There is a house in Monterrey that is not what it seems. It’s an ordinary house, at least by the standards of the elite Del Valle neighborhood. Its architectural style is known among upwardly mobile Mexicans as “conservative American” or “neo-McAllen”—a reference to the South Texas city. The house has a brick facade, a carport, and a peaked concrete roof covered with Spanish tile, and if nobody told you its secret, you’d think a white-collar family lived there.
The house is a gray-market emporium, a grocery version of a speakeasy—a store specializing in foods imported from the United States. Two rooms of the house are stacked •Ââoor to ceiling with packaged grocery items, and a third room contains frozen food. All the familiar brand names are represented here: Cap’n Crunch and Count Chocula cereals, Star-Kist tuna, Planter’s peanuts, Folger’s coffee, Betty Crocker cake mixes, Tide and Fab, even Tabasco sauce. The freezer room has Weight Watchers dinners and other wonders of the microwave. If you need something that the store doesn’t have, don’t worry: A fax machine sits by the cash register, and delivery is available in a day, two days at the most.
Speakeasy stores are an important—and symbolic—feature of life in Del Valle. They represent the rise of an af•Ââuent professional class that has managed to prosper in Mexico despite the Mexican economic crisis of the eighties. Speakeasy stores also represent the Mexican tradition of allowing the rich to live life outside the laws that apply to everyone else. (The authorities raided this speak-easy grocery store several months ago, but they have since ignored it, and the only change is that customers now look over their shoulders before ringing the bell to be admitted.)
What keeps the gray market in business is the distance to the border—the drive is no pleasure even in a Suburban, Del Valle’s car of choice—and a Mexican law requiring imported foodstuffs to carry a label in Spanish. Mexican wholesal-ers affix these white stickers to their merchandise, but speakeasies don’t, because many of the specialty products they carry—crackers made from stone-ground grains and one-gallon jars of artichoke hearts, for example—don’t generate enough demand to warrant the cost.
But Del Valle shoppers don’t mind paying more; indeed, that is part of the point. The soul of Del Valle is consumption. The members of Mexico’s aspiring middle class seek items that re•Ââect status: cigarettes that cost $3 more a carton because the language on the package is English rather than Spanish, or Tex-Mex foods, which imply that the purchaser discovered them while attending college in the United States. Del Valle’s shoppers will pay a premium for Texas chili and for tamales from San Antonio. In a country famous for its salsas, Del Valle is a test market for Pace Picante Sauce.
Del Valle is a cluster of developments that dominate the suburb of San Pedro Garza García, usually called either San Pedro or Garza García for short. San Pedro occupies an irregularly shaped strip, one to three miles wide and about nine miles long, on the southern side of metropolitan Monterrey. The dry Santa Catarina River is its northern boundary, and the mountains of the Sierra Madre Oriental range form a wall to the south. Del Valle occupies the southern and central sectors of San Pedro, two thirds of the suburb’s land space. Its residences—excluding the villas of the megarich—are mostly exemplars of the boxy, •Ââat-roofed modern style or of the newer, angular, neo-McAllen genre. Their interiors are similar to those of American homes, except that walls are of cement block, not Sheetrock. Some streets run up and down hillsides, while others crisscross the valley below. All of them are shaded by trees, which are as rare elsewhere in Monterrey as in Midland.
Del Valle is also the headquarters of but not—heaven forbid!—a manufacturing site for Alfa, Vitro, and Cydsa, Monterrey’s industrial giants. Its financial district features a dozen stock brokerages and as many banks, including a branch of New York’s Citibank. The upscale restaurants that surround the business corridor have names such as Hawaii Five-O, the Granero Grill, and Señor Frog’s—where the help wear shirts that read, “I don’t speak English but I promise not to laugh at your Spanish.”
The richest families in Monterrey live in Del Valle. It is to Monterrey what the Park Cities are to Dallas and River Oaks is to Houston. Bernardo Garza Sada, one of two Mexicans on the Fortune magazine list of the globe’s one hundred richest people, lives in Del Valle—when he’s home, anyhow. So too does Emilio Azcárraga, the heavy in Televisa, Mexico’s only privately owned television network. Lesser-known but regionally vital names—Milmo, Santos, Lobeira, Junco, Margáin, and Clariond—are old fixtures of the place, which isn’t very old; for the most part Del Valle was raw land until the late fifties.
Del Valle’s leading residents are linked not only by money but also by blood. No clearer example exists than the recent mayoral race in San Pedro. The principal candidates were Rogelio Sada Zambrano, of the right-center Partido Acción Nacional, or PAN, and Felipe Zambrano Páez, of the Partido Revolucionario Institucional, or PRI, the party of President Salinas. Sada and Zambrano are millionaires several times over, and they’re cousins. Because family solidarity is more important than party differences here, it didn’t matter much to most San Pedro voters which of the two candidates won the late-fall election.
Most of San Pedro’s grand families live in walled villas occupying a square block each, hidden from the public eye, in homes whose construction costs exceed $2 million. But it’s the upwardly mobile middle-class engineers, accountants, and personnel managers who give the sprawling neighborhood its peculiar stamp. These are the people who have built the ubiquitous neo-McAllen houses on 4,500-square-foot lots—houses and lots whose current prices most of them couldn’t afford to pay. Most of Del Valle’s professionals earn the equivalent of $40,000 to $80,000 a year, but property values in the area have risen so much since 1988