Little Village—La Villita, as it’s also known—is on Chicago’s southwest side, a cluster of bungalows with trimmed lawns and the occasional yearlong crèche or Virgin of Guadalupe standing just off the stoop. It’s south of the BNSF railroad tracks, north of the Chicago River, and just east of the westernmost city limits. Traversing the heart of the neighborhood is the two-laned Twenty-sixth Street, with parking on both sides and a jumbled soundtrack of boleros, rancheras, and Latin pop at its busiest hours, especially after mass on Sundays, when gaggles of toddlers in miniature suits and frilly pastel dresses lead their families around by the hand from ice-cream shop to music store to elaborate window displays of a timeless sort of Western wear: cowboy hats, wide belts, snakeskin boots with buckles, and leather and silver bolos.
“Cuando tú estás conmigo es cuando yo digo / que valió la pena todo todo lo que yo he sufrido,” croons Juan Gabriel, probably Mexico’s most popular singer of all time, through the speakers set outside the shops, usually winning the battle of volume. (When you’re with me, that’s when I can say / that everything, everything I’ve suffered was worthwhile.)
There are taco stands here, and stores with layaway programs and showrooms of plastic-encased sofas and living room chairs, banks, legal offices specializing in immigration matters, giant supermarkets, and bridal shops whose real forte are the quince dresses necessary for Latin-style coming out parties. There’s still gang activity out here, the occasional sniper fire that fells a bystander, but this strip of Twenty-sixth Street is said to generate more business revenue than any other in Chicago except Michigan Avenue.
The first time I went, back in the early 1980s, I missed most of the hustle and din. The street at night was a quiet fog, the piquant smell of carnitas wafting from a couple of late night eateries. Suddenly, a mustard-colored sedan raced east and came to a squealing stop in front of a squat white-brick building. A flash of glitter turned into a troop of sprinters that disappeared behind an unmarked steel door.
That door is important, not just because its unremarkable state has remained a constant (it now has lettering that says proof of age is required to enter) but because it’s a kind of portal. Just behind it is La Cueva, the country’s oldest Latino drag bar—a mightily successful enterprise in Little Village that is, to date, conspicuously missing from the neighborhood web page published by the City of Chicago.
Back then I was at La Cueva, with fake ID in hand and shivering with fear, because, though open since 1972, its legend had already reached me in Indiana, where I grew up, certain that no place existed that could accommodate my sexuality and ethnicity. I’d been to other drag bars before: in Miami Beach and Indianapolis, where the queens reveled in classic torch songs, and at La Mere Vipere in downtown Chicago—not exactly a traditional drag place, but eventual home base for Jim Skafish, a gender-defying punk performer who’d squeeze into a woman’s bathing suit without the slightest regard for passing and serve up terrible stories of humiliation and karmic revenge on a bed of hard, angry music.
My first time at La Cueva I went alone and crossed the threshold—the door is bullet proof and the thug of a bouncer asked the cowboys ahead of me, in Spanish, if they’d left their guns in the car—standing practically on tiptoe to see beyond, waiting for my trip to wonderland to unfold.
“No sé si es un sueño aún o es una realidad / pero cuando estoy contigo es cuando digo / que este amor que siento es porque tú lo has merecido”—the song is Juan Gabriel’s, and it’s always in the background of my memories of that initial visit, although not in his voice: Maybe Ana Gabriel instead, or Rocio Durcal, or any of the Mexican divas who routinely perform his material. (I don’t know if it’s a dream or reality / but when I’m with you is when I can say / that this love I feel is because you deserve it.)
On my maiden visit to La Cueva I was stunned to find myself the only biological female in the place—a large, open space with a stage that doubles as a dance floor. The men were cool and stiff, unpartnered and closed-mouthed. If the music had suddenly stopped playing, it’s likely La Cueva would have been as still as a church.
As a real girl, I was sniffed out almost immediately, and the men were unabashed in their staring. I made my way around the bar, creeping close to the waitress station—still the same today—where queens whirled in to fill their orders (beer in cans to this day, to avoid the possibility that someone will get feisty and want to cut somebody) and glide back out to the crowded tables. And oh what queens! Their behinds padded beyond anything J. Lo could have ever imagined, they dripped fantasy pearls, gold, saints’ medallions, earrings in the shapes of flowers and the Mexican state of Sinaloa, sequined hormone-free cleavage down to their freshly shaved navels, and hair teased and shaped into skyscraping beehives that were architectural marvels.
The show took it up a full notch. The queen that really wowed me was Caracol, who did a fierce Celia Cruz—a crazy choice given Celia’s own penchant for purple wigs, space-age platforms, and that signature cry of “AZUCAR!!!!!!”
But no performer surprised me as much as Gabrielito, one of the very first acts of the night and not a queen at all, but a Juan Gabriel imitator. The real Juan Gabriel is a phenomenon: a songwriting machine, a star who breaks all conventions; he’s a former delinquent, a convicted felon who briefly served time, a vegetarian and a Buddhist but defies any possibility of reprisal by honoring Mexico’s musical traditions. He respects boundaries enough not to cross the one that might really undo him. A father of four who has never married the woman who gave birth to all of them, a flamboyant showman who very deliberately plays to his effeminate manners, he was once asked, by Chicago’s TeleGuía magazine, if he was gay. His answer made international headlines: “Lo que se ve no se pregunta.” (There’s no need to ask about what’s obvious.)
Gabrielito—his real name is Salvador Chávez—doesn’t resemble the dark-haired, boyish original at all. “I think my only similarity might be that we pee the same way,” he says. “And that’s just a maybe.” He’s blond, big chested and boxy, with prominent John McCain-style jowls. But his illusion is masterly. Because Juan Gabriel only occasionally breaks into extended movement onstage, imitating him requires not grandiosity but subtlety. And even that first night, as the vein in Chávez’s neck vibrated to simulate Juan Gabriel’s booming voice and his left hand flitted from the audience to the heavens promised in La Cueva’s twinkling ceiling, he was remarkably convincing: “Con decirte, amor, que otra vez he amanecido llorando de felicidad / A tu lado yo siento que estoy viviendo / Nada es como ayer,” he mimicked, his generous lips comfortably savoring every word. “Abrazame muy fuerte que el tiempo es malo y muy cruel amigo.” (I have to tell you, love, that yet again I woke up crying with happiness / At your side I feel like I’m alive / Nothing is like yesterday / Hold me tightly because time is evil and a very cruel friend.)
“Abrazame Muy Fuerte” is one of Juan Gabriel’s greatest hits and, years later, it’s still in Chávez’s repertoire. He’s forty-six now, at La Cueva for almost twenty-three years, and now such a celebrity in his own right that his Gabrielito is a full-time gig, with appearances at weddings, baptisms, quinces parties, and other occasions. He’s also La Cueva’s headliner now, the one who finishes the revue and draws lines of swooning admirers—mostly women, of whatever sexual persuasion, who stuff bills in his hands and pockets.
“Wherever he’s done in the Mexican community, ‘Juanga’ is big money,” Chávez says, rubbing his fingers together. “Whether it’s in a gay place or not, it doesn’t matter. Not that doing ‘Juanga’ is exactly doing a man, since he’s the biggest queen himself.”
Chávez began doing Juan Gabriel, in part, because he was such a fan of the singer that when asked, on a drunken lark, to lip-synch to him one evening shortly after he arrived in Chicago, he was able to get onstage and fly right through an entire vinyl record’s worth of songs.
“I did ‘El Noa Noa,’ ‘Querida,’ and people were giving me tips, standing up and applauding, wanting more,” he remembers. “And I thought, so long as they’re giving me money, I’m staying up here.”
Pretty soon, he was at La Cueva and a friend asked Miss Ketty, La Cueva’s grande dame, the Empress of All Queens and the director of the show, if Chávez could “echarse un palomazo” —Mexican parlance for taking a guest shot. He did, and though the reception wasn’t as raucous, he’s been at La Cueva ever since.
This means, of course, that Chávez has seen the evolution of La Cueva from dangerous den to its current incarnation: a surprisingly wholesome place of entertainment.
“It used to be mostly boys, gay boys, very few queens, even fewer women, and no lesbians—though you hardly ever saw masculine couples, couples that were both men,” he says. “Some were real tough guys,” he recalls with a laugh. “For a while you’d see them in cowboy hats, boots. Then one day they’d show up wearing miniskirts, makeup. Years later, you’d see couples who’d do that, come in both looking like outlaws, then later come back as ‘girlfriends’.”
“Oh, it’s changed; it’s changed a lot,” Chávez says. “It’s been here so long, parents bring their kids now. People come up to me all the time and say, ‘Oh, my dad talks about you all the time,’ and they give me gifts: chains and clothes, photos. It’s become a tradition on Twenty-sixth Street, practically family entertainment.”
Inside, the once dark cubbyhole is now friendly and well lit. The floors are no longer a wet, sticky mess but meticulously clean. There are posters on the wall of famous La Cueva queens (and Gabrielito), and the bouncer is a woman who respectfully asks for identification.
Salsa’s a rare thing here now, where DJ Dynamico churns reggaeton, banda, cumbia, disco, Mexican polkas, country, and Latin pop. The queens—now much more subdued—continue to serve, and the dance floor is packed with neighborhood residents of all ages. 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.
Roberto Beltrán, forty-two years old, looks like the guy who’s having the most fun here. He dances with his wife, tips the queens during the shows with outrageous gestures, waves from his seat, and grins the whole time. “I come here for the music,” he says. “I like that everybody has fun here. I don’t have any close gay friends—a few people from work, that’s all—but, you know, I really don’t give a damn about anybody’s sexuality.”
The wife, Elizabeth Jones, laughs. “We’re from the neighborhood; we always come here,” she adds.
Another local, Cristina Armenta, thirty-five, has been coming to La Cueva for four years. She’s a lesbian, but the friend she brought tonight—a quiet, stoic fellow—is straight. “I invited him to see the show,” she says. “I like it here. I like the vibe; I like that nobody criticizes anybody, and you can be free.”
And the show—everyone’s ostensible reason for being at La Cueva, it seems—is a different ball of wax now. The tippers, once shy and suppliant, are now aggressive and rowdy. They pull on the performers’ arms, demand kisses. These respond by trying to undress the fans, lifting their shirts, unbuttoning them, wrestling them off the stage without missing a beat.
The queens have changed, too. Subscribers to medical progress, they bare large, fleshy breasts with a dash of glitter on the nipples; their curves are smooth, their satiny butts heart-shaped. The art of hiding penis and testicles seems anachronistic in a show where there may be very few male genitals. There’s nothing metaphoric left; the show is now playfully vulgar.
Which means that the art of illusion has been left almost exclusively to Chávez’s Gabrielito. In some ways, time has served him well—while singers like Emmanuel and Luis Miguel lose their popularity, Juan Gabriel never goes out of fashion. Yesterday’s hits have become classics; Juan Gabriel—whatever his predilections, whatever his controversies—is a potent symbol of Mexican cultural pride through his songwriting and, especially, his interpretation of the classic ranchera, a traditional cowboy lament. Moreover, Gabrielito is disinclined to wear the sombreros or cowboy hats—he prefers the elegant Juan Gabriel, in a suit with just a splash of color or embroidery. This is Juan Gabriel as gentleman, not as parody or irony; this is a rendition done in reverence, in love.
Out in the crowd, Migue Cordero, fifty-three, watches while Gabrielito performs. He cradles a can of beer and taps his thumb against the top. He’s been coming to La Cueva for years. “It’s more a suggestion of Juanga, really,” he says, “and, in part, because he’s not trying to convince us that he looks just like him or that he’s him. You know, some Juan Gabriel imitators start to think they’re him—they lose their minds—I think that’s why it works so well.”
“Abrazame que el tiempo es oro si tú estás conmigo,” Chávez sings as a woman shyly tugs on his sleeve for a kiss. (Hold me, because time is golden when you’re with me.) He allows her his cheek, but his lips never touch her; he’s intent on the song. “Abrazame fuerte, muy fuerte, y más fuerte que nunca. Siempre abrazame.” (Hold me tight, very tight, tighter than ever. Hold me forever.)