“WE ARE A CLOSED SOCIETY,” says Guillermo Sepúlveda. “We’re incestuous. Families have been here for three hundred years, and no one leaves Nuevo León. We might marry someone from Jalisco, but we don’t leave Monterrey.”
These are strange words considering that Sepúlveda is in the process of explaining how Monterrey, just 150 miles south of Laredo, has become an international center for Latin American art. But rather than emphasize the sophistication of regiomontanos, as the citizens of Monterrey are called, he explains their commitment to place and how a hostile desert climate shaped the character of a people who in turn built a city.
Sepúlveda is the owner of Arte Actual Mexicano, one of Monterrey’s two leading art galleries, and he is generally considered the catalyst that turned a city associated with beer and smokestacks into a center for the arts. When Sepúlveda opened Arte Actual thirty years ago, Monterrey had no galleries of consequence, not one museum of any sort, and no collectors. Today Monterrey is an art market that rivals Mexico City, Houston, and Dallas. (Before the Mexican economy crashed in 1995, art professionals in Texas estimated that Arte Actual and the other leading gallery, Ramis Barquet, were each selling approximately $250,000 in art a month, and the galleries still appear to be thriving.)
Monterrey now has two major art museums—Museo de Monterrey and Museo de Arte Contemporaneo de Monterrey. The Museo de Monterrey sponsors the Bienal de Monterrey, which is the largest and most prestigious art competition in Mexico. If the 1998 biennial, which runs from April 29 to July 4, is anything like the 1994 biennial, the works should be wonderful, much more free than what you see in the U.S., where young artists have been thoroughly professionalized by art schools and everyone is looking over his shoulder at the critics. Mexican artists appear to be working with equal conviction and energy in all the genres, from the most avant-garde conceptual art to gorgeously painted still lifes and landscapes.
Sepúlveda talks with a great deal of amused animation. A large man in his mid-fifties, with heavy jowls and long hair that curls over his collar, he is reclining on one of the two plush Roche-Bobois leather couches in his office at Arte Actual. The gallery occupies a house on a side street in Garza García, an exclusive neighborhood in Monterrey that resembles Beverly Hills, with bougainvillea clambering over the massive walls of the immense houses that march along well-manicured, tree-lined streets thronged with Mercedes and BMWs.
Sepúlveda started out in banking in the late sixties, when business was the only acceptable career for upper-class men in Monterrey. “I was part of things,” he recalls, “but I wasn’t entirely there. I was a voyeur. My eye was the way I expressed myself. One day at work, I read an article about a bank in Switzerland that was buying up French Impressionists to sell to the Japanese when the yen went up. There was also a lot of news at that time about the Rockefeller collection at Chase Manhattan in New York. When I went to the bank president with a proposal to do something similar, he said, ‘Why don’t you do it on your own?’
“In the beginning, it was very difficult. There was no infrastructure, no cultural spaces, no dance, no platform from which to discuss the issues. There were ten different universities, but no humanities. In DF [Mexico City], everyone thought I was crazy, that we were savages.” Sepúlveda started small. For the first five or six years, he scoured the northern states of Mexico looking for painters and sculptors. At the same time, he began preparing the ground for change in Monterrey. He made a list of two hundred of the most influential people in the city, then went door to door, giving a “continuous lecture” on the advantages of collecting and the importance of art for a city. He had read an article by a German professor about how northern cities are often in the cultural vanguard, and he had an idea that Monterrey could play the same sort of role in Mexico that Barcelona played in Spain and Milan played in Italy. That Sepúlveda succeeded so brilliantly is not simply a testament to his powers of persuasion; it also speaks volumes about the fundamental structure of Monterrey.
For a city of three million people, Monterrey is extraordinarily coherent. Regiomontanos are known throughout Mexico for being hardworking, aggressive, and frugal. (“ Codo,” Mexicans from other parts of the country say whenever a regio is mentioned, tapping the elbow where skin is tightest and bone hardest.) You can ask almost anyone in Monterrey why regios are this way, and they will give the same explanation. They will talk about the influence of the desert and how drought and the scarcity of resources taught them to save and plan. Then they will contrast themselves with the south (meaning Mexico City), and say, “Here in the north, there wasn’t a settled indigenous population to do the work, and with the climate, we couldn’t simply pluck fruit from the trees”—at this point they will invariably make a languid gesture of reaching up behind them to pluck an apple from a tree. Then, finally, though the city is staunchly Catholic, they might mention their Jewish tradition and how Monterrey was founded in 1596 by Sephardic Jews fleeing the “purity of blood” laws of the Spanish Inquisition. The leader of the colony, Don Luis Rodríguez de Carvajal, was burned at the stake with his mother and sisters during the Inquisition of Mexico City. What regios don’t say, however, is that Monterrey is run by a dynasty, nor do they talk about the influence of one family upon their city.
There are several old, powerful families in Monterrey—the Clarionds, Mugüerzas, Lagüeras, Zambranos, Barragáns, and Santoses. But it is the Garza Sada family that has dominated the city for more than a hundred years. In 1881 Isaac Garza and Francisco Sada founded a