"Mexico" Mike - Ex-media spokesman, Mexico Tourism Ministry. Named Mexico expert by NY Times, Wall Street Journal, TX Monthly, Guardian (UK), Mexico City News, Atención (San Miguel de Allende), Irish Times
Elvis Is Alive and Well in Monterrey, Nuevo Leon!
By "Mexico" Mike Nelson, Stories About Mexico (Velvet Paintings)
I screamed into Monterrey in my first ex-wifes powder-blue 65 Mustang; young, cocky, invincible. I thought I was to become an import-export millionaire. I didnt. I did become the Whip King of New Orleans, though, but that was later.This was 1969. Mexicans often liked me, with my handlebar moustache, long hair, paisley print shirts, and my cockiness. They appreciate color and swagger.
Julian was one of them -- a young, ambitious Mexican with a stall of ticky-tacky interspersed with real crap in Monterreys old market. He showed me that Mexicans are salesmen, that they can be artisans of soul-rending art or whatever sells to gringos. They dont pretend to understand gringos. They accept that we are loco and get on with the business of doing business.
Eventually, he let me have my first glimpse into the family pride that makes Mexico so strong."Nice stuff," I said, fingering the whips, the dice cups. I was too smart to buy there. The :good stuff" was really farther south. I was only in Monterrey to eat cabrito, or charcoal-roasted kid (goat that is). That and Bohemia beer were two of my passions. He looked at me, straight on, dead on. Mexicans didnt often do that. When they did, they had seen your soul.
"What do you want, really?"Uh-oh, I thought, he wants to sell me drugs. I started to move on."Come on, man. You dont look like someone whos just going to buy a few tourist items. You want to buy wholesale?" His intensity ate right through me. "Maybe. Whatve you got?"
He smiled. Ill never forget his smile. In the late-day darkening shed, his white teeth sparkled. His dark brown face faded into the darkness enveloping him. The smile hovered in the thick air, like the Cheshire cats.He saw he had me hooked."Ill take you to a place where you can get anything made anywhere in the Republic."
That day in Monterrey, my life changed. I had Betty Sues Mustang, most of her life savings, and the grandiose dreams of a cocky nineteen year-old. Through the years, there would be other Betty Sues. They are as much a part of the story as anything. Mexico does something to people, including engorging the libido. Julian took me to a big, ugly warehouse where every conceivable type of crap made in Mexico was for sale."Heres the artists room,: he said with pride.Cool, I thought. Artists. Thats the ticket.
I envisioned an enclave where serious students were making murals or painting the anguished soul of the country on canvas.With a flourish, he pulled back a dusty tarp in one corner of the dim building. Before me, at several tables were the artists! They didnt look up as we entered.The first table had a huge roll, seven feet wide and a hundred yards long of black velvet!As the "artists" unrolled it, they snipped and the piece was whisked down the line to the next artist.They were a marvel, those artists. The age of specialization and assembly line had joined, there in that dusty room.
One intent student painted the head of Elvis, while another farther down the line, worked on The Kings torso. As Elvis rolled down the line from craftsman to craftsman, his head joined his body, he was clothed in his most gaudy costumes (including a bullfighters, with stretched tight toreador pants and a suggestive bulge in the middle), and finally given a guitar. Now that was art!"How you like it, Miguel?" Julian smiled even bigger than in his stall.The first rule about knocking around Mexico is to never offend, if you can possibly help it. While this stuff was garbage to someone with my highly developed sense of aesthetics, to others it was indeed art.
"Impressive," I managed to blurt"You bet. And whats even better, is the price. Do you know how much these things sell for?" In truth I didnt. In fact, I had prided myself on not knowing. "No," I blurted. "$40! Imagine that! Forty U.S. dollars." I swear I saw his eyes gleam and them mist over at the thought of all those deprived Americans who had $40, but not the opportunity to buy these objects dart. Imagine that.
"Now, my friend, Ive saved the best for the last. I can get you all you want of these, and I dont just mean Elvis. This is Tuesday. Thats Elvis day. Wednesday we do Columbus ships on a moonlit ocean. Its enough to make you cry.""Im sure it is." I was very near tears myself. " Fridays we do Jesus with the bleeding heart, though sometimes we do Martin Luther King and the Kennedy brothers." "Hey I wouldnt want to miss that."
In fact, I was about to cry. Julian lowered his voice to a conspiratorial whisper. AI can get these for you for only $6 and a $1 commission to me, of course."Of course." I started thinking. While they didnt meet my elegant tastes and weren'tt what I was sent to bring back, the potential for profit was enormous. I knew that this junk would sell in the French Quarter, back home in New Orleans. It would also mean I could take the next couple of days off, go to Horsetail Falls, get drunk, eat cabrito and get home soon. Whatever else I may have said about Betty-Sue, she could suck a golf ball through a straw and I missed her sorely. "How about 50?" I said, feeling like a tycoon.
Julian dropped his eyes to the floor."I thought you were a big time importer. We usually only deal in hundred lots at this price.: Now we were talking! This was what I loved about doing business here. This was what it was all about. "Well, friend, I could deal in much larger lots, but I want to make sure the qualitys what Im used to." He grabbed my hand, pulled me over to the roll of velvet and rubbed it, sensuously, along the fabric. The cutter just missed my index finger. "Look, see the expression in the Kings eyes? Dont they just follow you around the room, like in a fine painting?" I had to admit that they did seem to be everywhere, especially the right one, which was oblong and pink. "Oh, no, I dont mean the quality isnt the best, but I have other orders to fill and commitments. This is all I can handle right now."
I turned to walk away."If its too small for you, I understand. "Oh, mi amigo, Miguel, I have no wish to offend you. Perhaps we can make an arrangement. Say, $10 dollars and my commission of $1.50, of course." I clutched my heart. I showed shock in seven languages. "Do I look like I just rode in on a burro? Eight dollars and your dollar, no more." "Nine and a dollar and a quarter." "Eight fifty and a dollar." "Aw, Miguel, you are a good Mexican for a gringo. Its a deal." We shook hands and I paid. One thing about Mexico is that when you buy an item, you also buy the people to pack it, get it to you and a free show as they swing into action.
Never call these people lazy. When the work needs to get done, they scurry and hurry like men possessed. We gringos think because we see men hanging around, doing nothing a lot that the Mexican people are lazy. Truth is, theres just not enough work.They got my fifty Elvis ready and carted them over to my hotel. It was the first of many such trips and importing acumen that would put a strain on my relationship with Betty-Sue and our bank account.
This would later all come to a stinking head when I brought home a gross of wet goat fur cushions. I envisioned them as the perfect accessory for the car or office. The free world had other ideas. Fortunately, though, that evening, I was blissfully unaware of how ignorant I was and how a fool and his money seldom have a long-term relationship. That night, I was King of the King.