The life and death of Rancho Huevos | Music Feature | Chicago Reader

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The life and death of Rancho Huevos

A Bridgeport DIY house that nurtured an antiauthoritarian community for nearly two decades stands vacant and slated for demolition.

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Rancho Huevos tenants and regulars from the past 16 years or so, out in front of the house. Clockwise from top left: Benny Hernandez, Lindsey Rae, Josh Piotrowski, Chris "Kisston" Georges, and Chris Cabay. - ERIC STROM FOR CHICAGO READER
  • Eric Strom for Chicago Reader
  • Rancho Huevos tenants and regulars from the past 16 years or so, out in front of the house. Clockwise from top left: Benny Hernandez, Lindsey Rae, Josh Piotrowski, Chris "Kisston" Georges, and Chris Cabay.

"It's been 20 years since Y2K and the world is still going even if it's burning," begins the Facebook event page for Distort Midwest, a two-day release party at the end of February for a compilation tape of heartland hardcore. "We're fucking bored out here in the land of milk and honey with our mundane jobs and weekend benders. Long live this decadence from here until the apocalypse!"

Put together by Thaib Wahab and the mononymous Spawn—immigrants from Singapore and Nepal, respectively, who run Chicago tape label Third World Kaos—the Distort Midwest comp showcased the ferocity and talent of flyover-country punks. And if the tape was a love letter, then the festival's two shows were Lloyd Dobler with a boombox: 13 hours of screeching guitars, cheap beer, righteous outrage, and unrestrained joy that celebrated Wahab and Spawn's chosen home and announced, "We are nothing without our community."

Distort Midwest's first day was at Rancho Huevos, a tiny, dilapidated Bridgeport house that had been a staple of the Chicago DIY scene for almost 16 years. It was a living space, a show space, and a practice space—Spawn used to live there, for instance, and at the time he also rehearsed there with his bands Mock Execution (which also includes Wahab) and Tzar Bomba. DIY venues tend to come and go quickly, and Rancho's longevity eventually made it something of a local institution.

During the house's tenure as a DIY space, around 20 tenants passed through it. They established a distinctive culture built on inclusivity, accountability, mutual support, and free-spirited rebellion—against internal obstacles as much as external oppressions. In the parallel universe where Rancho Huevos might put together a political platform, it would make the Bernie Sanders campaign seem quaint. Though the politics of the house's community evolved constantly, it stood for the abolition of policing and mass incarceration, for the humanity of all people regardless of immigration status, for sex workers' rights—basically for a long list of positions questioning the power of the nation-state and even its right to exist.

What no one knew during Distort Midwest was that it would be the house's last concert. Like licensed music venues, Rancho was forced into hiatus by the pandemic. And then in July, the landlord announced he'd sold the land under the house. The house would be demolished, and the sole remaining tenant needed to vacate ASAP.

The sale wasn't a total surprise. Toward the end of 2019, when Rancho was already down to that same sole tenant, a realty sign had quietly appeared outside. "We were like, what the fuck?" says Spawn, whose bands were pitching in on rent to help keep the space going. "And then we checked online and saw that it was on the market."

Long before that, Rancho's days felt numbered simply because the house was in such bad shape. Built in 1870, it hadn't been well maintained, and many people who've lived there or seen shows there have speculated that it should've been condemned. It was poorly insulated, and one winter the heat allegedly went out. Nine different tenants from the DIY years say the landlord was so resistant to making serious repairs that they learned to stop asking—though Troy Ishkanian, a former resident who also plays in Tzar Bomba, says the landlord did fix a window broken by a disgruntled showgoer who'd been thrown out for saying racist shit.

Members of Tropiezo, No Slogan, Tensions, and Rumores outside Rancho Huevos in September 2015. - COURTESY BENNY HERNANDEZ
  • Courtesy Benny Hernandez
  • Members of Tropiezo, No Slogan, Tensions, and Rumores outside Rancho Huevos in September 2015.

Rancho's tenants claim they weren't offered leases, though for the most part they were happy not to sign one. The landlord lived nearby and knew the house was booking shows from very early on, but he didn't interfere. He seemed happy just to get rent on time—if tenants didn't ask much of him, he didn't ask anything else of them. (Rancho's landlord did not respond by publication time to phone calls seeking comment.)

During Rancho's life as an underground show space, renters made most of the repairs and alterations themselves. They fixed a collapsed kitchen floor and enlisted the help of a tenant's parents to upgrade the electrical system. In Rancho's early years, it had no working outlets in the basement, so to host a show the organizers had to run an extension cord downstairs through a vent from the kitchen. Circumstances forced the upgrade in the late 2000s, when half the house lost power.

The basement was spectacularly neglected and dirty, and the crowd at most shows would kick up enough filth that everybody breathed it in all night. A hallmark Rancho experience was blowing black snot for days after a gig—in fact, "black snot" gets its own segment in A Wave of Us, a 2014 documentary about the venue by Dave Fried. Spawn remembers moving junk that he thinks might've been down there for decades, only to find dog skeletons wedged behind it.

  • The 2014 Rancho Huevos documentary A Wave of Us

As Rancho Huevos passed from tenant to tenant, each new resident moved in with the understanding they might be the last. Still, when the end finally came for one of Chicago's longest-running punk houses, it felt abrupt—not least because COVID-19 meant that the people who'd loved it couldn't say a proper goodbye.

DIY show spaces tend to be born from a desire to host people who have few if any other places to do what they want—especially those whose identities or interests fall somewhere on the Venn diagram of unpopular, marginalized, and forbidden. Rancho Huevos wasn't for people who would've preferred to play legitimate venues but didn't have the means to run one or get booked at one. It was about sustaining a music culture outside the music business, and living and playing there represented a small opposition to capitalism's colonization of everyday life.

Many people believe that 2966 S. Archer became a show house during the tenancy of Chris Cabay, a punk veteran from the band No Slogan who's affectionately nicknamed "Chris Huevos." But that honor actually belongs to Ryan Ross, who in 2003 hosted a few noise sets and then Boston folk-punk band Bread & Roses. As Cabay recalls, Ross decided to move out of the house after about six months because it was such a difficult and unpleasant place to live. But Ross also saw the value of maintaining the house as a venue—and he already had another show booked. Did Cabay want to take over?

  • No Slogan's final release was the 2010 EP Daggers.

"It was like $50 more than my rent in Pilsen," Cabay explains. And his roommate was moving to the north side anyway. "Then I could practice and have shows in the basement, you know? So of course, yeah, I'll take it over, why not?"

For Cabay, finding the extra $50 to move into Rancho Huevos was about more than seizing an opportunity to live alone and save money on a practice space. At the time, he was 27 and had a decent-paying nine-to-five job. He could afford better than a run-down house, and he was at a life stage where most people would take any better option. But to keep Rancho going as a venue, someone had to deliver the rent checks—and its continued existence promised a lot of benefits for the DIY scene.

Chris Cabay, aka Chris Huevos (left), and Benny Hernandez played together in No Slogan and ran Southkore Records out of Rancho Huevos. Hernandez never lived in the house, but Cabay was the second tenant during its DIY years. - ERIC STROM FOR CHICAGO READER
  • Eric Strom for Chicago Reader
  • Chris Cabay, aka Chris Huevos (left), and Benny Hernandez played together in No Slogan and ran Southkore Records out of Rancho Huevos. Hernandez never lived in the house, but Cabay was the second tenant during its DIY years.

Having a whole house with a hands-off landlord helped Cabay and bandmate Benny Hernandez grow their record label, Southkore Records, which they'd launched in 1999. South­kore focused on rising Latinx punk bands, and running Rancho meant always having a show spot for them—including groups seldom noticed by north-side venues or those whose tour options were limited by obstacles Hernandez didn't see white peers facing, such as immigration status or the need to financially support multiple family members. Hernandez's work at Rancho Huevos also helped him grow the network necessary to organize the Southkore fest, which as far as he knows became the first Latinx punk festival in America in 2006.

No Slogan's influence on Rancho fell off when Cabay moved out after a three-year stay, but the band's impact lingers in the name.

Before Rancho, Cabay had lived across the street from No Slogan's practice space at 21st and Damen. "Chris would always be late," Hernandez says, laughing. "He would sometimes just not bother to show up because he was too tired. So our drummer at the time, Danny, kept calling him huevón . . . which just means big, heavy balls, and therefore you're lazy. It just kind of morphed into 'huevos,' and then he became Chris Huevos. When he moved, we decided that, since it was a little house in the middle of the street—kind of an outpost with nothing around it—we'll just call it 'Rancho.'"

  • No Slogan at Rancho Huevos in 2007

The house's relative isolation—its large lot means it has few immediate neighbors—is part of why Rancho Huevos endured. Its sleepy part of Archer Avenue remains untouched by redevelopment, and businesses in the area are mostly mom-and-pops that close early. The only adjacent structure is an apartment building that houses an intergenerational family, and they treated Rancho Huevos with a mix of indifference and amusement. Longtime Rancho tenant Lindsey Rae says she's heard that one of the daughters has grown up to be a punk.

Basement overflow often spilled into Rancho's "yard," which is at least as big as the area of the house. Still, cops seldom patrolled the area. Most folks in the neighborhood shared an unspoken understanding that calling police didn't solve problems. When neighbors got angry about things—shows running too late, showgoers peeing in an alley—they talked to Rancho's residents directly instead of involving the cops. Punks lived in and ran the house, but they recognized themselves as part of a community beyond their scene. All these reasons help explain why no show at Rancho ever got shut down.

Among comparable DIY venues, Rancho had unusual success bringing together people from across Chicago and its suburbs because it was fairly transit accessible. It was less than a half mile from the Orange Line and near several major bus routes. It stood practically in the shadow of the Stevenson Expressway, and it had plenty of free parking.

Around 2007 Cabay moved out and passed the house along to Josh Piotrowski, who was joined in early 2008 by his girlfriend Chris "Kisston" Georges. Georges already knew Rancho Huevos because she'd regularly ridden the Metra in from the suburbs to visit it, just so she could feel connected to something. Lindsey Rae, who lived at Rancho for about three years starting in 2009, remembers making a phone call to the parents of some teenagers she didn't know who'd come to a show at Rancho—she promised that a friend of hers would drive the kids to the train afterward, so they could get permission to stay late enough to see the final band.

Lindsey Ray, Josh Piotrowski, and Chris "Kisston" Georges all moved into Rancho Huevos in the late 2000s. - ERIC STROM FOR CHICAGO READER
  • Eric Strom for Chicago Reader
  • Lindsey Ray, Josh Piotrowski, and Chris "Kisston" Georges all moved into Rancho Huevos in the late 2000s.

Unexpected negotiations come with the territory at a punk house, but they're just part of what makes it tough to live in one. Hosting all-ages DIY shows—which Rancho's residents did as often as two or three times per week—requires flexibility and generosity of spirit. You have to surrender to whatever your guests (especially intoxicated ones) might do to your home, and if you're smart you'll prepare for any crises they could create. You might be confronted with teen girls passing out alone in dark corners, your friends brawling with strangers over an inflammatory remark, or someone you only vaguely recognize stealing all your makeup from the bedroom you thought you'd locked.

In some ways it was especially hard to live at Rancho Huevos. A one-story house with interior space totaling only 768 square feet, it was decent for one person but not especially large for two—even taking into account its unfinished basement, which had a comparable footprint. But sometimes three or four people lived there: one in the bedroom, another in the living room, a third in the pantry, and maybe someone in the nasty-ass basement who'd have to shove their mattress out of the way once or twice a week for shows. When multiple touring bands came through on the same night, it could easily mean another seven or eight people trying to crash on the floors.

One former occupant believes they developed asthma from living at Rancho because it had such pervasive mold. But that problem, like so many others, was part of the price everyone there chose to pay so they could do what they wanted with the house. They were pretty sure that if they put too much pressure on their landlord to fix things himself, he'd raise the rent—or worse, he might evict everybody.

"I have best friends that are not punk," says Hernandez. "They just never understood why I was into this—you know, like, 'What's the payoff?' My answer is always: Punk is the only thing I control in my life, on my terms. I get to book where my band plays, who I play with, what the door price is. If someone is acting out of hand, I get to kick them out. Back in my late 20s, early 30s, I was starting my professional career. You're a nine-to-fiver, and everything's dictated to you. It made having that space beautiful."

  • Udüsic at Rancho Huevos in 2019. The band's front woman, Sarah Ryczek, often booked shows at the house and helped run CLIT Fest in 2008 and 2013.

If your life is so micromanaged that you barely feel like a person—you're just going through the motions, toeing someone else's line about how to act or spend your time—then any break from that regime is precious. And if your life keeps you guessing with unasked-­for chaos, then any chance to choose what happens to you can feel liberating.

Rae was a teen runaway when she moved to Chicago in the aughts from a small town in Indiana. "I stood outside the Alley on Belmont and Clark and asked people who looked punk if they knew where I could sleep, and that's how I found a place to live," she recalls. "From then on, it was just, like, shows! Shows! Shows! Venues! Bands! Just all the time." She'd lived in multiple punk houses already when she moved into Rancho in her early 20s. It had sat vacant for a few months after Georges and Piotrowski left unexpectedly, and Rae wanted to build on its particular inclusive and politically radical character.

"Rancho was the first time I felt in control," she says.

Throughout the years, Rancho hosted all kinds of music—stoner metal, crust punk, black metal, D-beat hardcore. Eventually, it became well-known enough that bands started seeking it out, sometimes from very far afield—all-woman Japanese hardcore band Banjax played CLIT Fest in 2008, when Rancho ran the third day of the event. CLIT Fest returned to Chicago five years later and became a precursor to Fed Up Fest, which kicked off in 2014. FUF and Black and Brown, its big-sibling festival (launched in 2010 by the Black and Brown Punk Show Collective), both held fundraisers at Rancho because it supported their radical, inclusive politics.

Japanese hardcore band Banjax played at Rancho Huevos on the third day of CLIT Fest in 2008. - COURTESY CHRIS "KISSTON" GEORGES
  • Courtesy Chris "Kisston" Georges
  • Japanese hardcore band Banjax played at Rancho Huevos on the third day of CLIT Fest in 2008.

Concerts weren't all that happened at Rancho. In 2008, for example, Piotrowski put together a homemade haunted house for Halloween, and it became an annual tradition—it lasted almost ten years there before graduating to larger DIY spots. His birthday was near Halloween and his family loved the holiday, so he'd grown up helping his mom and dad trick out their own house every year. He'd also worked in costume shops, which helped him accumulate props and materials for his own spooky installations.

Piotrowski took inspiration from the neighborhood for many of his scares, and he dramatized hauntings detailed in the 2005 book Weird Illinois: the woman in white at Archer Woods Cemetery, for instance, or the devil dancing at Kaiser Hall in Bridgeport. His fright night was something local families could count on, not just punks. One reason it moved on from Rancho was that it became too popular. Piotrowski and Rae estimate that at the haunted house's peak, it attracted more than 250 people in a night.

Posters promoting the sixth and second annual haunted houses at Rancho Huevos - ART BY SAM NIGROSH (LEFT) AND JOSH PIOTROWSKI
  • Art by Sam Nigrosh (left) and Josh Piotrowski
  • Posters promoting the sixth and second annual haunted houses at Rancho Huevos

Other events Rancho hosted included art installations and self-defense trainings for queer people and sex workers. Residents also allowed organizer friends to use the space for Anti-Racist Action meetings. During the pandemic the last group of folks still paying rent considered running it as an art studio. For a few years, pro dommes would pay to use the basement for scenes.

"One time I was listening through the vents because I'm a creep," a former resident admits with a giggle, "and somebody shit on a donut and fed it to their slave."

You can see why somebody might laugh at a story like that. But it's worth remembering that many sex workers get into the business because they can't secure more conventional jobs—in some cases because they're trans or undocumented. Other sex workers need more money than they can make in the straight jobs for which they're deemed qualified. Some have disabilities that can't be accommodated by potential employers, or they're someone's sole caretaker and need extreme scheduling flexibility. It's important to know you can do the work that pays your bills reliably and safely, no matter what it is. Rancho provided that peace of mind to at least a few people who needed it.

While the house didn't attract beat cops, the political slant of many shows at Rancho seems to have attracted undercover officers, judging from facts that came to light during the domestic-terrorism trial of the out-of-town activists dubbed "the NATO 3." The trial highlighted a pattern of entrapment and "Red Squad" tactics from Chicago police—and a 2014 Sun-Times article revealed that Rancho Huevos was one of many spots where undercover cops collected license-plate numbers and other identifying information, supposedly because "rock bands" played there that "were known to attract anarchists."

The cops weren't technically wrong on that last point—plenty of people who frequented Rancho Huevos sympathized with anarchist beliefs—but as usual they imagined a violent threat where none existed. (This also helps explain why many people connected to Rancho were wary of being named or quoted in this story.) Anarchism doesn't advocate chaos; it wants everyone to be free from coercive systems. And no matter who was living or playing at Rancho, it retained its commitment to DIY as an intentional alternative to the monoculture.

That's one reason the house's name never changed. About four years into its life as a DIY space, Rae and her roommates at Rancho attempted to mark a new era by renaming it Archer Nemesis. In part they felt they didn't have a right to use the old name—they were trying to own up to being Chicago transplants who didn't speak Spanish. But south-side punks pushed back. Honor the lineage, they said. As Hernandez explains: "If you inherit something beautiful, respect it."

"People who can't speak Spanish always butcher it up and change the name," he adds. "You know, huevos rancheros podridos or ranchero huevos. A lot of south-side Latinx kids would chime in and say, 'No, it's Rancho Huevos. There's no 's' at the end.'" The name became a shibboleth separating insiders and outsiders—if you were invested in south-side punk and DIY, you'd know how to say it, but if you were just glimpsing that scene in passing, you probably wouldn't.

Of course, now there's nothing left to glimpse at Rancho Huevos—but the scene lives on. "As long as there's pissed-off kids learning three chords in a basement or garage somewhere, punk's gonna keep going," Hernandez says. "At the end of the day, really, losing Rancho is no big deal. We should really be concerned and worried about families being displaced by gentrification."

  • In 2018 the Rancho Huevos crew brought over Malay-language Singapore hardcore band Sial.

Gentrification also threatens the future of punk, though of course that danger is much less serious than the hardship faced by displaced families. One thing Wahab and Spawn have enjoyed about being in the States is that DIY punk thrives here in part because rent is cheaper and space more abundant than in Singapore or Nepal. They don't have to rely on licensed venues to approve of them, their bands, or their ideas. They'll play a basement, a yard, or a generator show. Rancho was a dream come true for them: not only did they have an affordable place to practice, but they could also provide show space to bands they knew from Asia as well as the friends they've met here. But cheap rent and abundant space are magnets for developers, venture capitalists, and the kind of well-off new neighbors who call the cops on loud cookouts—and the forces of the state reliably line up to enforce those people's will.

The community nurtured by Rancho Huevos gave people a place to go that would always feel like home, even if they'd been away for years and all the faces were new. It's where they met bandmates, collaborators for their next art show, comrades to help organize protests. And it wasn't just punks talking to punks—the house was also connected to its neighborhood.

"I think it's a big loss in terms of what it means for Chicago," Spawn laments. "In the bigger picture, it's not just the house. It's, like, the whole block. . . . Bridgeport is changing rapidly. Every year, it's not like it was. Rancho—I loved living there. All our neighbors—just regular working-class folks. They never had a problem. They didn't care 'cause we talked to them, we hung out with them. Who knows what shit's going to be like on that street now. Are they just going to build another condo?"  v

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