‘A space for everyone’: Toronto drag room and nightclub celebrate 30th anniversary

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An iconic Toronto nightclub providing a safe space for LGBTQ people, a destination for Latin music, and a live performance and drag venue celebrates 30 years in business this year.

Since 1992, El Convento Rico has been a College Street staple. A typical night out at the club starts and ends with dancing to a mix of Latin, Top 40 and techno, stopping only for a drag show between midnight and 1am.

The club is also known for its annual drag contest, Miss Convento Rico, which drag queen Jezebel Bardot – known as Jason Pelletier – calls “the event of the season” in the city.

“When, you know, it’s the Miss El Convento Rico pageant, the place is packed here,” Pelletier said.

El Convento Rico’s birthday is significant because it is an endangered species in Toronto. LGBTQ spaces, especially outside of the Village, are slowly disappearing before and during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Started as “safe space”

Pelletier said he had been coming to El Rico for years before he started dragging. He entered the pageant in 2015 and placed second just months into his drag career.

He said his character was inspired by strong women like club founder and owner Maritza Yumbla, who opened El Convento Rico when she was 27.

Jason Pelletier, also known by his drag character Jezebel Bardot, is El Convento Rico’s “Queen of the House” and hosts shows every Friday and Saturday night. (Tina Mackenzie/CBC News)

“What I know of her from working here since 2015 is that she’s an incredibly smart, resilient woman who has a vision, brings it to life and executes it every weekend,” he said. .

Yumbla, an Ecuadorian immigrant, started the club in 1992 as a “safe space” for her gay friends and the queer and trans community, Pelletier said.

The club’s name translates to “wealthy convent” or “tasty convent”, inspired by Yumbla’s desire to be a nun when she was younger. In El Convento Rico, she is known as “Mother Superior”.

Yumbla said that 30 years ago there were a lot of immigrants in the gay community, but that was also taboo.

“It was very hard, but I believed in what I was doing,” she said.

“We had a lot of gay bashing, we had the young Portuguese, Italians who basically came and threw eggs [at] El Convento, they were throwing tomatoes.”

Maritza Yumbla, founder and owner of El Convento Rico, wanted to be a nun when she was younger and is also known as “Mother Superior”. (Turgut Yeter/CBC News)

Yumbla said that she once invited haters to see what the club actually looked like inside.

“I’m sure today that they are one of our favorite customers,” she said.

Paul Mena, also known as drag queen Nicole Batista, was crowned the first Miss Convento Rico in the nightclub’s first pageant in 1992-93.

He said the reaction from the local community in Little Italy and neighboring Little Portugal was “a bit harsh at first”.

“They did not understand why this kind of club [had] to be in this area,” instead of the Church-Wellesley area, otherwise known as the Gay Village.

Paul Mena, also known as drag queen Nicole Batista, was the first to be crowned Miss Convento Rico in the club’s annual pageant in 1992-93. (Tina Mackenzie/CBC News)

Pelletier said neighborhood sentiment in the early ’90s meant there was some reluctance to let straight people into the club to keep the space safe for its LGBTQ clientele.

“As minds opened up and things evolved, it became a space for everyone.”

Pelletier said “everyone is represented” in El Rico, and “everyone feels safe.”

“A lot of people talk about the diversity represented in the Village, which it is, but I will say it’s probably the most diverse place I’ve ever worked in,” he said.

“You have straight people coming here, gay people coming here, trans people coming here, the Sikh community coming here, people of color, white people, it doesn’t matter.”

Pelletier said the nightclub also attracts families, and it’s “not uncommon” to see adult children going out for a night of dancing with their parents.

Judgment Free Zone

Mena said El Rico is a place where no one judges you and “it’s okay.”

“To be here, we mix things up, and everybody comes together, and everybody gets along, and I think that’s all we’re trying to do in our gay community: be accepted everywhere.”

“It’s been wonderful since we opened, and the support we’ve been getting from the gay community – and the straight community now – is amazing.”

El Rico regular Mikael Melo says it’s nice to see ‘gay-friendly spaces outside of the village’, even though it’s a place ‘that welcomes so much more than just gay culture’ .

“One of the things I love about Rico is that so many walks of life and so many people from different cultures come together to just love drag, love good music and have a good time,” did he declare.

Melo, who is Portuguese, said the bar had many Spanish-speaking, Italian and Portuguese-speaking customers, and it was great to be able to interact with people who “have similar queer narratives to you.”

Mikael Melo, a regular at El Convento Rico, says LGBTQ+ spaces outside Toronto’s gay village on Church Street are essential, especially for racialized queer communities. (Tina Mackenzie/CBC News)

It’s important that these venues stay open “because they’re such a big, welcoming space,” Melo said.

“I remember when I first discovered my queer identity, it was a drag bar that was like my first safe space that kind of opened the door and things like that,” he said.

“And I especially think [that’s true for] anyone immigrating from a Latin culture who may not have grown up in a queer space.”

When COVID-19 public health measures eased to allow limited capacity at nightclubs, Yumbla says she turned El Convento Rico into a lounge so drag queens could still perform — only to be closed again.

“It was tough, it was very tough,” she said.

Yumbla says El Rico is still open because of the discipline his parents taught him. She said she sold a few properties to run the club.

Melo said he hopes more bars like El Rico will open outside of the Church-Wellesley corridor.

“Because we’re not just Church and Wellesley. We’re all over town. We’re in Little Portugal, we’re in Riverdale, we’re on every level.”

Pelletier said the club has always maintained its core elements, including “the love for Latin music, which must continue and will continue forever”, as well as energetic shows and live performances.

“I just want the love, the energy and the atmosphere to continue.”

For her part, Yumbla said she has no plans to slow down and will soon be opening a restaurant named Que Rico on College Street.

“Being the risk taker that I am, I keep going,” she said.

“Will Maritza slow down? No, she won’t. I love offering jobs to people from all walks of life, from young to older, to people who want to work alongside Maritza Yumbla.”

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