Xelas Survives COVID-19, Fights to Stay Afloat
The neon pink Xelas sign lights Clorissa Hernandez’s face as she wipes away tears. The sounds of Mexican music and the chatter of customers nearly drown her out, but she pressed on. “I think it’s beautiful to feel the community rally around us. Especially during these times.”
For nearly three years Xelas bar in Boyle Heights has been the place where locals could c enjoy a night of craft beer, dancing, and communidad. When it first opened, locals and community activists worried that Xelas would be another token of gentrification which was not the goal, said Hernandez, co-owner of Xelas.
“I didn’t come to capitalize on oil. I’ve always been Boyle Heights because this neighborhood means so much to my family. From a very young age, it was important for me to give back to the community that gave so much to me.” And that, Hernandez said, is what Xelas is meant to do.
Everything from the tile to the furniture was custom built in Mexico to add to the authenticity Xelas aims to provide. The atmosphere was imagined by Hernandez and the other owners to allow patrons to identify better and to create a sense of familiarity.
“Xelas is a space that we created to be fun, welcoming and safe, above all,” said Hernandez. “I want everyone to feel like this is home to them.”
“It was a very welcoming space,” said patron Elizabeth Padilla, 27. Padilla said she had been going to Xelas for a few years before the COVID-19 shut down. “I loved the atmosphere, the servers were always friendly, and I loved their wine selection and their dance floor.”
According to General Manager Randy Zamudio, 30, it worked in a way they did not anticipate.
“It ended up turning into like a little nightclub in a way, which is kind of like super wild that we didn’t really anticipate, but it was like, so fun, because we still had our tables,” said Zamudio. For the time being, the staff at Xelas was able to keep building notoriety with the community until they took another step forward and cemented themselves as the only nightclub in Boyle Heights.
“Then we made a dance floor and pretty much people just took over and it got to the point where we were having lines, and we’re just like, what is this,” said Zamudio. “Yeah, it was so wild, but it was a solid wild. It was a fun, you know, with the resources we had and how limited our team was, we killed it. And every day we just kept doing it.”
Xelas popularity continued to rise while word spread that Hernandez and her team really were “por la raza.” Xelas continued to be a space for queer folks, community activists, and young Boyle Heights residents until the arrival of COVID-19.
Hernandez said that when the pandemic hit, she was sidelined with little time to prepare as businesses were forced to close. She only learned of the shutdown while watching Mayor Eric Garcetti give a press conference.
“It was devastating. We got no notifications that we had to shut down,” Hernandez said. “I happened by the grace of god to be watching and I had 12 hours to shut down my operation. With no like game plan, no notification, nothing…I just felt dazed and confused, I had no idea what’s going to happen.”
What made matters worse was the potential dangers in closing. Hernandez feared that she could lose her business and her team.
“For people of color, to open a business is really hard so oftentimes we have to sell our own assets to get capital. So the difference between my bar and maybe some in downtown LA or the West Side, is that I had to sell everything I’ve ever accumulated, to be able to buy my bar,” Hernandez said. “And my team means everything, to me, making sure that their job security was safe meant everything to me. It was heart wrenching. It was hard to figure out. How do I confidently lead them through this, when I have no idea what’s happening?”
For a while Hernandez waited, hoping that her business would be safe during shutdown. While so many other small businesses closed, Xelas managed to stay afloat until it was safe to reopen. It was a gamble because in order to open Xelas had to change.
“I’ve never been a restaurant owner. I mean, obviously, I have a kitchen, but I come from a bar background. So, I’m now having to teach myself how to run and operate a restaurant,” said Hernandez. “But it meant something to me that the community felt they had a place to go to escape the crazy reality we’re living and to have this positivity all around.”
After community support for dine-in-only service, Xelas expanded to outdoor dining. This show of support from the community is what allowed Hernandez to keep her doors open. Xelas created a safe space for Boyle Heights, and in turn Boyle Heights saved Xelas.
“I see how much the community wants us to win,” Hernandez said with tears reflecting the pink glow of the room. “They feel a part of this so much that if we win, everybody wins.”