In early March, Mike Oquendo and four fellow Latino comics did something he says is out of the ordinary: they put on a show in a predominantly Latino neighborhood. Better known as Mikey O of the Mikey O Comedy Show—or, for the March outing, Mikey O’s Comedy Cantina—Oquendo joined local stand-ups Gwen La Roka, Vince Acevedo, Abi Sanchez, and Joey Villagomez at the southeast-side Jovial Club, at 96th and Commercial. The show sold out. According to Oquendo, people in the crowd were thrilled at the attention paid to their slice of the city.
“It was the coolest thing in the world,” says Oquendo. “I’m hearing from people things like, ‘We never have live entertainment in this part of town,’ and, ‘We’re like the people the city forgot.’ I told them, I said, ‘Don’t worry. We’re coming back.'”
Oquendo says that producing comedy shows was a hobby that turned into a career. But he also treats it kind of like a civic duty, though he’s reluctant to say so. “It’s not that [a night of comedy] is going to ‘uplift’ anything. What happens with humor is that the comedian is saying what we’re already thinking. They’re getting issues out there, saying, ‘Here they are. Let’s laugh about them.’ I think that’s the solution.”
That’s part of it. Another part of Mikey O’s MO is bringing live entertainment to parts of town that don’t see as much of it as they should. His intentions are twofold: raising money for neighborhood organizations and raising comedians’ profiles. Not all Mikey O-produced shows—upwards of 80 a year—benefit nonprofits, but a lot do. At the risk of detracting from the spirit of magnanimity, Oquendo admits he’s got an angle. “They need money, we need audiences,” he says about doing benefit shows. “Comedians don’t need money as much as they need exposure.”
According to Oquendo, there was a time not so long ago—as recently as the late 90s—when Latino comedy wasn’t a thing in Chicago. Or it was, but barely. Comedians like Alex Ortiz and Patty Vasquez had blazed a trail, but everyone else had to catch up. There were a handful of comics he worked with back then, Oquendo says. “We weren’t good. We were half-assed comics. No one was terrible because they’re terrible, they were just so fresh.”
Still, audiences grew, and new comedians cropped up. (He estimates there are more than a dozen Latino comedians performing around town currently.) Ten years ago, Oquendo started focusing on putting on shows for a cause.
This year, after a decade, Oquendo dissolved his biggest annual fund-raiser, the Holiday Giggle—ten comics performing to raise money for ten charities—to focus instead on doing more shows, and smaller shows for more specific causes, like money for after-school programs. His organization Comedians for Communities was born. “We wanted to give some of these neighborhoods a little more ownership,” he says.
They’ve wanted to do something in Little Village for a long time. On April 4, the Mikey O Comedy Show sends six comedians to Kopa Kavana to raise money for Latinos Progresandos’s Dr. Angela Perez Miller Scholarship Fund, which helps qualifying Latino students cover the cost of college. Good intentions aside, some people weren’t sure about the plan.
Oquendo says: “I got a lot of people saying things like, ‘You’re gonna do a show in Little Village? They’re gonna shoot you or stab you.’ And it wasn’t white people saying that, it wasn’t black people saying that—it was young professional Mexicans. Why wouldn’t you be an ambassador? Little kids hear that and think, ‘Shit, am I in a bad neighborhood?'”
Even if he doesn’t think a night of comedy has anything to do with “uplifting” a neighborhood, it’s a start—and six Latino comedians get a willing audience to perform to. Oquendo quotes Kevin Spacey’s character on House of Cards: “Generosity is its own form of power.”