Erin Coulehan

Editorial photography by
Jordan Licon

Editorial Assistant
Katherine Kocian

Additional photography provided by
Johnny Escalante


Step into the pulsating rhythm of El Paso’s nocturnal heartbeat and meet the disruptors of the status quo: Johnny Escalante and Kiki Cervantes, the namesakes behind J&K Present. In a city where tradition meets the avant-garde, these two renegades have carved out a realm of boundless creativity and unbridled passion. From local origins to the zenith of El Paso’s entertainment echelon, their journey is emblematic of audacity, resilience, and an unwavering commitment to pushing boundaries.

It’s the beginning of the summer, and we’re sitting inside Hush Hush, the duo’s most recent bar venture near Southwest University Park, which they created after updating and resuscitating the bones of the building that was the former Blackbird Cantina. The end result is a transportive architectural experience that is undeniably cool and effortlessly stylish.

Or so it seems.

Behind the craft cocktails, chic decor, and overall vibe lies an adventure of grit and determination as two entrepreneurs break conventional norms and write their own rules while overseeing multiple businesses. From navigating the treacherous waters of the industry to weathering the storms of uncertainty, Escalante and Cervantes have emerged as architects of their destiny. Theirs is a saga of calculated risks, strategic alliances, and the relentless pursuit of excellence.

Like the local scene they’ve created and mastered, the foundation of their friendship is a social one.

“We had a lot of mutual friends,” says Cervantes of their introduction in the aughts. “One of my best friends, who I grew up and went to school with, is Johnny’s sister, Jessica, who is my age. When I moved back from TCU, I was friends with the same group as he was coming up.”
Cervantes graduated with a degree in fashion merchandising from TCU, and moved home to work in his family’s denim manufacturing business, Border Apparel.

“When I moved back, it was like, ‘Okay, I graduated with a degree in fashion merchandising – I’m going to be in fashion.’ But I came back, and my dad said, ‘Okay, eight o’clock! You’re working in accounting.’ That lasted a whole month,” he laughs. “I’m not a 9 to 5 person with a 12 to 1 lunch hour. I was trying to be more on the fashion side of creative product development but still had the curiosity of doing something else. I’ve always been a fan of music and entertainment.”

Enter, Escalante.

While also working for his family’s business, Escalante Roofing, the two’s orbits intersected.

Initially, their venture stemmed from their social circles and mutual interests.

“It was like, ‘You know people; I know people. Let’s do a party or a show, and we’ll see what happens,’” says Escalante.

El Pasoans of a certain age (mostly millennials) have fond memories of “The Morning After.”

These brunches, day parties thrown by Escalante and Cervantes before they were J&K, were wild from the start – and in the best possible way. The brunch first started inside G2, then quickly grew to take over the restaurant’s parking lot, eventually outgrowing the Cincinnati Entertainment District and moving to downtown.

Champagne. Confetti. Cool music played loud.

Like the expansion of the parties themselves, the momentum rapidly spilled over into their day jobs.

“When we started doing these shows, we asked ‘How can we push the envelope and do what’s next?’ Then, it started taking up more of my time to the point where I needed to make a choice and figure out what’s next and how to execute what we were doing better,” says Cervantes.

After a few years, they realized the value in what they were creating, as well as the entrepreneurial opportunities.

“I remember my personal accountant telling me, ‘Hey man, you’re starting to make some real money with this, you should probably set up an LLC and start reporting taxes.’ Up until then we were doing a show or party on a weekend, just here or there. At first, my mindset wasn’t really that this was a business, because I was still working for the construction company,” says Escalante.

But he remained drawn to the call.

“This was kind of like gambling: we’d throw parties and were just thinking about building a brand by throwing the coolest parties in town. We’d book these DJs and throw shows. I wasn’t really looking at the cost, the profits, or the expenses. There were a lot of times where we’d lose money on a show or get taken advantage of by certain bar owners who thought we were just young kids who wanted to have a party. It took us a while to be like, ‘This is a real business that we’re going to get serious about.’ Then we started to figure out ‘We can charge for this. We can make X amount of money. We’re older now, we can’t just get paid with free booze.’ What we were doing was creating value and we said ‘Alright, gotta get serious.’”

Thus, J&K Present, their entertainment and promotions agency, was established.

Together, the two combined their skills and formed a business centered on a lifestyle that’s come to produce premier entertainment in the Borderland from day parties and merch, to bar ventures and shows of all sizes.

In the realm of concrete and neon, J&K Present stands as an example of innovation, reshaping the nightlife (or day party) narrative one electrifying event at a time. What began as a serendipitous collision of personalities and aspirations has blossomed into an empire fueled by adrenaline and ambition. With Escalante’s entrepreneurial prowess and Cervantes’ artistic flair, they’ve curated a collage of experiences that defy convention and challenge the status quo.

“The best part of my job is I can think of an idea, put it into motion and execute and have people perceive it as something that they want to embrace,” says Cervantes. “I like creative avenues and expressing our creativity with shows and parties. If you look through our portfolio, what we’ve done is what we were into at the time. Whether we were creating spaces or pushing DJs, it’s a reflection of who we were and what we were into at the time.”

It’s a delicate balance that the duo manage with aplomb.

“What I bring to the table when we’re working on a room is ‘How do we do what’s next? And how do we stay timeless?’ I like to make it so that two to three years from now, the place is still designed correctly and feels good,” Cervantes adds. “Johnny is the type where, if I throw out an idea, the next day he’ll have four options about how to move forward. The ability to push things forward, make things happen, and bring them to fruition. He’s really good at asking ‘What are we going to do next?’ because he knows that’s how we’re going to get better.”

In addition to J&K Present, Escalante and Cervantes own hotspots Later, Later; Lost & Found, and Hush Hush that attract patrons from near and far. It’s not uncommon to see a line wrapped around the block to get into one of the bars on a Friday night.

It’s also not uncommon to run into J&K themselves, on the clock but also in the spotlight.

“It’s exciting and overwhelming to pull up to one of our spots on a Friday night. We’re from here, we’re local guys. We’re at our bars, we’re at our shows. We want to be able to cater to everything that’s going on, especially on nights that we have lines around the block, in order to function properly,” says Cervantes.

To do so requires patience, planning, and the discipline behind-the-scenes that makes it all look easy.

“The perception is that we show up on a Friday night and everything just comes together,” says Cervantes. “There’s a lot that goes on behind-the-scenes for not only us, but our entire team and our ability to curate and create events – these things don’t just come together.”

Beyond the dazzling marquees and booming basslines, there are sleepless nights, bruised egos, and hard-fought victories. It’s a world where the line between dream and reality blurs, along with the division of personal and professional identities.

“People think that what we do is really fun – and it is – because it doesn’t feel like work but it still is. There’s still accounting, there’s still HR, there’s still legal,” Escalante explains. “I think a lot of people undermine how much work goes into it. We get comments like ‘You guys don’t work, it must be so nice.’ But we have six businesses that we’re running almost at all times.”

Fortunately, both have solid support systems – especially with the support of their siblings.

“My sister, Jessica, is four years older than me and was always the cool girl in my eyes. I have vivid memories of her being barely old enough to drive a car, she had a little Honda Civic,” Escalante recalls with a smile. “We’d turn the corner and she’d pull over to make me drive so she could finish her makeup. She was into Fiona Apple and Erykah Badu, so we’d listen to that in the car.”

As they grew up, Escalante grew to value the support of his cool older sister, who continues to root for and work with J&K.

“What I admire most about my brother is his generosity and sense of humor,” she says. “He shares his time and love without measure. People really like to be around him and I’ve always felt really proud of that.”

She adds that while she’s impressed by Escalante’s accomplishments, she’s not surprised.

“I knew from a young age that he would be successful,” she says. “He’s always had a special something: he’s smart, creative and fun. Everyone always sees the positive end results, but I’ve seen the setbacks and lows. It’s been the greatest satisfaction to see someone who I love so much grow and succeed time and time again.”

For Cervantes, his journey to success is also intertwined with the bond he shares with his sisters and parents.

“Being so close with my sisters and parents has given me the opportunity to be able to do things like this and that’s something that I don’t take for granted,” he says.

Like Escalante, Cervantes’ achievements are also a source of pride for his siblings.

“I’m immensely proud of Kiki,” says his sister, Carla. “His creativity and vision is unique and whimsical, and he continues to amaze our family throughout his career. Every project tells a beautiful story, and he does an incredible job transforming ideas into reality. The attention to detail on design, diversification, marketing, and quality is what sets you apart.”
Behind the dazzling façade of packed venues and pulsating beats lies a world of meticulous planning and tireless dedication. “People might think that we’re just cruising and having a blast,” Escalante muses, “but it looks easy from the outside.” Beneath the surface, they juggle a myriad of responsibilities all while navigating the unpredictable currents of the entertainment industry.
Their success is not just measured in Instagram likes and sold-out shows, but also in the resilience forged through countless setbacks and late-night brainstorming sessions. “It’s not a 9 to 5,” Cervantes explains, “even when you’re off, you’re thinking about work, checking emails, and things like that.”
Today, their collaboration is a symphony of contrasts: Escalane, the assertive risk-taker, and Cervantes, the visionary tastemaker. “He’s the one who leads us in the right direction,” Escalante reflects, acknowledging Kiki’s creative prowess. Together, they straddle the delicate balance between innovation and timelessness, constantly probing the boundaries of El Paso’s cultural landscape.
While simultaneously in the limelight, behind the scenes, and ahead of the curve, Escalante and Cervantes serve as the masterminds and faces of J&K Present, few have had the opportunity to step inside the inner workings of their universe.
As they reflect on their journey from impromptu parties to lifestyle moguls, Escalante and Cervantes remain grounded in their commitment to community and creativity. “We turned a hobby into a lifestyle,” says Cervantes.
The lifestyle – like J&K – are evolving, all at once out loud but also “Hush Hush.”