LITTLE VILLAGE — Little Village’s West 26th Street is known as one of the city’s most powerful economic engines, with hundreds of small, family-run businesses.
But many may not know La Cueva, 4153 W. 26th St., which sits on the west end of the street and may be the country’s oldest Latino drag bar.
La Cueva looks like any other bar from the outside by day. But the club stages two shows a night Thursdays through Sundays where a crew of performers in elaborate costumes imitate some of the most prominent icons in Spanish and Latino culture, like Juan Gabriel, Lupita D’Alessio and others.
There’s dancing, there’s music, and most importantly, a devoted crowd enjoying their favorite songs by today’s and yesterday’s stars. Portraits of previous performers hang inside along the east wall of the club, paying homage to La Cueva’s history.
The club’s diverse audience sets it apart from other gay clubs in the Chicago, said Gabriel Chavez, a longtime La Cueva performer.
“It’s for every type of person, not exclusively gay,” Chavez said. “Many of the regular guests are married couples who just love the show.”
‘It’s Even Famous In Mexico’
La Cueva’s legacy was borne out of another Little Village club, El Infierno, a gay club at 28th and Sacramento, according to a 2006 Reader profile on Ketty Teanga, then La Cueva’s mistress of ceremonies.
Teanga, who’d learned drag as a teen, couldn’t find a drag show where she could perform in any of Chicago’s Latino nightclubs at the time, she told the Reader.
Then in the early ’80s, Teanga befriended El Infierno’s owner, Juan Alanis, and persuaded him to let her host a drag show there. Teanga’s show was so popular that Alanis moved it to another building he owned — La Cueva.
The club has been a haven for LGBTQ+ Latino performers and patrons since then, hosting drag shows and other performances even through times when it was common for queer people to be verbally or physically assaulted around the neighborhood, performers said.
Navigating the historically Latino neighborhood — where toxic masculinity and homophobia has a history — was a challenge, said Fatima Galindo, who’s been performing at La Cueva’s shows for nearly 40 years.
“There were years where it was difficult, when we would come walking and they’d throw cans at us, insult us, assault us, pull off our shirts,” Galindo said.
Galindo and Chavez said this area of the Little Village used to see a lot of gang members who would harass them.
“They robbed a lot out here,” Chavez said. “The new generation is a lot better.”
La Cueva also has been the target of protests from local organizers and residents who blamed the club and its performers for the neighborhood’s struggles with crime.
In 2010, longtime Little Village activist Raul Montes Jr. led a protest against the bar, accusing it selling alcohol to minors, allowing drug dealing and encouraging prostitution in the neighborhood, the Windy City Times reported at the time.
Ruben Lechuga, who managed the bar and now is the owner, said at the time the backlash was unwarranted and he worried it would force La Cueva to close.
“They are blaming us for prostitution that goes on a few blocks away,” Lechuga told GapersBlock in a 2011 story about the bar. “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.”
But La Cueva has stood the test of time — including a prolonged, pandemic-induced shutdown, performers said.
Frances D’Alessio, who has been an entertainer for three decades, said Little Village has changed for the better by becoming more welcoming and inviting of LGBTQ+ customers and club workers as the decades have gone by.
“It’s more normal,” D’Alessio said. “It’s gotten a lot better because more people come [to the club]. They see there isn’t so much crime outside and there aren’t many problems. So people have more confidence and they come inside. La Cueva … isn’t what people used to think, that it was some seedy place. The image changed quite a lot.”
La Cueva’s popularity has grown even outside Chicago, Chavez and others said. They’ve met audience members who have come from Texas or California, all who are eager to visit La Cueva.
“I swear to you, it’s even famous in Mexico,” he said.
Spaces like La Cueva are so important because they offer a healthy outlet of fun for everyone, Galindo said. People can be whoever they want to be: “The flower comes out,” she says.
D’Alessio said there are those who have preconceived idea of what La Cueva, or other gay bars, might be like, but she encourages people to come see it for themselves and make up their own minds.
“La Cueva is different than what people may think,” she said. “We’re inviting them to come and discover for themselves what really goes on in La Cueva. How it’s a magical world.”
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