Sunday morning about twelve years ago, Rogelio Agrasánchez, Jr., looked up Charles Ramírez Berg in the phone book and called him out of the blue. "I hear you're working on a book about Mexican cinema," Agrasánchez said. "I'm a collector. I have some of those films."
Ramírez Berg, a film professor at the University of Texas at Austin, had received other calls that began in a similar fashion, and he started thinking that this was just another amateur who wanted to discuss the significance of his video collection. So he asked, "How many films do you have?"
"Well, we have more than five hundred, but we're going to get more," Agrasánchez responded.
"What medium are we talking about here?" Ramírez Berg asked.
"Original films," Agrasánchez said, adding, "Some of them are kind of old, though, from the thirties and forties."
"The thirties and forties," Ramírez Berg thought. He took a deep breath, then asked, "What else do you have?"
"Posters," Agrasánchez said. "Lots of posters."
In fact, Agrasánchez has the largest private collection of Mexican movie posters in the world—"maybe twenty thousand"— with about half of them dating from the golden age of Mexican cinema, 1936 to 1956. Stored in a dark, climate-controlled vault in Harlingen, his collection rivals that of Mexico's national film archive, the Cineteca Nacional in Mexico City. He also has around 90,000 movie stills and 40,000 lobby cards in addition to original films on nitrate stock.
Agrasánchez, who is 47, grew up in Mexico City, where his father was a film producer and distributor. In the seventies, after receiving his bachelor's and master's degrees in Latin American studies from UT-Austin, he moved to the Valley. Over the next two decades, while traveling around South Texas and Mexico, he would saunter into movie studios and theaters that were stacked with old posters and casually ask, "May I have these?"
"Sure," the manager would say. "If you don't take them, we're just going to throw them away."
The Agrasánchez archive is now worth around $400,000. Agrasánchez spends half of his time gathering material for books on Mexican movie posters, such as Cine Mexicano, which was published in 1998 with an introduction by Ramírez Berg. The rest of the time he is buying more pieces to put in his vault and organizing them in categories: comedy, drama, history and religion, mystery and adventure, charros and folklore, and cabareteras, a genre that depicts the sordid lives of female cabaret performers. Because the artists often didn't sign their work, Agrasánchez has been unable to determine who painted many of the posters. However, the work of Ernesto García "Chango" Cabral (see El revoltoso, top right, and El campeón ciclista, page 91), who was an important caricaturist, is immediately recognizable, as are the cubist designs of Josep Renau Berenguer (see La mulata de Córdoba, page 91, and Soledad, page 93), a Spanish communist who moved to Mexico in 1939 to work as a poster artist and muralist.
These posters, created when this disposable art form was at its apex, reveal not only the state of Mexican cinema during its golden age and where stars like Pedro Infante and Tin-Tan stood in their careers, but also the sociology of a thriving, post-revolutionary Mexico.