Love Lives Large in Jersey City, The Story of Sirena and Chelo
If you’ve met Sirena and Chelo at a Grassroots Community Space art opening or if you’ve boogied down with them at an Elevate party at Transmission, you can’t help but imagine rainbows, fireworks, unicorns and Sirena’s hair blowing back in the wind when they tell you the story of how they met. A fixture in the arts community of Jersey City for over 10 years, Sirena and Chelo, affectionately referred to as Sirelo, a name they adopted for their entertainment company, exude love and openness, in their relationship, their artistic endeavors, and their community events.
Their story begins like this: Almost 20 years ago, at County College of Morris, in Randolph, New Jersey, Sirena was two days late, but just in time to meet the love of her life.
Chelo, a young man who was ready to get serious about his life, enrolled in an Equal Opportunity Funding program at the County College of Morris, encourage by a mentor, Eddie Lopez. When Sirena showed up, at noon on the third day, ready to be disappointed by everything and everyone, she was greeted by her friends who, in addition to being thrilled she was there, kept prodding her, “Wait till you meet Chelo! Wait till you meet Chelo!” speaking with their eyes as much as their voice. “Chelo,” Sirena thought, “Whatever about this Chelo.”
With his romanesque good looks and long curly hair, Chelo walked, (strutted? rode in on a white stallion? it’s still not clear) into the classroom, through the door and directly to Sirena. “Hello,” he said. “I’m Chelo. Nice to meet you,” he took her hand. “Ah,” she thought to herself. “This is Chelo.”
“I was bold,” he reflected. “She was beautiful, and I walked in and I saw her and I went over to say hello, and that was it.”
And so began a beautiful romance, one, that like planets and galaxies expand and contract, with each contraction creating the conditions for the subsequent expansion to occur, a romance pushing to find really, how far it can go.
Throughout their college experience, they were lab partners, study buddies and best friends.
“We were not shy,” says Sirena. “We fed off each other really well, we would laugh and laugh. It wasn’t boring.”
The evolution of their relationship progressed naturally and before they knew it, they were living together.
“I think we kept growing into love,” explained Chelo. “First we became friends. I had things going on in my life, she had things going on in her life, and we were sharing and going through these things together. So we just kept getting closer and closer and I was her best friend and she was my best friend.”
Living together in Dover, New Jersey, Sirena and Chelo were both working 9 to 5 jobs. It’s hard not to imagine them in their feather costumes, drumming together after dinner on a Tuesday. “That wasn’t even on our radar,” Chelo explains, “We had no idea that was going to happen.”
Pressured by family, Chelo proposed to Sirena for the first time in 2003.
“It didn’t feel right,” explained Sirena. “We were playing house and resenting each other. We hadn’t blossomed ourselves, individually.”
In 2004, after being together for 8 years, Sirena and Chelo broke up.
“I came to Jersey City to cure my heart break and forget about him because I want to be an artist, I want to be a singer, I want to be in Manhattan all the time,” she explains. “So I get here, and I go through my battle of depression.”
Sirena spent a lot of time in her new “bachelorette pad” on Montgomery and West Side until a friend came over to visit, and convinced her to go out in her new home town.
“He said, ‘Girl, you have to get out of this house! Do you know that you have one of the coolest open mics in all of NJ down the street from your house?’” It happened to be a Thursday and he took her to the upstairs of Rolon’s Bar, also known as The Keyhole.
Sirena smiles at this part of the story. “I walk into a cloud of smoke, and see all the talent and music and poetry. I’m in tears, I literally came back to life that night. I was at The Waterbug Hotel,” she laughs. “I spent the next year, every Thursday, at the Waterbug.”
The Waterbug Hotel, hosted by Lex Leonard and Aaron Jackson, was a weekly open mic, but even more than that, it was a community of artists and poets and musicians, it was a space of time in Jersey City where people came together, to talk politics or art or love or everything else.
While Sirena was rediscovering herself as an artist, Chelo decided to leave for a study abroad program through Montclair University to Madrid, Spain. It was a great way for him to finish school, to perfect his spanish, and to be away from Sirena and not have the possibility of seeing her. Also, Chelo needed to go to another country and immerse himself into a completely foreign society to deal with his social anxiety.
“I was fighting, I couldn’t get myself to chill out,” he remembers. “I needed to jump into the deep end of the pool and swim. I needed to go and fend for myself and learn how to work with people.”
Without the advantage of traveling, the break up was a huge challenge for Sirena, and it was a blessing. “It helped, the fact that he left. That’s why people don’t heal, they are nearby, they linger. We weren’t leaving each other alone, not until he left was there, ‘I can’t take a plane to Europe now to go see him every time I want to, when I get that craving to see him, now I have no communication.”
For the next 8 months, Sirena developed as a poet, becoming a featured reader at the Waterbug Hotel and expressing herself artistically as a painter and singer. After his semester abroad, Chelo back packed all over Europe. Towards the end of 2005, Chelo decided to return to the states. Specifically, to return to Sirena.
The feeling was mutual, but their reunion wasn’t without a difficult adjustment period.
“He came back straight to my house, straight to my bachelorette pad, and it was just awkward,” explained Sirena. “We went through a couple of really big, emotional blowouts and I think that’s what really brought us back…After we got over it, we started to look at each other as friends. ‘Here’s my old buddy who I used to tell everything to and now look at him, he’s kind of hot.’ It’s kinda like we fell in love again.”
Nine years after they first met and fell in love, they were living together. Chelo was working a 9 to 5 job. Once Sirena was working a 9 to 5 job. They’re living together. “But there’s something new,” Chelo said. “There’s art, there’s the Waterbug Hotel.”
Chelo was working the door at The Waterbug Hotel, giving him a chance to put his skills he amassed dealing with people into practice. Working at the Waterbug got Chelo thinking about the success of the artists performing there.
“I started to question why aren’t these people super famous? After hanging out, I started to see it takes more than talent, I started to develop a business mind around it, how do we help we these talented people be noticed, how can we help them become what they can become?”
Chelo brainstormed with Leonard, and with two other partners, they opened up Grassroots Community Space at 54 Coles Street. Gradually, Chelo and Sirena took over Grassroots completely, and now it’s a space for community based programming, but also an incubator for artists or entrepreneurs to launch their vision.
On their 11th anniversary, Chelo and Sirena made dinner plans. Sirena would come home from work, change her clothes and they would go out to dinner.
“Throughout the day, I’m speaking with him, and he’s rushing and doing stuff and being really odd and at one point he barked at me! I told my co-worker and she said, ‘He’s going to propose!’. I’m like, ‘Come on, this guy didn’t even ask me to be his girlfriend.’”
Sirena shares the story of how he picked her up from work, and blindfolded her before taking her back to the apartment. Chelo instructed her to put on “comfies”.
“You know, pajamas,” she explains.
Once the blindfold was removed, she saw rose petals all over the floor, where he set up a little cafe in their living room. The apartment had a luxurious scent of candles and an amazing dinner. He proposed to her with a mood ring that became a vibrant, emerald green when he placed it on her finger. “I knew he meant it, this time,” she said. “We were crying, it was just beautiful.”
They organized a dream wedding in Raven’s Valley, Pennsylvania. Venus was rising. It was a full moon. A butterfly landed on Chelo’s shoulder when he said, “I do.” They were married barefoot, in front of a pond.
They had generators, tents, performers, dj’s. Friends and family attended the wedding and then camped for three days.
“How do we explain to our mothers that they can’t wear heels? These are 2 Latin women,” recalls Sirena. “After the wedding we opened it up and some friends invited their friends. At one point somebody comes over to me and says, ‘Can you believe someone got married here this weekend?”
Their wedding actually gave birth to Sirelo Entertainment. “We looked at each other and thought, we could do this, we could throw parties all the time,” said Chelo. Sirelo Entertainment is the vehicle for the local artists and Grassroots artists to be heard and seen, to have platforms, stages, parades, and festivals. Sirelo Entertainment is the company that runs their monthly Elevate parties at Transmission.
“The word elevate, it’s to rise, it’s raising spirits, things getting bigger and bigger, climbing that mountain and feeling free,” explains Chelo. And it’s true. An Elevate party is all those things. “There is no limit. Somebody can have a sword in their mouth. their could be some stilt walkers…”
It’s clear that Sirena and Chelo have a strong foundation in love, but how does a couple navigate running a business together?
“In the beginning we fought a lot,” admitted Chelo. “But, we really pay attention to one another, we’re in the moment, we’re trying to really deal with the issue at hand. That’s why you have to deal with your own ego, we all have an ego, but you have to have a healthy one.”
“And a lot of self love,” adds Sirena. “Know that I did do it, I did my best, and I still love me, I still think I’m quite fabulous,” she laughs.
What advice do these true love experts have for those looking for their true love?
“Be the truest form of yourself that you can be, because when you show your flaws and your wildness from the beginning you have nothing to hide and if that person likes you regardless, yay for you,” offers Sirena. “But if you’re trying to hide them, they become elephants, and they become bigger and bigger. And sometimes it’s not even a big deal. You hide something from somebody and then when they finally find out, they’re like so? Be yourself, be your quirky self!
“I go back to having a practice every day that works on self, we all need to do that. Regardless of whether you’re in a relationship or not,” suggests Chelo. “You need to know who you are, that’s a new discovery every day, you’re an ever evolving being you have to check in every day and get to know yourself. That’s going to help you find a partner you can actually live with and be with and work with.”
Our advice? Put on your red shoes and dance the blues, February 20th at Sirelo Entertainment’s Red Party!