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Little Village LGBT bar stirs controversy
by Sam Worley
2010-10-01

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Some community activists are calling for the closure of La Cueva, a Little Village bar that attracts a large gay and transgender clientele. La Cueva, which has been open since 1972, hosts drag shows Thursday through Sunday, and has been recognized for providing a welcoming space for Latino LGBT people.

Opponents, though, say that the bar is a site of illegal activity in a neighborhood that is home to many families. They say that La Cueva, a nondescript façade on a busy commercial stretch of West 26th Street, sells alcohol to minors, allows drug dealing on its premises and encourages prostitution in the neighborhood.

"It's causing a lot of havoc and dismay to the residents of the area," said Raul Montes, Jr., who organized a protest and press conference outside of La Cueva Aug. 17. On nights that the bar is open, he said, there are "transsexuals and transvestites on every corner," with "young kids picking them up."

He claimed that he recently was the subject of attempted solicitation by a group of people he thought to be transgender women. "It was disgusting," he said.

Montes said that his complaints, which he has taken to the local alderman and police commander, are not motivated by anti-gay bias. "If anybody were to ask me, I don't have a problem with gay people," Montes said. "It's the illegal activity. It could be any type of bar."

Montes estimated that about 25 people attended the protest he organized outside of La Cueva. One was Daisy Revera, who told Windy City Times of "homosexual guys selling themselves on the corner.

"There's a lot of prostituting going on because of that bar," said Revera, who lives close to the bar. "I'm so sick of seeing this."

Responding to a request from Windy City Times, a representative of the Chicago Police Department said that crime information is not available for specific addresses.

Ruben Lechuga, who manages La Cueva and owns the building it is housed in, denied the protesters' charges. "We don't have any problems inside," he said, and when illegal activity is apparent out front, "we call the police."

Lechuga said that the bar had been in its Little Village location for 30 years with no problems from the neighborhood. "I go to the CAPS [ Chicago Alternative Policing Strategy ] meetings every month," he said, referring to Chicago's community policing initiative.

Project VIDA, an organization that provides services to people affected by HIV/AIDS, has offices in Little Village. Its executive director, Olivia Sanchez, told Windy City Times that she had been going to the bar since she was 21, drawn to the eclectic crowd that La Cueva attracts. She said that the space is diverse in terms of age, race, and gender expression.

"You get your traditional Mexican with the cowboy hat and belt and matching boots—and [ you get ] same-gender couples," she said. "While you're in there, it's like a whole new world from the outside."

The drag revue and diverse clientele have brought a fair amount of publicity to La Cueva. One of its performers, Ketty Teanga, was the subject of a 2006 profile in the Chicago Reader, and recently the literary journal Triquarterly published an essay on the bar by writer Achy Obejas.

Describing the crowd, Obejas wrote, "Tonight there are opposite-sex couples in their twenties, their loose limbs elaborately tattooed; married couples who dance in perfect step; an elderly grandma out with a frisky younger man who doesn't always seem to be all there; carefully coiffed Mexican men in couples, wearing jeans and pressed shirts, who struggle with who's leading; and a tribe of dancing girls. Next to them, two queens press against each other with laserlike eye contact."

Sanchez said that La Cueva's managers have been receptive to HIV/AIDS prevention outreach that Project VIDA has sought to do inside the bar. She said that Lechuga, the manager, is "very open to helping the community.

"There's not a whole lot of businesses that do that," Sanchez said. "The management—there's that sense of community responsibility."

As to the charges of illegal activity in the neighborhood, Sanchez said that she has seen people linger on the street after the bar closed, but she did not see activity she thought was "blatantly" illegal.

"To me, it's like any other bar. Sometimes people can get a little over-intoxicated," she said. "I don't see how it's any more dangerous than people leaving straight bars at two or three."


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