"I have learned that I’m not as fragile as I thought I was."
"I have learned that I’m not as fragile as I thought I was." Credit: Emmanuel Garcia

From the closings of venues to the cancellations of performances, COVID-19 and its variants have wreaked havoc on the lives of entertainers over the past year—and Frances D’alessio (who has been entertaining audiences for three decades) is no exception.

D’alessio talked with the Chicago Reader about the unique challenges she had to face following the extended closing of her performance venue, the Little Village LGBTQ+ bar La Cueva—and the surprising direction her life is now taking.

How are you doing physically and mentally with this past year?

Frances D’alessio: Thank God I have been well; I haven’t gotten COVID, and that is a win in itself. Mentally, it’s been a little bit of everything. I’ve been without work and I’ve stayed in my house for a long time. I’ve dealt with a little bit of depression, and that’s the only thing I can say that I’ve dealt with, mentally.

So, La Cueva is still closed?

March 15, 2020, was the last day we worked at La Cueva. They originally told us it was only going to be closed two weeks—and we’re still waiting for it to open. But the decision is the owner’s.

So you’ve put on virtual performances and performed at private parties?

Yes. We started doing virtual shows at the end of March and early April [2020] because everything we did, including private parties, were canceled. It was only recently that private parties have resumed.

And these parties are safe?

The danger is there. I’ve had to take care of myself and maintain distances with people. But we definitely have taken precautions—not just with COVID, but with other respiratory illnesses as well.

The main precaution involves social distancing, but one thing I have done—and it seems a little bit funny—is that I spray myself with Lysol before going out into the [performance] space. I also spray myself after I’m done. And when I’m handling the tips I make, I wash my hands and I use hand sanitizers.

Has La Cueva not reopening made you reflect and think about doing something else so you’re not in a similar situation in the future?

Yes. I haven’t talked about this very much, but on the weekends, I have started cooking Mexican food for my friends and family. This has generated income for me, and I’m thinking about partnering with someone to start a business. I really, really like cooking.

These shows won’t last forever. One day I’ll have to look in the mirror and realize that it’s time for something else—so I’m definitely preparing for that.

Mental health is a big issue, of course, and you mentioned dealing with depression. Have you found any sort of support system?

More than anything, I’ve learned not to give up, and I would have video calls with my family. I would do anything to not feel so alone at home, because I do live by myself. I couldn’t visit my family and friends, so I tried to contact them as much as possible.

Have you been vaccinated?

Not yet [as of March 29] . . . I haven’t gotten vaccinated because I haven’t heard from anyone. I’ve registered but haven’t heard from anyone.

What would you say to people who don’t want to get vaccinated?

I would tell them to get vaccinated, so we can get out of this quicker and achieve herd immunity as soon as possible so we can move on to our new normal.

What unique problems do you feel the trans community has had to face this past year?

Well, I want to talk about my personal case. The work I depended on—being at nightclubs—is the biggest difference from other communities. The entertainment was our stream of income. If we had to work somewhere else, they would prioritize people who already had experience.

Do you see any similarities between the HIV/AIDS and COVID pandemics?

In the 80s, I was so young; I didn’t really find out about HIV/AIDS until the 90s. In Mexico, we really didn’t talk about it; it was taboo—especially in the schools.

Where I’m originally from, we didn’t really experience HIV/AIDS the way other communities did, or the way we’re experiencing the COVID pandemic now. The only similarity I see is that we need to take care of each other and be well-informed.

What would you say you’ve learned about yourself this past year?

I have learned that I’m not as fragile as I thought I was. I’ve had to believe in myself so that I wouldn’t fall into a stronger depression, because my parents and siblings are all in Mexico. It was hard not to be able to work or even enjoy the day, like we used to. I just had to learn to be a stronger person.

Is there anything you’d like to add?

No one expected this [pandemic] to happen—but thank God we’re advancing with the vaccine and that it’s more accessible to people. It’s definitely been a hard year, but we’ve had no other option but to move forward.   v

This coverage is made possible by support from the Chicago Foundation for Women. This story was written in collaboration with ALMA Chicago to share and archive the stories of LGBTQ+ Latinx individuals in Chicago during the COVID-19 pandemic. Thanks go to Emmanuel Garcia for his photos of Frances D’alessio and his help with questions and translations during the interview. D’alessio can be reached/seen on Facebook.