‘A space for everyone’: Toronto drag venue, nightclub celebrates 30th anniversary

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

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

The club is also known for its annual drag pageant, the Miss Convento Rico, which house drag queen Jezebel Bardot — known out of drag 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 here is packed,” Pelletier said.

El Convento Rico’s anniversary is significant because it’s something of an endangered species in Toronto. LGBTQ spaces— particularly outside of the Village — have been slowly disappearing, both 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 doing drag. He entered the pageant in 2015 and placed second only a few months into his drag career.

He said his persona is inspired by strong women like the club’s founder and owner Muritza Yumbla, who opened El Convento Rico when she was 27.

Jason Pelletier, also known by his drag persona Jezebel Bardot, is the El Convento Rico ‘house queen’ and hosts shows every Friday and Saturday night. (Tina Mackenzie/CBC News)

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

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

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

Yumbla said 30 years ago, there were a lot of immigrants in the gay community, but it 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, Italian people that would basically come in and throw eggs [at] El Convento, they would throw 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 one day, she invited the detractors in to see what the club was actually like inside.

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

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

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

“They didn’t 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 at the club’s annual pageant in 1992-93. (Tina Mackenzie/CBC News)

Pelletier said the neighbourhood sentiment in the early 90s meant there was some hesitancy toward letting heterosexual people in the club to keep the space safe for its LGBTQ clientele.

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

Pelletier said “everybody is represented” at El Rico, and “everybody feels safe.”

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

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

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

Judgment-free zone

Mena said El Rico is a place where no one is judging you, and “everything goes.”

“To be here we mix it up, and everybody gets together, and everybody gets along, and I think that’s the whole point that we’re trying to do in our gay community— to be accepted everywhere.”

“It’s been wonderful since we opened, and the support that we get from the gay community- and from the straight community now- is amazing.”

Mikael Melo, an El Rico regular, says it’s nice to see “queer-friendly spaces outside the Village,” though it’s a place “that welcomes so much more than just queer culture.”

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

Melo, who is Portuguese, said the bar has many Spanish-speaking, Italian, and Portuguese customers, and it’s great to get to interact with people who “have similar queer narratives as 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 places stay open “because they are such a big welcoming space,” Melo said.

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

“And I especially think [that’s true for] anyone who’s immigrating from a Latin culture who maybe didn’t have a queer space growing up.”

When COVID-19 public health measures eased to allow limited capacity in nightclub venues, Yumbla says she transformed El Convento Rico into a lounge so drag queens could still perform— only to be shut down again.

“That was hard, that was very hard,” she said.

Yumbla says El Rico is still open because of the discipline her parents taught her. She said she sold a couple of properties to keep the club going.

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

“Because we’re not just Church and Wellesley. We’re everywhere in the city. We’re in Little Portugal, we’re in Riverdale, we’re across the board.”

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

“I just want the love and the energy and the atmosphere to keep going.” 

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

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

“Will Maritza slow down? No she won’t. I love providing jobs for people from all walks of life, younger older, people that are willing to work alongside Maritza Yumbla.”

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