El Nuevo Rodeo facing possible last hurrah on Lake Street

Maya Santamaria created an oasis for local Latinos

Maya Santamaria created an oasis for local Latinos

It's Friday night, and the crowd at El Nuevo Rodeo is roaring. The strains of cumbia and bachata have quieted, and the revelers are cheering dancers who are moving to a different rhythm. In the center of the floor, a Latino man wearing his hair like John Travolta did in Grease is flipping a Latina Olivia Newton John over his back.

The Twin Cities' hottest Latino nightspot is hosting an American-style dance-off. The contest has been going on for weeks, and tonight is the final showdown between six couples.

El Nuevo Rodeo is Lake Street's answer to the downtown clubs—a Latino-focused venue in the heart of Minneapolis's Latino neighborhood. Recently, Latin drag queens took the stage. One Sunday, there was Spanish karaoke.

But if Minneapolis gets its way, all this entertainment will soon be a thing of the past. The city is pushing to shut down the Rodeo. The nightclub's future lies in the hands of a judge who is deciding whether to recommend that the City Council yank its liquor license.

"If El Nuevo Rodeo leaves, that space will sit empty," says Joyce Wisdom, executive director of Lake Street Council. "I will tell you that empty space in our communities is hugely detrimental to our communities."

In 2001, the City Council approved a bright redevelopment vision for 27th and Lake: an ideal space for restaurants, bars, and entertainment. Nightclubs weren't allowed in the neighborhood at the time, so city staff changed the zoning a few years later. Now nightclubs have to go through an extra approval step by getting a conditional use permit.

But that wasn't the case when Maya Santamaria first proposed the club. A singer, waitress, and music promoter with a degree in anthropology, Santamaria had directed two Latino arts centers and studied the Mexican and Chicano music of Minnesota. She knew that Latinos needed a nighttime venue to blow off steam. She pitched her business to the city as a "dance hall, nightclub, and entertainment/cultural center."

Santamaria got approval and a liquor license, and El Nuevo Rodeo opened in December 2003. Soon, men in cowboy hats flooded in to dance to the sounds of Mexican banda oldies, ranchera norteña, Spanish Top 40the music of their homeland.

More businesses popped up along the corridor—Denny's, Manny's Tortas, Town Talk Diner—and the neighborhood turned from a tired, empty industrial space into a nighttime destination.

The new popularity brought new problems for El Rodeo. In 2006, the club got slapped with fines for violating city code: It had hosted more people than the fire code allowed, had advertised as a nightclub when it was licensed as a restaurant/nightclub, and was questioned about selling more alcohol than food (the liquor license requires that 60 percent of sales be food).

That December, city officials convened to determine whether El Nuevo Rodeo's liquor license should be renewed. Santamaria agreed to submit her food and alcohol receipts for the next year.

By then, complaints about the Rodeo had petered out, at least to the neighborhood groups. "I've been here three years in April, and I think I've heard one or two complaints in that whole time," says Melanie Majors, executive director of the Longfellow Community Council. "I do know that it's a really quality restaurant and business in the neighborhood."

In April 2008, three people were shot outside of Denny's, right across the street from the nightclub. A story in the Longfellow/Nokomis Messenger connected the shooting to nightclub patrons, though police were never able to prove it.

"The shooting occurred and all of a sudden we were the bad guys," Santamaria says. "All of a sudden everyone was pointing their finger at us."

In June 2008, the incident came up in another city hearing on the Rodeo's liquor license. The club had been cited for allowing an employee to drink alcohol onsite at 2:30 a.m., after it was supposed to have turned off the taps.

Santamaria agreed to step up security. She added video cameras and began wanding patrons with a metal detector. She signed a settlement agreement in September 2008 and got her liquor license. She thought that everything was taken care of.

On November 13, El Nuevo Rodeo hosted the Lake Street Council's annual fundraiser. Local politicians and neighborhood gadabouts showed up for the party.

"Everybody was down there having a good time," says Wisdom. "The next day, they moved to revoke the license."

On November 14, there were multiple police calls associated with the nightclub. One person was even cited for defecating on the Third Precinct station a block away. Minneapolis Police Sgt. John Rouner fired off an email to his boss describing what had happened: "Incidents ranged from shots fired (almost an officer-involved shooting), to several felony assaults (on patrons and staff), to numerous misdemeanors (obstructing, disorderly conduct, assault, theft, and traffic)."

The information made its way to Rocco Forte, who heads the city's regulatory services. Forte wrote to Schiff: "At this point, Business Licensing does not see any other option than to pursue the revocation of El Nuevo Rodeo's license."

The city compiled its case against the nightclub: a stack of 28 police call reports from 2008 and six from 2009. The city attorney on the case described the business as having "an inordinately high number of incidents of criminal behavior."

The city also included as evidence the two license-settlement agreements and citations for playing music after 2 a.m., allowing alcohol consumption after 2:30 a.m., and letting a patron outside with a bottle of beer.

"All minor, administrative violations that do not form a basis for revocation," argues Boris Parker, Santamaria's attorney.

Santamaria says her club gets no more police calls than any other, and claims that the city is unfairly punishing her when she bent over backward to increase security at the city's request.

"How do you go from having a clean bill of health one month in September, and in November, 'Shut them down'?" she asks.

But there was still the sticky problem of zoning. Santamaria's club was out of compliance because the rules said nightclubs needed a conditional use permit.

Last year, the city suggested that Santamaria move El Nuevo Rodeo elsewhere—perhaps downtown, where the rest of the nightclubs are. She presented her idea to the North Loop Neighborhood Association, but when the neighborhood group saw the evidence packet against her, it backed away.

Now Administrative Law Judge Raymond R. Krause will decide the business's fate. It's widely expected that he will recommend revoking the license, and the City Council will agree.

"You know, it's not just a restaurant, but it's in some ways sort of a cultural gathering place," says Majors. "If you think about it, where are the Latino gathering places in this town? If you're Latino, where would you go?"