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In Texas, Los Regios Rate Royal Reception

TIMES STAFF WRITER

They cross the border in convoys of Suburbans and Silverados, fair-skinned and light-eyed migrants. They carry gold cards with their Mexican passports, wear Rolexes with their Speedos. On the island, they eat $29.95 lamb chops at the Grill Room, buy $125 Italian shirts at Tate’s, drink top-shelf whiskey at Tequila Frog’s, share their prayers and prosperity with Our Lady Star of the Sea Catholic Church.

They are los regios, the regal ones, the elite of Monterrey. Their factories pump life into Mexico’s beleaguered economy. Their profits feed the high life of this Texas beach resort.

“People in the United States always say, ‘The Mexicans,’ ” said Sergio Goicoechea, a 43-year-old engineering consultant, his chest glistening in tanning oil as he lounged on the sand outside one of South Padre’s swankiest condominiums. “I always say, ‘Which Mexicans do you refer to?’ ”

His kind--educated and affluent, with cell phones hitched to Tommy Hilfiger shorts and a Spaniard’s visage under Polo Sport caps--represents an often-overlooked breed of border crosser. While some Americans fret about the costs of Mexican immigration, this is one wave of Rio Grande traffic that pays for itself.

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Or as Haim Hershkowits, owner of a trendy South Padre T-shirt shop, put it: “If these people don’t show up, we’re screwed.”

Monterrey (literally, King’s Mountain, hence the regal nickname) is Mexico’s manufacturing juggernaut, a bastion of upper-crust, old-money industrial might. A city of 3 million in the northeastern highlands, just 135 miles from the U.S. border, it also is the closest metropolis to the sugary sands of Texas’ southern Gulf Coast--a three-hour drive, compared to six hours from Houston or 10 from Dallas.

“Padre Island belongs to Monterrey,” said Francisco Flores, 43, a construction company owner, soaking at the Sheraton Fiesta’s swim-up bar here earlier this month. He added with a splash and a laugh: “We built it. It’s ours.”

For los regios, South Padre is indeed more than a tropical getaway; it is the crown jewel of an investment portfolio. Mexicans own nearly half of the island’s 2,500 condominium units, a good hedge against the seesawing peso, albeit an exodus of cash hardly cheered by their struggling countrymen. In some ritzy high-rises, such as the 51-unit, marbled-and-mirrored Emerald Beach tower (where prices start at $600,000 and security guards watch over the electronic gate), virtually all of the tenants hail from the same upscale neighborhood--San Pedro Garza Garcia, the Beverly Hills of Monterrey.

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“We get the cream of the crop here,” said Dennis Franke, a South Padre real estate developer who built the Emerald Beach and several other luxury projects that cater to Monterrey families. Although he conceded that some money from Mexico’s drug cartels conceivably seeps into the local economy, he insisted that “these are very old, stable, upper-class industrialists . . . the people who manufacture all the things that make a country run,” many of whom have been his clients for decades.

“We happen to be in the States,” Franke explained, “and they like to come to the States.”

Major Impact in Holy Week

There is no better time to witness their impact than during Holy Week, Mexico’s version of spring break, which ended on Easter. Christmas and summer vacation also bring many moneyed Mexicans north for U.S. splurges, from shopping sprees in San Diego to ski retreats in the Rockies. But few destinations experience as singular an infusion as South Padre, dubbed by one Mexican newspaper as “la nueva isla” of Monterrey, the landlocked city’s “new island.”

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Home to fewer than 2,500 permanent residents, it swells to a community of nearly 50,000 this time of the year, many arriving in mammoth sports utility wagons with green-on-white “NL” plates, signaling Monterrey’s home state, Nuevo Leon. A remarkable number have been coming for generations, upgrading their accommodations over the years, transforming the annual trek into an exhibition of material wealth.

“It’s a custom for us now,” said Joaquin Miguel, a Monterrey insurance broker who has enjoyed Holy Week on the island since he was a teenager. Now 47, he comes every year with his wife and three young daughters, English-speaking girls who have never even set foot in Cancun or Acapulco.

“Actually, the Mexican beaches are better, if you’re looking to party,” said Miguel, sporting amber-toned Vuarnet sunglasses under a private beach umbrella. “But this place is better if you just want to be with your family, get some rest, do some shopping, you know, take advantage of all the American comforts.”

Women with spectacular makeup and jewelry roam the beach, hair frosted and dyed. Businessmen boasting tans of leisure pore over El Norte, Monterrey’s leading newspaper, which offers daily delivery to South Padre’s exclusive condos during Holy Week. Mexican photographers trail los regios, filling the society pages with pictures of the rich and famous on their American holiday.

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Visit Seen as Status Symbol

“To be able to come here and spend dollars--that is very much a status symbol,” said Fernando Rivera, 29, the heir to an Ecuadorean banana fortune whose family has been exporting to Monterrey for decades. He was staying with friends at the Emerald Beach, in a four-bedroom apartment awash in blond wood, polished glass and white leather. His Porsche convertible was parked outside, next to a surveillance camera and a landscaped waterfall. A sign at the entrance asked that “all contractors and decorators etc.” please use the side doors.

“We’re not here illegally, we don’t use your welfare system and we’re not on donkeys wearing sombreros,” added Rivera, who is studying for his MBA at the nearby University of Texas campus in Edinburg. “We’re injecting quite a lot into your economy.”

That reality is not lost on South Padre, which rolls out the red carpet for its international guests. Shopkeepers stock up, extend hours, hire extra sales people. The city hosts an entire weekend of Spanish-language concerts, along with an Easter egg hunt, at its convention center.

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“Holy Week for us is like Christmas is for other U.S. merchants,” said Tate Celaya, the island’s haute clothier, his racks reserved for imported Riscatto and Votre Nom togs. He estimates that his average sale jumps to about $1,000 per customer from a typical $200 or $300 during the rest of the year.

“They want the nicest clothes, the best quality, the newest stuff,” said Celaya, who has watched his Monterrey clientele increase steadily since he opened in 1983.

At the finest restaurants, the dinner hour grows later, to a more European-style 9 or 10 p.m. The cuts of meat get richer, the French wines flow more freely, the aged cognacs and hand-rolled cigars cloud the air until almost 2 a.m. “They don’t care who’s having to put up with that cigar, either,” said Shane Beasley, night manager of the Grill Room, where almost every table gets filled by a Monterrey family. “They’re a little tougher customer, but we love the business.”

Not as Wild as Spring Break

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Being a religious holiday, Easter week here does not degenerate into the raucous abandon of American spring break, the kind that descended on the island in March. But on the final Friday and Saturday (Good Friday and Holy Saturday, to be precise), there was still plenty of action--a blowout of Tejano bands at Charlie’s Paradise Bar, the thump of an outdoor disco at Louie’s Backyard, a wet T-shirt contest at Tequila Frog’s.

Such revelry on such sacred days is “a little like selling tamales at your grandmother’s funeral,” acknowledged Father Joe O’Brien, pastor of Our Lady Star of the Sea in nearby Port Isabel.

Yet the fact that several thousand parishioners packed his lacquered wooden pews on Easter Sunday--and that he had to schedule a second Spanish-language mass just to handle the Monterrey overflow--was evidence to him not of hypocrisy, but of “close-knit, family-oriented values.” Despite their sometimes conspicuous consumption, his visiting Mexican flock is credited with donating all the marble for Our Lady’s pulpit, altar and credenza.

“I’d say it’s a pretty good balance in life,” said O’Brien.

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And so would Goicoechea, the gold crucifix on his tanning chest flashing in the South Padre sun. “Yes, Mexico suffers from a terrible inequality in the distribution of wealth,” he said. His came, in part, from his father, a Spanish-born supermarket magnate. But Goicoechea also attended the region’s highly respected university, Monterrey Tech, where he learned about “automization, quality control and the optimization of industrial processes,” a field that allowed him to develop his own lucrative consulting business.

“What we lack isn’t money or resources, it’s education,” said Goicoechea, who has been coming to South Padre for 25 years, first as a teenager and now with his own teenage daughters. Designer clothes and beachfront condos only tell half of the story.

“The richness,” he said, “is in the man.”


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