Down in Del Valle

December 1991By Comments

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 •âoor 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•âuent 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•âect 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, •âat-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 that the next generation of managers may be forever barred from homesteading there. This possibility, of course, only adds to the prestige that Del Valle’s residents wear on their shirtsleeves. Lots in Del Valle sell for $20 to $30 a square foot, a steep price anywhere; ten years ago they sold for half as much.

Though the cost of housing has gone sky-high, Del Valle’s families still enjoy a relative bargain in domestic services. Maids and gardeners earn about $150 to $200 a month, and every professional family hires at least a full-time maid. The statistical result is that 25,000 residents, more than 20 percent of San Pedro’s population, are domestic workers.

The gap between rich and poor in Mexico is re•âected in the differences between San Pedro and Monterrey. The latest figures show that the student-staff ratio in high schools, 19 to 1 in Monterrey, is 9 to 1 in San Pedro, where most students attend private academies. Professionals account for 15 percent of San Pedro’s work force, compared with 5 percent in Monterrey. The Monterrey Country Club is located, naturally, in San Pedro, and costs $145,000 to join. (Athletic club memberships are a comparative bargain, at $6,000 and up.) But you don’t have to go poking into statistics or the costs of private clubs to see Del Valle’s af•âuence: GQ and Architectural Digest, not Fama, Mexico’s version of the National Enquirer, are the publications that are sold from racks in supermarket checkout lines.

Del Valle’s conspicuous consumers record their lives in a neighborhood press that is unrivaled in the field of society reporting. It is Sierra Madre, a rotogravure section published as a suburban supplement to the Monterrey daily El Norte. The thrice-weekly tabloid section averages more than 1,200 pages a month of weddings, anniversaries, quinceañeras, and “baby showers”—the English phrase is always used—and also serves as a guide to services that you can’t buy in the States, such as home delivery of hamburgers. If the son or daughter of a San Pedro magnate sets up a lemonade stand in the summertime, you’ll see and read about it in Sierra Madre, where the kid’s infant baptism was undoubtedly also chronicled in picture and story.

If Del Valle were to adopt a logo, it would be the parabólica, a satellite dish that brings HBO, Cinemax, and CNN down from the skies. The neighborhood bible, Orbita—a monthly satellite guide the size of a telephone book—reported a few years ago that San Pedro has more dishes per capita than any other municipality in the world. This summer the usually reliable national newsweekly Epoca reported that there are more than 80,000 parabólicas on San Pedro rooftops. That claim can’t be true; San Pedro’s population is only 120,000.

As things stand, Del Valle already has a symbol that re•âects its tastes, appropriately donated to the city by a real estate developer. It is a chalk-white larger-than-life •âoodlit replica of Michelangelo’s David, which stands in a fountain at the community’s entrance on Calzada San Pedro. Anywhere else in Mexico, such a statue would depict an Aztec warrior or a revolutionary hero. But nativism is low-rent in Del Valle, which—as if to deliberately offend traditional Mexican sensitivities—also has several streets named after conquistadores like Cortés and Pizarro.

Both Mexican and American old-timers insist that Del Valle is not much different from South Texas—and since most have second homes in the Valley, they ought to know. But one obvious difference is the status of women. Despite all the American in•âuence in Del Valle, traditional Mexican attitudes prevail. In Del Valle and San Pedro, just as in Monterrey and Mexico City, female professionals have a hard time getting a job in the commercial world and are more likely to be found in nonprofit jobs. Even if a woman can get a good job, she is still dependent on her husband’s status. I met a single woman who earned $45,000 a year working for a transnational company but who was refused membership in a video-rental club until she listed herself as the dependent of a man who made half as much.

Del Valle remains Mexican, too, in its view of community mores. People are expected to lead a life that, in its appearances, at least, is above reproach. An anecdote frequently told here is set at a wedding. A couple is taking their civil vows; the church ceremony is a month away. After the vows are spoken, the groom leans over to kiss the bride, but her mother intervenes. “Don’t!” she shouts. “You’re not really married yet.” The couple obeys, because the story is set in Mexico.

But Del Valle’s residents don’t agree that their community’s values leave something to be desired. “Coming here was the best thing I could do for my children,” says longtime Del Valle resident Sam Calderón, who moved here from Chicago in 1957. “My daughters were getting into their teens, and I thought that the best family group could be developed here, where they do not have drug problems, drive-ins, and all of those gathering places where peer pressure is so great.” Other Del Valle pioneers, most of whom are now retired, similarly endorse their community. But the offspring don’t always share the parents’ enthusiasm. Looking for jobs and personal freedom, two of Calderón’s three children have returned to the United States.

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