OPINION: Rage against The Rave Box: The city of Claremont bullies a POC-owned small business

In Jan. 2023, Janelle Huerta and Steve Morales relocated their popular rave wear store from Upland to Claremont. Then the town shut them down. (Courtesy: Chelsea Shi-Chao Liu)

When Janelle Huerta and Steve Morales relocated their popular rave store from Upland to Claremont in January 2023, little did they anticipate the harassment and heartbreak they would face. 

With two small children and a newborn in tow, they envisioned a new start in a friendly small town. As they saw it, the store would enliven a historic downtown that had been beset by closures during the COVID-19 pandemic and attract students from the Claremont Colleges. 

But what started as the glittering dream of a young Mexican-American family has now shined a dark light on deep prejudices in the city of Claremont. As local business owners and city council members rallied together to shut down The Rave Box through legal harassment and dirty tactics alike, an ugly streak of racism, classism and pearl-clutching sexual moralism in Claremont has been exposed.

Huerta, 33, and Morales, 28, made their start selling rave fashion out of their home. In February 2020, they opened a storefront in Upland to glowing response. Then, in late 2022, a drunk driver hit a fire hydrant and flooded their store. After a short run in a temporary location, the couple was offered a retail space in Claremont Village at 141 Harvard Ave. They signed the lease and prepared to open shop—only to have their license revoked and see their property remain empty for months. 

Though the city of Claremont initially approved the store’s business license, it retracted it in response to local business owners who appealed to the city to address their concerns that The Rave Box was an “adult business.” These local businesses include Bert and Rocky’s, Claremont Village Eatery, Studio C Gallery, Bunny Gunner Gallery and Square I Gallery. According to Huerta and Morales, several owners have also personally threatened the family saying that, should the store open, they would not be allowed to enter the Claremont Helen Renwick Library and would be refused service at restaurants in Claremont Village. 

Appeal writers cite the city of Claremont’s municipal code, Section 5.48.040 P, which prohibits any person on the premises of an adult business from exposing the male or female genitals, pubic area or buttocks and/or female breast with less than fully opaque coverage over the nipple or areola. The appeal inquires, “Who will monitor this to ensure that the customers shopping at the store remain clothed, without exposing their breasts and buttocks to the general public?” 

Presuming that ravewear entails public nudity and indecency, the writers request that the store’s license be withheld until the city is able to “first determine if The Rave Box is an ‘adult business.’” 

Further complaints charged the owners with planning to sell sex toys and provide a platform for sex acts in the back of the shop. The evidence for this claim? That The Rave Box sells revealing, neon-colored clothing and has installed LED lights in the store. 

These allegations are patently unsound, as raves and rave wear do not inherently involve any form of sexual activity. Raves are dance parties featuring DJ performances of EDM (electronic dance music) and sites to express youth culture and ideals like peace, love, unity, and respect. Rave wear, known for shimmery colors and striking patterns, includes staple items like tracksuits, furry jackets and bucket hats—not so different from wares at other Claremont shops like The Grove or Nectar Clothing. Huerta insists that The Rave Box does not sell any sex toys and never will.  

According to some local owners, all women who wear rave wear are sex workers and should not show their bodies or walk around town. Pushing back against the sexualization of her customers, Huerta adds, “[W]omen who rave are not sexual items just because of the clothing they wear to festivals! Stop judging women on how they dress!” 

Huerta and Morales’ business was preemptively accused of attracting sex workers from the city of Pomona’s Holt Avenue. Holt Avenue is notorious for human trafficking and prostitution, according to the Pomona Police Department’s Sexual Exploitation and Human Trafficking Team. To many Claremont residents, it represents a plague that is spreading to South Claremont at the contamination site of the I-10 freeway and Indian Hill Boulevard. 

In a petition from May 2022 that takes on the rhetoric of moral contagion, concerned citizens describe the nexus of prostitution, criminal activity and drug use as “an eyesore” and “a growing cancer that must be eradicated.” 

The petition contends that in order to preserve public safety in Claremont, citizens must ward off unwanted activities from Pomona, as it is impure and — not so coincidentally — more racially diverse. 

Not only is rave wear a lit target for sexual moralists, but Huerta and Morales are also outsiders to Claremont. As Mexican-Americans in a predominately white town, they believe that they are victims of racial profiling. The threat of the old segregationist tactic to deny them service at local businesses is potent proof. 

“We are being told that we don’t belong in their city,” Huerta said in a video posted to The Rave Box’s Instagram. 

Moreover, the racial discrimination against the family is laced with classicism. One complaint that Huerta received took issue with their wares being too low-cost and “flashy” to conform with Claremont’s high-end shops. The Rave Box was not found to “fit in with the Claremont standard.” What is the “Claremont standard” if not exclusionary, discriminatory and unimaginative? 

It’s difficult not to pick up on the racial implication in Claremont’s repudiation of The Rave Box — especially considering that rave aesthetics originated from Black and LGBTQ+ culture in the ’80s club scene and have been historically subjected to moral panic and heavy policing. Accordingly, it’s no surprise that the appeal against the store holds an implicit threat of retaliation by law enforcement. 

“Without clear instructions to the owner, our city staff, police department and code enforcement will spend an inordinate amount of time responding to complaints,” the appeal states. “What is the city’s plan for enforcement of our municipal codes when residents and neighboring businesses call to complain?” 

The writers are confident that should The Rave Box open, Claremonters will make their ire known and call upon law enforcement to intimidate the store. The potential impacts of this policing for people of color do not need to be spelled out. 

For now, the story has a happy ending. After months of income loss while raising three children, Huerta and Morales finally had their license re-approved on March 13. The arduous process involved both a private appeal hearing and lobbying for local news coverage. Still, the city maintains its position that rave wear is worn by sex workers, and in its intransigence, is showing its true colors. 

While the battle for The Rave Box is won, the task remains for Claremont to reckon with its culture of bullying and harassment. If the City is truly the inclusive community it claims to be, it needs to pay more than lip service to the anti-racist aspirations in its mission statement. And if it prizes financial strength, named as the top item on its list of core values, then it should support promising businesses that will draw in students and youth. Until then, Claremont will indict itself as a racist, classist and sexist community.

As of March 18, The Rave Box is now open–and deserves a strong show of support from the 7Cs. Huerta and Morales hope to build a strong relationship with college customers, who can enjoy 20 percent off in-store purchases with their student ID. Supporters can also follow the shop @theravebox on TikTok and @the_ravebox on Instagram. 

Long may The Rave Box rave on!

Chelsea Shi-Chao Liu CGU ’23 is a master’s student in History & Archival Studies. Her research interests are Asian American studies, gender and sexuality and visual culture.

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