Walking into Chula Chic, a cozy and vibrant Latina-owned business in the heart of the City of San Fernando that sells authentic Mexican merchandise, customers are greeted by the distinctive scent of genuine leather goods, testimony to the variety of handcrafted purses in various shades and styles.
The aroma of leather goes hand-in-hand with the bold, eye-catching hues found among the women’s clothing, jewelry and fashion accessories that greet customers as they browse the shop, which is located in a small shopping center at 127 North Maclay Ave. The store’s merchandise is imported directly from Mexico – primarily from Mexico City, Leon and Chiapas.
Angelica Bañuelos, owner of Chula Chic, said the leather items and multitude of bright colors “remind many of my customers of their parents, their abuelitos – of the things we grew up with.”
“I love the fact that I’m representing our cultures, and supporting the families of the artisans who make these items,” said Bañuelos regarding the merchandise she sells, which she hand selects. She doesn’t haggle for lower prices, because she said she respects the “time, labor and artistry” that goes into creating the items. An intricately embroidered blouse might take a month to make.
“It’s not a machine that makes most of these products; it’s somebody’s hands,” she explained.
Bañuelos opened the shop three years ago, at a time when many other business owners were temporarily closing their doors because of COVID-19 restrictions or, in many cases, shuttering their stores permanently due to dramatically dwindling sales they were unable to recover from.
Despite the economic downturn wrought by the pandemic, which caused a decline of 11.3 percent to the real gross domestic product (GDP) in the second quarter of 2020, Latino-owned businesses were bouncing back more strongly than other sectors by the following year.
In fact, according to research from the 2023 U.S. Latino GDP Report, an annual report that compiles national GDP data of all Latinos in the United States, in 2021 Latino-owned businesses in the U.S. grew at a rate three times faster than other businesses. In addition, the overall GDP of U.S. Latinos grew 7.1 percent during 2021.
Bañuelos is just one of the numerous Latino business owners nationwide – many of which are immigrants like herself – contributing in their own small but substantial ways to that collective growth. She described her business as “good and growing, but, of course, like everybody else, I always wish for more and strive for it to be even better.”
“But I feel like it’s successful because I’m here, still standing through COVID and this economy,” she said.
Before launching Chula Chic, Bañuelos had worked for a nonprofit organization in Van Nuys for 15 years, offering workshops and other services for startups and existing small businesses. She loved her job and had assumed (and hoped) she would never leave, she recalled.
Unfortunately, the organization came under new management, which started making dramatic changes, including how they ran and staffed the nonprofit. Soon after, Bañuelos was unexpectedly laid off and she found herself feeling completely bereft and lost.
“I have always had a heart for people, so working in that type of field – helping people – was perfect for me,” she said about her work with the organization, which has since shut down. “Losing my job was completely devastating. When you feel discouraged and devastated, everything seems impossible. I knew I had to reinvent myself, but I had no idea what to do.”
The answer came to her suddenly during a trip to Guadalajara, Jalisco, while browsing at a shop in nearby San Pedro Tlaquepaque.
“I was looking at these beautiful leather handbags, and then my heart just started pounding,” recalled Bañuelos, who described finding herself immersed in memories of her father, who used to be an entrepreneur in Mexico, selling various leather goods while she was growing up.
“That’s when I first had the idea of opening my own business, of selling leather purses and other items from my [homeland] here in the United States,” she said. Not long afterward, she invested a grand total of $2,000 to buy a variety of purses, which she brought back home to get started.
“I went from being a director in an office, to being outside trying to sell handbags,” said Bañuelos, who began her solo venture at the Rose Bowl Flea Market in Pasadena in 2018 – unsuccessfully. She clearly recalls feeling emotional, defeated and overheated – under the hot sun in 105-degree weather, with a pile of unsold merchandise and tears stinging her eyes.
“I didn’t give up; you learn as you go,” said Bañuelos. “I was always looking for different events, different places and opportunities. You just have to keep knocking on every door.”
Which is exactly what she did. With perseverance, an eye for coveted merchandise and ingenuity – including utilizing Instagram, TikTok and Facebook – Bañuelos started to find her footing. Return customers, word-of-mouth and the power of social media began yielding positive results.
In the fall of 2020, with the pandemic well underway and part of the country still under COVID restrictions, Bañuelos said her modestly growing business was ready for the next step forward. She started looking for a location to open up a “temporary pop up shop for three months.”
Flash forward: that three-month “pop up” at 127 North Maclay Ave. will celebrate its three-year anniversary in November, and business is going strong, said Bañuelos. Since day one, “the rent has always been paid” from the profits, without having to dip into financial reserves.
What started as a fledgling handbag business has grown to include an array of women’s clothing items and accessories that she describes as rich with traditional Mexican elements, but “with modern touches.” She said she’s working to expand the Chula Chic website, to help increase online sales.
Bañuelos expressed great appreciation for the surrounding community, not only for supporting her store, but also for patronizing her booth at the San Fernando Outdoor Market every month.
“I’m very grateful to the community here in San Fernando,” she said.
Bañuelos, who has two sons and a grandson, said her family is “very proud” of her and has been very supportive since day one.
“In all honesty, these years haven’t been easy, but people love my business so much,” she said, “and I love my customers and my business.”
To visit the Chula Chic website, go to: www.chulachic.la.