“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 brewery called Cervecería Cuauhtémoc, and the dynasty was formed when Garza married Sada’s sister. The Garza Sadas would eventually found and own the five largest companies in Monterrey, a city that by the early nineties was producing 25 percent of Mexico’s gross national product with less than 4 percent of its population.

Today Garza Sadas are legion. Cousins marry cousins, and there are so many of them in Monterrey that being there is a bit like reading Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, in which everyone is named Buendía. No matter how rich they are, Garza Sadas don’t take up residence in Paris or New York. Divorce is extremely rare. Women stay home and raise children. Men are expected to work, and business is still the only valid occupation.

However anachronistic it might seem, a family dynasty has its advantages, the principal one being that it can act with consensus. Monterrey might have been a closed, incestuous society, but that meant Guillermo Sepúlveda knew the two hundred most influential people in town. He had married into the Garza Sada family, and his mother-in-law, Doña Márgara Garza Sada de Fernández, was and is one of the most influential members of Monterrey society.

Sepúlveda opened his gallery in 1969, and less than ten years later the Museo de Monterrey was opened in the old Cervecería Cuauhtémoc headquarters, which appropriately enough looks like a big redbrick courthouse. The museum is owned and supported by Cervecería Cuauhtémoc and the brewery’s holding company, FEMSA (controlled by the Garza Lagüera family, a branch of the Garza Sadas). In 1991 Monterrey inaugurated a second private museum, Museo de Arte Contemporaneo de Monterrey (MARCO), which sits on the plaza downtown next to the cathedral. Doña Márgara, as she is known throughout the city, and Diego Sada, a cousin, usually get credit for building MARCO.

Museo de Monterrey has a permanent collection of approximately eight hundred Mexican and Latin American objects, including works by the Mexican masters—Rivera, Tamayo, Kahlo, Orozco, and Siqueiros. The museum hosts traveling international shows as well as the Bienal de Monterrey. Admission is free, and if you get tired of the art, you can walk across the front driveway to sample a complimentary Carta Blanca.

MARCO strikes a more urbane stance in a stunning new building designed by Mexico’s most famous architect, Ricardo Legorreta (who also designed San Antonio’s colorful main library). The museum has a relatively small permanent collection—120 pieces—but maintains an intense schedule, mounting nine or ten shows a year. Both museums have become extremely popular. Recently, six thousand regios showed up at MARCO for the opening of an exhibition of paintings by Colombian artist Fernando Botero.

In addition to the museums, there are three particularly interesting galleries in Monterrey. Guillermo Sepúlveda’s Arte Actual Mexicano handles several local artists who are truly extraordinary—Julio Galán, Sylvia Ordóñez, Arturo Marty. Galán has launched an international career, and his autobiographical, sexually ambiguous paintings are often compared with those of Frida Kahlo. Ordóñez is a lush, sensual painter reminiscent of Gauguin and O’Keeffe. Marty makes mysterious, psychologically dense paintings.

Paintings at Arte Actual range in price from as little as $1,000 for young artists to $150,000. Most of the clientele is from Monterrey; collectors from Texas have yet to discover galleries here. Prices are higher at Galería Ramis Barquet, which handles internationally famous Latin American artists. Ramis Barquet opened in 1987 in Garza García and has recently launched a New York branch on Fifty-seventh Street. Barquet quit the restaurant business to open his gallery and in 1991 moved seven of Cuba’s leading artists—in some cases with their families—to Monterrey. A third and very young gallery, Galerie BF.15, which is near the center of town, specializes in the jagged edges of Mexico’s avant-garde. One of its artists, Estela Torres, paints with her own blood, and the art collective Grupo Semefo, from Mexico City, works in the tradition of funerary art, making paintings by covering cadavers with blood, then taking an impression on a white sheet.

Monterrey is a big city that is predicted to double in size in the next six years, but for the rich it remains a small town. Sepúlveda says there are ten major collectors in Monterrey who all know each other and, it being Monterrey, are all related in one way or another. According to an employee at Arte Actual, most of the collectors, surrounded by their bodyguards, swoop down at regular intervals to see new work. They are serious, well informed, and competitive, but Doña Márgara is noted for being the most discerning. “Don’t call when you have new paintings,” the employee quoted Doña Márgara as saying. “Call when you have the painting.”

John Davidson, a former senior editor of Texas Monthly, lives in Austin.