Cats have nine lives, and the first life of the cat in question began about five years ago at Sidewinders Bar and Grill. What started out as a showcase for gay and lesbian performers has now grown into a full-fledged community center, catering to the artistic, economic and social needs of Albuquerque's marginalized populations.
Several years back the venerable LGBTQIA+ venue known as Sidewinders was taken over by the husband-and-husband team of Renato and Michael Estacio-Burdick. The duo transformed the bar's dance floor into a cabaret space and launched the Southwest Art Group, which morphed into the Sidewinders Cabaret, which morphed into Black Cat Cabaret. The purpose of the group was to bring LGBTQIA-friendly entertainment to the venue. But the Estacia-Burdicks watched that entertainment evolve over the years. In 2015 Sidewinders' popular "Best Of" showcase involved "one comedian and 19 drag acts," as Renato recalls. By 2016 the showcase consisted of "38 percent burlesque" with a mixture of drag, bellydancing and singing. Renato, who performs drag under the stage name Renée Toya-Bouvier, remains dedicated to the traditional art of drag, but is now interested in elevating all art forms as executive director and artistic director of the newly opened Black Cat Community Center.
In 2019 Sidewinders was poised for a change. Showing its age, the historic bar was in serious need of upgrades and repairs. Instead of dumping an estimated $250,000 into the original location on Central near Wyoming, the Estacio-Burdick's decided to pull a "Jeffersons" and upgrade their home base. They latched onto a beautiful property at 4200 Central Ave. SE, formerly occupied by Martini Grill. But, just as plans were coming together for the new space, something called COVID showed up in early 2020. "We were all set to open on March 20. Then March 16 happened," recalls Renato. Sidewinders, along with every other bar and restaurant in Albuquerque, was shut down.
Renato and Michael survived by transforming the space at the new Sidewinders into a "ghost kitchen" and creating a string of food delivery services. Despite the hardships of the last year, the duo also managed to start work on another long-brewing dream: the creation of Black Cat Cultural Enterprises. The purpose of this fledgling nonprofit organization is to "promote and support activities and organizations related to the advancement of LGBTQIA causes and activities." These activities include "community organizing, community center activities, social welfare, social activities, social improvement and education."
In the fall of last year, the Estacio-Burdick's took over the space near Nob Hill's triangle Plaza previously occupied by Aux Dog Theatre company (sadly, another local casualty of the pandemic). Located not far from Albuquerque's International District, the community center's mission is to cater not only to LGBTQIA+ locals, but to international citizens and to other "outsider" groups. Basically, as Renato puts it, "anyone uncomfortable with traditional communities." The center officially opened to the public in early May in a ceremony that included Mayor Tim Keller, candidate for New Mexico's 1st Congressional District Melanie Stansbury and other local luminaries.
The space includes a fund-raising thrift store, a lobby area for local artists to set up and vend and an education center featuring books, computers, desks and partitions donated by a variety of local organizations. Among the goals is providing a place for painters, sculptors, poets, comedians, dancers, singers, etc. to practice their arts. Over the years booking shows at Sidewinders, the Estacio-Burdicks have worked with well over 200 local performers—many of whom have returned to help out with the new Black Cat. Another goal is launching a learning facility to teach life skills, business, culture, music and other topics. GED tutoring and assistance with student loans are also on tap. Rento, who recently secured a teaching certificate through APS, eventually wants to start up a full-fledged charter school catering to "disenfranchised and gender non-conforming students."
The former Aux Dog Theatre space is also in the process of being revamped. The stage has been altered to better accommodate handicapped performers and to function more as a black box or "theater in the round." The hope is to offer all services at Black Cat Community Center for free. Toward that goal, the center has already gotten some major sponsorships and grants, including money from UNLV Fine Arts Alumni and the McCune Charitable Foundation to start up a "gender non-conforming theater" group. Black Cat has secured two "playwrights in residence," and actors are busily rehearsing Black Cat's first original play. Maury Evans' pandemic-centric stageplay Through a Window opens Friday, June 4, and will serve as a fundraiser for Black Cat.
For the time being, Michael is concentrating on operating the newly reopened Sidewinders and Renato is supervising the Black Cat Community Center. But their goal, as Rento puts it, is "in five to 10 years to both be out." They want the center to be "completely community based," choosing its own goals and setting its own agenda. The center's board of directors, featuring a diverse group of people and organizations, is set to have its first meeting on Sunday, June 4. To learn more about Black Cat Cultural Enterprises and the Black Cat Cultural Center, go to nmbc-cc.org.
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