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MEXICO'S EL DORADO
by Bob Brooke

CinterMex Convention Center, Monterrey, MexicoSome say the streets of Monterrey are paved with gold, but more likely they're paved with pesos, for Monterrey is Mexico's wealthiest city. It's no wonder that it can be considered Mexico's El Dorado.

As I flew into Monterrey, I saw only desert, the pale dry earth, baked to a powdery loam under the withering sun. A few scrubby plants push up their dusty bending leaves. The newly enlarged and renovated General Mariano Escobedo International Airport lies in the midst of this baked desolation. Although it's not unusual to see a coyote on the way into the city, I saw none.

My taxi driver didn’t look Mexican. He didn’t even look like a Spaniard. He might have been a cabbie in New Orleans or Dallas. It's a long ride into town across the dusty desert. Over the earth spans a sky of powder blue, flecked with gray dust. There's an alkaline aridity in the air and the land. There's almost a smell and taste of alkali in the air that hangs over the soil. The sun sprays down its fire unceasingly.

To a Californian or myself, an Easterner, it's a scorcher. To a Texan it's a cool day, in the low nineties. Though the air feels hot by any man's measure, it's also dry and not oppressive. Monterrey is definitely more pleasant than Houston, Fort Worth, or Dallas.

The people of Monterrey, known as regiomontanos, are progressive compared to the rest of Mexico. Ranked by Banamex as the No. 1 city in Mexico. Here, I didn’t find the laid-back lifestyle of most of Mexico.

Monterrey isn't a beautiful or a charming city, but parts of it are striking. It's a businessman's town. Regiomontanos say that the nearest town, Saltillo, is "one hour and three centuries away."

I found downtown always full of traffic. It closely resembles San Antonio, Texas, in atmosphere. In fact, I discovered more Texas newspapers on sale in Monterrey than there are papers in Spanish.

Monterrey, the capital of the state of Nuevo Leon, is Northern Mexico's powerhouse–second only to Mexico City as a commercial center. A bustling, hard-driving, hard-working, wealthy city, it boasts an opera season longer than in any twice its size in the U.S and one of the highest literacy rates in Mexico. Legend says that the saddle-shaped crest of a nearby mountain, Cerro de la Silla, was formed when a local citizen lost a peso on the topmost ridge and kept digging frantically until he discovered it.

In 1579, Luis de Carvajal y de la Cueva, usually called "luckless" by historians, received permission from the King of Spain to found the New Kingdom of Leon in northern Mexico. He arrived in 1584 and established the outpost of Ojos de Santa Lucia to provide defense against Indian attacks.

In 1596 when a dozen Spanish families, led by Don Diego de Montemayor, established the first permanent settlement. He named it Villa de Nuestra Senora de Monterrey after the then viceroy, the Count of Monterrey. Though the infant town was exposed to Indian raids, it became an economic center for the region's mines and vast cattle and sheep ranches. Early settlers, frequently attacked by Indians, survived.

The town became a natural crossroads for all traveling north or south through eastern or central Mexico, including every army that marched through the country. Both sides held the city at one time or another during Mexico's struggle for independence from 1810-1821. A century later, Pancho Villa began his revolution here.

In 1846, Monterrey like Mexico City and Veracruz, was invaded by U.S. troops and occupied by forces of General Zachary Taylor. One of most bitter battles of the war occurred on the hill crowned by Monterrey's Obispado (Bishop's Palace). Mexican forces held out for two days after the city surrendered. Later it became the provisional capital of the government of Benito Juarez when he was chased by French.

To reach the oldest part of the city, built along the Rio de Santa Catarina, I had to cross the huge Gran Plaza, an ambitious multi-level urban renewal complex, completed in 1985, with many monuments and fountains, mixing the colonial with the ultra-modern.

At its south end stands the Cathedral, now dwarfed by modern buildings. The U.S. invasion of in 1846 heavily damaged the pink stone building, begun in 1635, and only completed in 1899. Next door is the ultra-modern Museo de Arte Contemporaneo de Monterrey, known by the locals as the MARCO, and designed by Richardo Legoretta, one of Mexico's most renowned architects.

No matter where I went downtown, I could see the Faro de Comercio (Lighthouse of Commerce), a tall orange stucco obelisk from which a green laser beam shines forth each evening.

The city also has a large collection of modern sculpture, much of it on the Gran Plaza. The most notable pieces include Rufino Tamayo's striking Homage to the Sun and Gabriel Ponsarelli's celebratory The Children and Monument to Youth. More controversial are Luis Barragan's orange Beacon of Commerce, with its piercing green laser, and the unwieldy Fountain of Life by Luis Sanguino.

Streets west of the plaza comprise the Zona Rosa, the downtown shopping area with many pedestrian walkways, restaurants, and hotels. Pancho Villa once rode into the elegant lobby of the Radisson Gran Hotel Ancira on his horse. Two main downtown avenues, Pino Suarez and Cuauhtemoc, run north from the river. However, Monterrey's wealthy live and shop in the luxurious Colonia del Valle and Garza Garcia neighborhoods, southwest of the city.

Friends told me to try cabrito, goat–actually, young goat–meat. While Norteno-style cooking offers charcoal-broiled steaks and thin torillas made of wheat flour rather than cornmeal, cabrito asado al pastor (roast kid), served up barbecued and thinly sliced, is the local favorite. So I headed for El Rey de Cabrito is the best in town.

Everywhere I traveled in this city, I saw grand examples of contemporary architecture. One of the most notable examples is the Church of the Virgin of the Immaculate Conception, built of concrete, steel and glass, all made in the city.

The Palacio del Obispo (Bishops' Palace), completed in 1789, is the only landmark to be completed in the colonial era. Set dramatically at the crest of Chepe Vara Hill about a mile from the city center along Avenida Padre Mier, it was originally built as a home for retired prelates, but was used as a fort during the Mexican-American War in 1847, the French intervention in 1862, and again during the Mexican Revolution in 1915. Today, it houses Nuevo Leon's regional museum.

Although the Cuauhtemoc Brewery opened over a century ago, today the complex includes the Mexican Baseball Hall of Fame, a sports museum, an art gallery, and a beer garden with free beer. In the days when everything had to be made in Mexico, the brewery spawned a glass factory for bottles, a steel mill for caps, a carton factory, and eventually several industrial conglomerates, including Alfa, which gave the city the Alfa Cultural Center, the best museum of science and technology in the country. In addition to hands-on exhibits, it features an IMAX theater.

The legendary El Dorado that many Spanish explorers sought may not have existed in the 16th century, but Monterrey has sure become Mexico’s city of opportunity in the 21st.

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