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El Nuevo Rodeo: The restaurant/dance club with something for everybody in the Latino community

It's Dia de la Raza (Day of Our Race), and a Latin drag queen is putting on a smoldering performance. In her strapless lavender gown, the songstress croons low into her microphone and sashays over to a high-top table. She walks two gloved fingers across the table surface and gently caresses the chin of a male admirer with her forefinger. As she glides back out to the center of the cavernous dance floor, she tosses her coif of bottle-blonde hair and strikes a diva pose with palm outstretched and rising.

The place is El Nuevo Rodeo, a restaurant and dance club best known for attracting the Twin Cities' vaqueros, or Latin cowboys, with their bolo ties, Stetsons, and machismo. At least one night a week, banda music is on the menu with its bold, brass-based sound and polka vibe, when the vaqueros can step-dance.

But as the drag show during Dia de la Raza proves, this nightspot caters to a rainbow of Latin tastes. Pick a random night, and the sound may be sexy salsa, revolutionary norteño, or bouncy Latin rock-pop, each with its own fan base and corresponding dress code.

Opened in December 2003 by two married music promoters, El Nuevo Rodeo quickly gained a top-shelf reputation with the city's Latino community. On a recent Saturday night, even with no live act on the bill, a line 60 people long snaked down the staircase of the old Odd Fellows building and out onto 27th Avenue. Each patron--excited and bedecked in cowboy gear--was waiting to pay the $15 cover, not including VIP bottle service or food.

The club can pull hot acts such as supreme diva Gloria Trevi, salsa superstar Gilberto Santarosa, or banda goddess Jenni Rivera, and attract fans from as far away as Phoenix and New York City to the club. (El Nuevo Rodeo's $45 ticket price for a top show is less than half of what it would cost in New York, so fans might spend a night at the club as part of a visit with Twin Cities relatives.)

A Community Center with Salsa

The original idea of the 2,400-square-foot restaurant and club was to create a cool place by Latinos, for Latinos. Owner Maya Santamaria and then-husband Nicholas Lopez also envisioned a kind of hip community center. Indeed, El Nuevo Rodeo sponsors several fundraisers each year, including events for the West Side Clinic and Comunidades Latinas Unidas En Servicio (CLUES). The Hispanic GLBT community is welcome, too, and various groups have hosted awareness events, where free condoms are available along with drinks and music.

"When I moved to Minneapolis in 1989, I would go to dances at the St. Paul armory," says Santamaria, now the club's sole owner. "White people and black people had all these great nightspots, like the Quest. But the Latinos were stuck in a place where the bathroom has only three stalls."

As Santamaria suspected, the club spoke to a genuine need in the community. "When you work hard all week, you want to a place where you can unwind, and be with your community," says a woman who goes by the name Mariposa and comes to dance the night away at El Nuevo Rodeo at least twice a week. "And this place, it's nice, it's fun."

A Burgeoning Audience

Statistically, El Nuevo Rodeo has a built-in clientele. Between 1990 and 2000, the Hispanic community in Minnesota increased by a staggering 166 percent with a combined buying power of $1.25 billion. "Also," says Santamaria, "Hispanic people proportionally spend three times more on entertainment than other ethnic groups."
The club saw decreased margins in 2009, "but all of our debts are paid and we are on a great track for 2010."

That in spite of the fact that the club was almost shuttered this spring. In April 2008, the Longfellow/Nokomis Messenger reported that El Nuevo Rodeo club patrons were the ones who fired three shots outside the Denny's restaurant across the street. Police were never able to confirm this, but, Santamaria says, the club suddenly got on the city's radar. Then on the night of November 14, there were multiple police calls. This past spring, city regulatory services moved to revoke El Nuevo's liquor license, but on appeal, an administrative law judge sided with the club, and then the nightspot gained other votes of confidence from the City of Minneapolis' Regulatory, Energy, and Environment Committee, the City Council, and Mayor R.T. Rybak.

"We're here for the long haul," says Santamaria.

Hispanic Business Builders

Throughout the discussions and legal wrangling, Santamaria was able to point to the fact that the original century-old brick Odd Fellows Building was designed as a dance hall, and that her business is the anchor of 27th and Lake. Indeed, El Nuevo Rodeo is an integral part of a redevelopment that includes several swank businesses nearby, among them the Gandhi Mahal restaurant, Midori's Floating World Café, and the Town Talk Diner. Santamaria, a cultural anthropologist in another life, says the corner is a microcosm of what works best about Lake Street: small, unique businesses built on a stable skeleton of Hispanic entrepreneurship. 

"I feel pride, as a Latino, when I drive down Lake Street," says Alex Rojas, the general manager of the El Nuevo Rodeo, who immigrated to Minneapolis from Mexico City 21 years ago.  "And I feel that what we are doing at the restaurant is a part of that energy."

Alyssa Ford is a freelance writer in Minneapolis. Her last article for The Line was a portrait of the design shop I Like You.

Photos, top to bottom:

Grupo Rival heats up El Nuevo's cavernous second-story dance space.

Rodeo logo

The restaurant

A shrine to the Blessed Virgin in a corner of the restaurant

Norteño champs Grupo Rival hail from Joliet, Illinois.

All photos by Bill Kelley

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