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  WINDY CITY TIMES

'Clandestina' offers difference -- and a cause
by Gretchen Rachel Hammond
2016-01-31

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In 2015, three powerful and transformative Chicago women from entirely different but successful backgrounds found each other and decided to do something about the dearth of safe spaces for lesbian and queer women in the city.

Monica Raymund is an accomplished, award-winning actress who has shared her craft with students at The Broadway Theatre Project and Heifetz International Music Institute. She portrays Gabriela Dawson on the hit television series Chicago Fire.

Alma Izquierdo has forged an equally outstanding career as a make-up artist who has transformed everyone from performers at the Lyric Opera, to Oprah Winfrey to Rev. Jesse Jackson. She heads up the make-up department on the Chicago Fire spin-off Chicago P.D., now in its third season.

Brooke Webster is an entrepreneur who transformed New York's social scene with iconic bars like Cattyshack and Meow Mix. She is now the assistant general manager of the Dusek's, Thalia Hall and Punch House combination establishment in Chicago's Pilsen neighborhood.

Together, they created something that mirrors their singular contributions to society, honors the lesbian, queer and Latino/a culture while even giving a nod to Chicago history.

Clandestina is a monthly pop-up party that—according to a press release—"invites queer women, allies and friends to get together for crafted cocktails, good eats and an ever revolving cast of DJs."

The first Clandestina was held at Dusek's Tack Room in November. It caught on and two subsequent parties grew in size, imagination and the sheer range of sensory delights to be experienced in both unity and safety.

"They've been very well-received," Izquierdo told Windy City Times. "We've got some wonderful promoters here in Chicago who put on different events for women but I think women like something new, something different. So a lot of people are coming back and spreading the word."

"I think what's interesting about these parties is that there's a lot in common," Raymund said. "These women might be different ages, races, identities and experiences but it seems like everybody appreciates more of an elevated experience—to feel like they're going out and having a special evening for a few hours. We're interested in an array of experiences throughout the evening. There is food and an open bar for the first hour. It's not just reflected in the location but in the music. It's a huge factor."

"It's a really nice, diverse group of people," Webster asserted. "Professionally, culturally. We feel like we were offering a very classy situation. The open bar features cocktails named after great lesbians from history. Every detail is carefully thought out."

The latest Clandestina will take place on Valentine's Day at The Promontory in Hyde Park.

It has both a theme—A '90s Love Affair"—and a mission with all proceeds from the event going to the grassroots LGBTQ youth housing collective Project Fierce ( PFC ).

Clandestina—from the Spanish "clandestino," meaning secret, covert, a backroom or speakeasy—took shape when Raymund, who had been in Chicago for nearly four years, began to explore the city's queer community.

"I noticed that there wasn't much of a scene out there for girls," Raymund told Windy City Times.

That began to change after she paid a visit to Dusek's and met Webster.

"She came into the restaurant one night when I was managing," Webster said. "We started talking about New York."

"We clicked right away and had a very strong rapport very quickly," Raymund recalled. "She told me about how she had founded and ran Cattyshack and Meow Mix."

"We were talking about how there is no real place for women to go in this town," Webster added. "She said that we should do something."

"There was a lot of synergy to begin with," Raymund said. "I asked her if she would be interested in throwing some parties here with me."

At first, Webster was reticent.

"I'd been in retirement mode from doing lesbian parties for a long time," she said. "I came to Chicago with my wife eight months ago to be close to my family. I've done parties all over the country except for Chicago but I was burnt out and busy advancing my career in the hospitality industry. But Monica and I had a great conversation and I was inspired."

One more collaborator was needed.

"I knew Alma from work, so I called her and asked her if she would be interested in this experiment we were about to embark upon," Raymund said.

"Monica was the catalyst and is our fearless leader," Izquierdo said. "Of course I accepted."

The name Clandestina was derived not only from Raymund and Izquierdo's cultural heritages but the kind of atmosphere and sense of safety the women wanted to provide.

"I came up with it as a play on words," Webster said. "Not that we were trying to hide, but as a way of doing pop-ups that are just for our community—monthly fun events in new environments that open our queer women's community to experiencing different things whether they be spaces, restaurants or DJ's."

"We knew that we wanted to bring a little New York to Chicago," Raymund said. "We wanted it to be an elevated experience but we also wanted it to be very secret and safe. I wasn't interested in something that was a notorious, ubiquitous brand. I have high exposure especially in the town that I film. So having that safety was not only of high importance to me but I knew it would be to the kind of demographic we were trying to bring to these parties. I want to make sure that women and queers feel like this is a safe space."

"We want to keep changing it up a bit," Izquierdo noted. "Sometimes it's a lounge experience, sometimes a dance club. We're bringing in talents from our community—singers and performers—so it is truly a different option."

It is an option in which guests and the commuinity must keep consistently engaged if they want to enjoy.

"Not knowing where the next location is going to be is part of the thrill, part of the mystery of it," Raymund said. "I didn't want bring people to the party, I wanted to bring the party to the people. But your names have to be on the list. I want to be safe, but more importantly, we want you to be safe. So giving the guests control over how they get in is a really big deal for me. There's a secret password and you have to know what it is. It forces people to work a little bit more for the party. You have to read the emails. You have to remember the password. You have to make the extra effort to get your names on the list."

"We send the location to guests a week before and the password three days before the party," Webster explained. "We didn't even put Clandestina on social media at first. We targeted large events that we knew women would be at and we made tiny business cards that were very vague. We just spread the word. That's where Alma came in because she has quite a following in Chicago."

"Alma is one of our strongest promoters, if not the strongest promoter in the entire citym" Raymund agreed. "She made sure that room was filled for the first time. After that first experience we went out a lot. I wasn't sleeping for the first couple of months. We were hitting queer bars and just talking about it. We keep meeting people and expanding the list."

Experiencing their own exponential growth is Project Fierce. Launched in 2013, the collective bought a four-flat building on Chicago's Southside in August of last year which—according to PFC's website—"will provide supportive, collaborative, transitional housing for 10-12 LGBTQ-identified young adults."

"I've been active in the community for many years," Izquierdo said. "I told Brooke and Monica that the community appreciates it when we give back. So I suggested that we hold an event at least once a year to help raise funds for an organization."

"We knew we wanted to do something to benefit a local organization," Raymund said. "[PFC] does a lot to help LGBTQ homeless youth and that kind of awareness is incredibly important to bring especially given all of the problems that youth are having right now. What's happening on the streets is prevalent. The violence, the lack of education opportunities, the racial tensions are compounded for someone who is LGBT with nowhere to go. I've done homeless youth work before and it is very near to my heart."

"One of things I thought was really important to fund in New York was queer, homeless youth organizations," Webster added. "Alma and everyone we talked to said that Project Fierce is doing something really cool and doesn't have any government funding. I knew how it was to be young and queer and come out at a young age. So an organization out there to help people to get skills while they transition into their adult life is key."

"Youth has been something that I've worked with for quite some time and is near and dear to my heart," Izquierdo said. "Project Fierce is making progress but they still need help."

For those who attend the Valentine's Day Clandestina, a visceral celebration of the traditional day of love is not the only adventure which awaits them.

"I want people to feel like they did something really important," Webster said. "They will not only have a good time but they will feel like a part of the community is theirs and they can be proud about it—that it's not commercialized or mainstream. It's important for people to feel inspired and supportive, not only for Project Fierce but for themselves as queer women and to feel free. It's that moment where you went to your first Pride Parade or your first big party and you felt like 'this is where I belong. This is my tribe and I feel safe here and supported and celebrated for who I am in a way that is real'."

"They will see unity within our community and the opportunity to help other people in it," Izquierdo added.

"We chose Valentine's Day to celebrate Project Fierce," Raymund said. "It's a day to celebrate the generosity of people who love each other. I'm a romantic first and I thought it was an appropriate day to do something really kind and loving for other people and begin to raise awareness of the homeless issue to people like our mayor and policy makers. I hope people will come away from this seeing that there is a way to begin that conversation and are inspired to be part of it. This is Clandestina Chicago first and foremost. We're doing this because there are three strong women who care. That might just be enough to change the community."

Clandestina is Sunday, Feb. 14, 8 p.m.-2 a.m. at The Promontory, 5311 S. Lake Park Ave. Admission is $20, and includes open bar 8-9 p.m. There will be DJs Audiojack, All the Way Kay and BK Web, plus aperformance from hip-hop star Monie Love. See www.promontorychicago.com .


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