Ketty Teanga learned to dance in a drag show in Puerto Rico in the 60s. Then a slim teen increasingly uncomfortable in a male body, she did salsa dancing dressed in skimpy women’s outfits, the closest she could come to looking the way she felt. “There was no silicone, no hormones, nothing,” she says. “Everything was illusion–fake wigs, fake titties.”

Now a 59-year-old transgender dancer and choreographer at La Cueva, Chicago’s oldest Latino gay club, Teanga was born in Ecuador and moved with her family to New York when she was 11. Her father died when she was 16. Her mother then married a Puerto Rican grocery-store owner, and the family moved to Puerto Rico. Teanga’s mother and stepfather couldn’t accept her gay friends or her dancing, and when she was 18 she left home. Three years later she moved back to New York City.

She spent her days at a seat-belt factory, her nights dancing in Manhattan drag clubs such as La Escuelita. She tried to pass as a woman rather than a gay man on the street or in other dance clubs. “There was a lot of prejudice then–it was really bad,” she says. “The police were always stopping you and asking you for your ID and bothering you.”

Teanga moved back to Puerto Rico for a while, then in the mid-70s came to Chicago. She got a job in an electronics factory and started hormone therapy. In 1980 she underwent surgery. “I got my nose done, my eyes, my breasts,” she says.

When she arrived in Chicago she couldn’t find a drag revue in any of the Latino clubs she went to. “Only in American clubs,” she says. “There was no acceptance by Spanish people.” In the early 80s a coworker took her to El Infierno, a gay club at 28th and Sacramento in Little Village. It was owned by Juan Alanis, a flamboyant, well-loved man who dressed as a woman called Juanita Banana. Teanga got along well with Alanis and persuaded him to let her host a drag show at the club. “I sang, but I sang very ugly,” she says. “But I made the show by taking off my clothes. I had a beautiful body then–skinny!” She daintily lifts one pinky finger.

At the time Little Village was working-class, macho, and homophobic, but Teanga’s show packed in so many people Alanis moved the show to a larger club he owned, the inconspicuous, dingy La Cueva, which had opened in 1972. According to Teanga and other longtime patrons, La Cueva was one of few public places where gay Latinos could feel comfortable being out, but straight men also went there to ogle the transvestites and elaborately costumed transgender performers as they sang, danced, and lip-synched to Mexican and Puerto Rican music.

La Cueva was on a stretch of 26th known for drug dealing and gang violence. “It was very much off the beaten path,” says writer Achy Obejas, who started going to the club in the mid-80s when she was in high school. “It was not only an outsider place, but back then it had a real sense of danger to it. You could go to the Mere Vipere”–a north-side club–“and not feel like you were risking anything. But La Cueva was different.”

For one thing, there were very few women in the audience. “It was a real reflection of the community at the time, because you had an overwhelmingly male immigrant population, men who came from Mexico to work and send money back,” Obejas says. “Most of these guys were from small towns. Without fail they’d go in there and say, ‘I like the music, it’s a block from my house, I’m a real tolerant guy–but of course I’m not gay.’ Sometimes it was a real honest-to-god exploration of their sexuality, with a certain timidity to it. They really didn’t know what they were doing or what the etiquette was. They’d go in there and pick up men to perform sex acts on them–but they wouldn’t perform acts, so they could tell themselves they didn’t have this identity.”

Teanga says in those days her show was much different. Few of the performers had had surgery, so they had to work harder to disguise their masculinity. The costumes were less elaborate, the acts more impromptu. She says the dancers would dash nervously from their cars into the club, afraid of the gang members and the homophobes among the locals.

La Cueva is still unassuming on the outside, but the performers say they now feel comfortable in the neighborhood, partly because the club has been there so long, partly because being openly gay or transgender is more accepted in the Latino community. Obejas says La Cueva, which is packed for every show, still stands out among gay clubs. “It’s this zone of tolerance where you have gay people and straight people,” she says. “Most of the downtown drag bars are geared toward straight people–they reaffirm straightness and reaffirm gender roles.”

On a recent night the crowd was almost as colorful as the performers, with nothing considered too tight, skimpy, or garish. Hip young gay couples sat up front. Men in cowboy hats and boots sat stoically along the back wall. A straight couple at a table in front of the stage giggled and blushed as a curvy, hard-bodied performer leaped nimbly onto their table, grinding yellow lace panties and ripped fishnets inches from their faces while lip-synching to a Spanish cover of “Satisfaction.” A group of lesbians from California at the next table shouted for the dancer to come over. A stocky man with greased hair tried to persuade a dancer in a torn leopard catsuit to get down on the floor to take his tip, but she haughtily grabbed the bill and sashayed back to the center of the stage.

During shows Teanga, who these days rarely dances herself, always sits at a table or in the narrow dressing room to the side of the stage, watching closely and sometimes helping the dancers with their costumes. “I do the best show in the city,” she says. “Their personalities, their clothes are the best. They’re clean, very professional. When they come to the stage they give you their best.” She regularly takes her show, “Miss Ketty and Her Latin Review,” to Circuit and other north-side clubs, where they get a boisterous reception.

Some of Teanga’s dancers have been at La Cueva for years. Others arrived only recently, having worked as impersonators in high-priced clubs in Acapulco or Mexico City. Some came here for sex-change surgery and stayed. “If I ask a girl [to be part of the show] they’re very proud,” she says, “because I’m very known in the Latino community.” One of her most popular performers is Salvador Chavez, an immigrant from Michoacan who doesn’t dress as a woman but channels the sexually ambiguous star Juan Gabriel. “I raised him like my son,” says Teanga. “He’s a good-looking boy. He’s a good entertainer–people love him.”

Teanga also runs La Cueva’s beauty pageants, which often include a swimsuit competition. During the Miss Mexico pageant contestants dress in traditional garb from various regions in Mexico. The dancers compete for cash, and most of them have won one title or another. Teanga also travels around the country hosting and judging pageants, and she presides over pageants at other Chicago clubs, including the Baton Show Lounge.

La Cueva is now run by Ruben Lechuga, and he and Teanga have a sometimes stormy friendship. “We love her,” says Lechuga. “This is her home. Like me, she never misses a show. We never get tired of it.” But during a recent show he said Teanga and the other dancers were holding back on some of their elaborate stage entrances. “She’s mad at me,” he said, looking amused. “That’s her form of punishment. She’s trying to get some attention.” He wouldn’t elaborate. Instead he said good-naturedly, “She’s a hard worker. I admire her a lot. She’s a real perfectionist.” Two weeks later the dramatic stage entrances were back, and Teanga was at the mike more than usual. Lechuga stood smiling right next to the stage.

Teanga says her family long ago accepted what she does and who she is, and her sister and nieces and nephews have come to see her shows. For a long time she’s dreamed of opening a school for female impersonators, but she has no intention of leaving La Cueva. “I’ve spent too many years in this place,” she says. “It’s everything for me. If I didn’t do this, I feel like I couldn’t live.”

Miss Ketty and Her Latin Review

When: Thu, Fri, and Sun 2:30 AM, Sat 1:30 AM and 3:30 AM

Where: La Cueva, 4153 W. 26th St.

Price: Thu free, Fri $8, Sat $10, Sun $5

Info: 773-522-4511

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Joeff Davis.