 17, 2011 1:27 PM

Teanga adds that while there has always been prostitution in the neighborhood, it is mostly gay male sex workers. "I don't see the girls in La Cueva on the streets. A lot of girls working in nightclubs will clean offices during the day.

Maybe Teanga should hang out on 26th Street after the bar closes to see the prostitution? Perhaps it isn't the girls who work in the bar who are doing it, but they are definitely transgendered females hanging out on the sidewalks and corners around the bar after it closes. You don't loiter on 26th Street late at night unless you're doing something illegal.

WAJ / February 17, 2011 3:47 PM

"La Cueva, a historic Latino LGBTQ bar in Little Village, struggles to stay open in the face of opposition from suspicious conservative neighbors."

Since when is distaste of prostitution and illegal drug use/dealing only a conservative trait?

Bias much?

A. Badger / February 17, 2011 9:13 PM

"Since when is distaste of prostitution and illegal drug use/dealing only a conservative trait?"

Distaste, no. But organizing to shut down adult entertainment businesses is pretty much an exclusively conservative pastime. It's not that all liberals are exactly in favor of such things, but they rank way down the list of things for us to get excited about, so it's not unreasonable to assume that the bulk of the opposition is conservative.

Erik / February 18, 2011 11:03 AM

Thank you so much for writing about this. The bias and discrimination that transgender people of color face is staggering.

I would suggest a tweak in one of your first sentences: "This is a bit of a misnomer, as the performers are women -- trans male to female. " It would be more accurate to say " ...as the performers are women -- male to female trans women." The way it is currently phrased implies there are trans men that perform and that you are calling them women. Other than that, this was a great piece that brings up a host of problems facing trans people of color.

You can read a new report, "Injustice at Every Turn," here: http://www.thetaskforce.org/press/releases/pr_study_020411

This study really illuminates the rates of homelessness, HIV, violence and wrongful death that the trans community faces.

A blog post that breaks down the report to the harsh reality trans people of color face in particular can be read here: http://colorlines.com/archives/2011/02/transgender_discrimination_study.html

We need to do better than this for our community. It's publications like Gapersblock that can help spread the word to allies beyond the LGBT community. Allies are essential in the fight for legislative and lived equality.

WAJ / February 18, 2011 2:07 PM

A Badger - Exactly.

Rather than relying on a known facts, this relies on an assumption that the opposition are some "suspicious conservative" neighbors. That assumption is necessary to build out the strawman argument that does get liberals excited -
civil rights injustices.

So lets unpack this a bit.

Little Village is in the 4th IL
Congressional district, which is represented by one of the country's most liberal representatives in Gutierrez, and whose populace voted 85% for Obama, 79% for John Kerry, and 76% for Al Gore (whose wife is a well documented organizer of movements to shut down entertainment industries).

The guy organizing the opposition, Raul Montes Jr. has signed picture from Harold Washington, whom he volunteered for, which, of course, is standard practice for conservatives.

http://raulmontesforchicago.com/Contact.php

If La Cueva has been in in the neighborhood for 30 years, its longevity then speaks to the tolerance of the neighborhood. The complaints are not based on the sexual orientation of the club, but are based on prostitution and illegal drugs in the neighborhood. Generally, people don't like prostitution and drugs in their neighborhoods.

Now, a story about prositution and drugs doesn't get much reaction. That is pretty run of the mill. But if you spin the story as a "civil rights" story, where a vulnerable group is being unfairly treated by some mean conservatives, then it becomes the cause d'jour and pushes "The Narrative".

So you have an article that sets up the civil rights meme and twists facts around in order to fit it.

Andrew Huff / February 18, 2011 2:08 PM

Thank you for the edit suggestion, Erik -- I agree, that makes it clearer.

DJDeeJay / February 18, 2011 3:49 PM

"Unfortunately middle-class, privileged issues like gay marriage..."

It's so disappointing to hear him say that. He obviously didn't see the cover of the Chicago Sun-Times the day after marriage equality became law in Iowa. Many lower-class gay/lesbian Chicago couples crossed state lines to take advantage of that. It's not just a privileged, middle-class thing.

DJDeeJay / February 18, 2011 3:52 PM

I should add, otherwise this was a really intersting article (although I would have liked to hear the protestor's side of things). Thanks for sharing this story.

MrBrownThumb / February 18, 2011 5:52 PM

I don't think you should discount the possibility of "conservatives" trying to shut the bar down just because of how people voted in presidential elections.

People can vote for what is in their best political interest and have conservative beliefs. Maybe something got lost in the discussion and what was meant was "religious" neighbors. There are a number of churches in close proximity to the bar and it seems perfectly logical to me that they'd try to shut down the bar.

Anyway, if you're ever in the area hit up Trohjas right next to the bar for the best shrimp in Chicago. Across the street is the hot dog place that the Chicago Reader made a big fuss over last year. They weren't that great, but they were interesting.

Kelly Reaves / February 19, 2011 10:51 AM

Hiya. Thanks for your comments, everyone. I took out the word "conservative" for you, WAJ. You're right, it's not necessary. Thanks for reading.

WAJ / February 19, 2011 12:15 PM

There isn't anymore evidence that religous groups oppose the club's operation than conservative groups. Its just conjecture. Its just a narrative.

If you take away the obfuscation, the situation is a group of residents is protesting crime in their neighborhood. The statements made by the club's opponents refer to the illegal activity that they witness firsthand in their neighborhood. Given the statements of an interviewee "The truth is, there is a lot of prostitution in our community" that supports the underlying reason for people to be unhappy with the club's operation. If Teanga adds that "what set La Cueva apart was the sexual energy" then it also supports that its clients go there because of it sexual energy. If that is the case, then it sets up a good market for prostitutes to meet with interested Johns.

Recast the situation where it is not transgender prostitution and drug dealing, but heterosexual prostitution and drug dealing, and you wouldn't have any handwringing about discrimination and the like. It would be a simple matter of neighbors seeking to make their community safe for their families, which is among the basest of needs and rights. The existence of criminal behaviour does not follow a dichotomy based on the sexual orinetation of the perpetrator. There is criminal activity or there is no criminal activity - and there is much precendent for closing establishments that become magnets for illegal activity.

However, when the modifier "transgender" enters the picture, then the narrative comes into play and the issue is painted as a civil rights struggle where the downtrodden transgender community is being unfairly discriminated against by a group with racist and hateful beliefs i.e. conservative groups.

That narrative is designed to generate hatred for conservatives - and it works like a charm (even when there is no real factual evidence), just look at the comments on HuffPo when this story was posted:

-"Only the Republican­s have hatred for gays as a fundamenta­l component of their belief system--De­mocrats do not."

- "Maybe they should move to the Middle East where people share their homophobic views."

- "I am so sick of the right-wing­ers and their constant need to try to control the lives of others. Of course, I do have to wonder if one of the underlying reasons for this nonsense is because this bar is a Latino gay bar. Conservati­ves tend to not like anything that is not wonderbrea­d white."

Take away the prostitution and drug dealing and there would be little opposition, as 30 years of history says that would be the case.

Thanks for the shrimp recommendation. I'll have to check it out.

steve talbert / February 20, 2011 9:59 AM

Maybe the protest is happening now because someone new moved into the neighborhood and has gotten all worked up about it. Having lived in gentrifying neighborhoods in LA and NYC before Chicago, this same thing happens when someone moves into a 'fringe' neighborhood without doing research into why it's fringe to begin with. Then they get upset that there is crime and grocery items aren't as good, etc, etc. and complain. This same thing happened on Halsted, of all places, when a large residential building was built next to Circuit bar, someone who bought a condo there was all of sudden 'surprised' there were bars in the neighborhood and people at night and created a very drawn out complaint. I suspect this is no different.

DJDeeJay / February 22, 2011 11:18 AM

WAJ, if people are against prostitution and drug-dealing, then they should address that directly. It sounds like this bar is one of the few employment alternatives to prostitution for these girls, so why shut that down? It would put more of them on the street.

WAJ / February 23, 2011 12:38 PM

DJ - if you read the public statements and news reports, it seems that the people protesting are doing just that. (It would be lovely if we had access to the CPAC meeting minutes to see whether complaints/solutions were voiced in that venue, and with the bar owner in attendance).

I disagree with the choices you present as they reflect binary causation, which exist as a rhetorical instrument, but do not exist in the real world, given the range of human behavior and choice.

These girls either work at the bar or they become prostitutes...
or they work at the bar or they sell drugs...
the girls will be on the street if the bar closes...

Those are all deterministic statements that imply that the girls have no ability to influence and choose their outcomes for themselves, which doesn't seem to fit with their overall history.

Jeffery hale / February 23, 2011 2:02 PM

It's great to know this club is still around! I went to this place 12 years ago when I was in Chicago.

I went there with a Puerto Rican friend. My friend lived in Little Village near 26th and when I tried to get a cab to take me to his place the Cab didn't want to take me there (I was in Lincoln Park). When I did find a cab who would take me there the SOB charged me extra!

My friend and I went to La Cueva... I had a great time! The Ladies were beautiful and entertaining! No, there was no sex workers or drug deals going on! Each time I went back with my friend it was the same, FUN!!

If people are worried about the Drugs and Sex workers try looking into some of those late night taco places... and the ones who were the worst offenders for these services were all the straight boys, you know the husbands, brothers and sons of those who are complaining about the place!

I now live in Columbus Ohio and I wish there was a bar like La Cueva here.

Viva La Cueva! Thanks for the fun memories!

Karari Kue / February 27, 2011 1:26 AM

Prostitution and drug dealing is a problem in all communities of color, not just the trans community. If Raúl Montes, Jr. really wants to change that, I suggest he organize around the issue of non-discriminatory employment.

Trans women of color, sadly, have a very high rate of survival prostitution. No one grows up wanting to be a prostitute, it's demeaning, dangerous, and of course illegal. But we all need to survive somehow.

Closing La Cueva will do nothing to stop prostitution in our community of La Villita. If anything, it will make it more dangerous for our trans hermanas. But a push towards equal employment opportunities for everyone (including trans women), now that WILL make a difference.

LMC / February 27, 2011 2:42 AM

@WAJ Long-winded argument that misses the point. If there is prostitution and drug-dealing near a straight bar or club, are you going to justify shutting down all the bars or clubs around it because of some potentially shady clients who might participate in such crimes? No. You put extra police in the area, and the crime will drop. If there is no illegal activity in the bar, why blame the bar? And I suggest you do some reading on transphobia before you simplify this as a crime-only issue. Here's an article about La Cueva that is to the point: http://www.queerty.com/the-chicago-gay-bar-thats-apparently-letting-kids-pick-up-trans-hookers-20100903/

Elias / March 8, 2011 12:27 AM

I've been to this club and have lived and worked in the neighborhood for years.

Unfortunately, this article is one-sided. They're should have been an effort made to reach people in the neighborhood who want the club closed.

A large Chicago Spanish newspaper, La Raza wrote a series on La Cueva that was more even-sided a few years ago.

The owner, Mr. Lechuga only agrees to talk to reporters who are favorable to La Cueva. La Raza tried reaching Mr. Lechuga but he refused to them.

Yes, the club does provide a place for the latin GLBT community and for many years it was the ONLY place. I agree it is an institution and the "girls" do put on a great show.

However, there are now several other places for the latin GLBT community such as After Dark on Ashland Ave. and the Tapas bar in Berwyn just to name a couple. Those places do not have the same prostitution, drug and crime problems as La Cueva. They also, by the way, attract a younger and hipper crowd.

The truth is that there is quite a bit of drug dealing inside the club. Cocaine is the drug of choice there and you can purchase some for only $20 from one of the many older drag queens sitting at the bar or near the washrooms.

Also, security is very liberal with ID checks so it very easy to find underage patrons there who use other people's IDs. Keep in mind, a lot of them are in drag. In the story, Paula claims to have been working at the club for 9 years yet she is in her mid 20s.

There also been several fights inside the club. In fact, the club has been closed by the city in the past for violence. Only a few months ago, one of the transgendered waitresses got into a nasty fight with a patron.

Finally, the club doesn't do much to curb prostitution outside. For the most part, the "girls" who work there aren't prostitutes but there are several well-known ex-workers who are and after the club closes, many of the club's patrons do "work the streets." Also, you find the prostitutes on the same block and not several blocks away as Mr. Lechuga claims.

The truth is that this club is also a cash-cow for Mr. Lechuga. This is why he fears this place closing. He has a good thing going. He underpays his workers. Most of them are
illegal, don't speak English and don't have many job opportunities.

Like I said, other clubs don't have these problems and it seems like La Cueva turns a blind eye to these problems and instead hides under the GLBT-rights banner.

Patrons and residents know all these facts. Reporters or commentators who decide to write or comment about this place should spend more than just 1 night at this place and speak to more people.

I am proud to say that I was raised in the Little Village neighborhood and my hope is that this place at least gets cleaned up soon.

Mr. Cross / February 19, 2012 1:08 AM

Ok I come here a lot been comming here since 2002 and yes cocaine can be bought here but it is not done in the washrooms (they are to small and no doors :) I never saw anyone do it in the club! However the truth is over 75% of the workers and trans patrons are "workers" I kid you not I can name maybe one performer who isn't a trans hooker. Now I love this place but lets call a spade a spade, the cops are vigilant and have chased many of the "girls" off the corner, which only leads to speak easies that go on after club hours does anyone remember "LUPITAS" ok so big deal you think this club is the only one like it? Minus the transgender women of course! El foco roco on 59th is just the same, what about belmont and sheffield there is always trans hookers there! I really don't mind the workers they really aren't pushy! Most workers are discreet, and have moved to back pages! Get real the alderman isn't trying to clean shit up thats why the kings and 26 run little village street by the way they suck too, try getting them off the street!

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