When Angie Belin Martinez opened her bar in Huntington Park, Calif., she knew she wanted it to be sexy, mysterious, femme and welcoming – a place where Black and brown people can let loose on the dance floor, queer folks can feel safe being their whole selves and a shot of girl power is poured into everyone’s drink.
Less than a year since opening its doors, and Novacane is already that and more.
“It’s for the community more than me,” Martinez, 26, tells us.
About seven miles away from Los Angeles, Huntington Park isn’t exactly where the young and cool flock. Even on Santa Fe Ave., where the hot pink graffitied-bar and grill sits, there are several paisa bars, signaling the neighborhood belongs to the old-timers.
Martinez wants to mix it up – not for outsiders, but for young locals. She wants them to get excited about where they’re from.
“Every city has something cool about them, but there’s nothing to do in HP. I’m building Novacane to be more than a bar. I want people to feel proud to be like, ‘that’s in my city,’” she said.
Novacane, named after Frank Ocean’s hit song, is certainly unlike other bars, and not just the ones blasting banda from its jukeboxes across the street.
The menu includes vegetarian and vegan options and offers house cocktails like the watermelon-flavored Pink Matter, apple-cinnamon F**k Me Pumps and ancho chili-mango Lovefool.
Most noticeable, however, is its in-your-face femininity. Outside, the bar is adorned with a bright pink mural of a woman with long lashes and plump lips painted by street artist James Haunt. Inside, cherries, flowers, dice and a topless woman, created by artists Natasha Lillipore and Benjie Escobar, grace the walls.
Then there’s Martinez’s hard-to-miss all-female staff. From the waitresses and bartenders to the cooks behind the scenes, it’s dolled-up women running the show.
“We are all women, and we’re all on top of the game. It’s so powerful in different ways,” she said.
While the Mexican-Guatemalan is a new business owner, she’s not new to the bar scene. Her parents have been in the line of work for 20-plus years, so she was raised inside bars, surrounded by beers, loud music and the lady bosses who keep the entire operation afloat.
“Growing up in the bar scene, I saw how women ran that shit. My dad was the owner, but who was running it? The cocktail waitresses, bartenders and strippers,” she said.
In fact, Martinez, a champion for gender justice, began advancing female empowerment and sexual liberation because of the inspiring women working at her parents’ bars.
“I see them as wonder women. They all had different backgrounds and different stories. It’s not easy what they do, and I respect them for that. I see nothing wrong with it. I think for them to be in that position every night, I think they are brave and strong,” she said.
Being a young girl in the bar also introduced her to machismo. She remembers men coming in and degrading the dancers, something she never understood since they were spending all their income on the women.
“Men want to talk down about them, but like you’re addicted to them. I see guys blow paychecks. You’re here spending money when you have a family waiting for you at home. I want to laugh at them. It’s taking that power away from them. Women already have power over you ‘cause you keep coming back,” she said.
At Novacane, Martinez is beginning to experience bar sexism herself – but not the slut-shaming she remembers from her childhood. Instead, some male patrons seem to be threatened that a young, femme-presenting Latina could be a boss.
She recalls one man telling her that women have too much control these days and need to be reminded they’re inferior to men. As a professional, Martinez usually tries to hold her tongue. Besides, her guests almost always come to her defense. But this time, she had to school the dude, reminding him that women are powerful all on their own and don’t need men to build their dynasty.
Whether she got through to him is hard to tell, but she did walk away sure of one thing.
“Women are changing the game,” she said, “and as long as he noticed, that’s dope.”