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The Cholombians

A small brothel and vendors selling pirated DVDs, homemade porn, and fake Polo shirts surround “The Colombian Embassy” in Monterrey.


A small brothel and vendors selling pirated DVDs, homemade porn, and fake Polo shirts surround “The Colombian Embassy” in Monterrey. The Embassy is a small stand on Revolución Street run by a guy named Mario Durán, who sells every imaginable trinket imported from Colombia: t-shirts, “I [heart] Barranquilla” bumper stickers, flags, key chains, airbrushed paintings of tropical landscapes, straw hats, drums, and guacharacas—but more than anything, cumbia music. Since the 1960s, the people of Monterrey (particularly those from the working-class neighborhoods of La Independencia and La Campana) have been dancing to Colombian cumbia. How this northern industrial city became Mexico’s chief outpost for cumbia is a matter of dispute. One theory is that a group of migrant workers in San Antonio invited some Colombian colleagues to spend Christmas in Monterrey, and they brought a bunch of records from home to spin at the party. Another version, which most locals I spoke to vehemently denied, was that the records traveled to Mexico bundled with shipments of cocaine bound for the US. The most boring but probably most accurate answer is that local sonideros (DJs with portable sound systems) simply started bringing Colombian records up from Mexico City because they liked them. One sonidero in particular, Gabriel Dueñes with his Sonido Dueñes, is credited with defining the sound of Monterrey’s cumbia. Gabriel, now in his 60s, still has a street stand where he sells t-shirts, pirated CDs with photocopied covers, and his own mix tapes. He told me how during a party in the mid-60s his tape player overheated and the music started slowing down. From that day on, people would ask him for slowed-down versions of his mix tapes, and a thing called cumbia rebajada was born. According to Toy Selectah, a Monterrey native and basically Mexico’s version of Diplo, these stoner cumbias were the basis for what DJ Screw did in Houston in the 90s, which makes sense seeing as there were thousands of migrant workers from Monterrey living there at the time. Over the years, as Monterrey’s cumbia morphed into its own thing, a style emerged among its working-class listeners that is neither Colombian nor Mexican. Nor anything else, really. Every Sunday afternoon, after dancing all weekend at bars and clubs around town, a bunch of Mexican Colombianos gather outside the 7-Eleven at the bottom of the Latino Tower in downtown Monterrey. Taking their cues from LA’s cholos and some mythical ideal of tropical Colombia, they wear huge plaid and Hawaiian shirts over the baggiest Dickies you’ve ever seen. These are color-coordinated with their Converse and shoelaces whenever possible (one kid we met rotates four pairs of Chucks with seven different colors of laces) and then topped with a customized baseball cap worn just tight enough that it doesn’t cover their whole head but gingerly rests on their bangs. Every visible inch of hat space is cluttered with airbrushed or embroidered writing, including its wearer’s nickname, his girlfriend’s name, his clique’s name, the radio station he listens to, the neighborhood he’s from, etc. Some Colombianos also wear religious-style icons called escapularios around their necks with images of San Judas Tadeo, the Virgin of Guadalupe, the increasingly popular Santa Muerte, and even Pancho Villa for protection. These started out similar to the ones monks wear but quickly evolved into giant homemade banners that can be used to broadcast information similar to the hats. Clique names such as Los Temelocos, La Dinastia de los Rapers, Foxmafia, and Latinaz are embroidered in huge letters across 12" x 12" pieces of fabric. One kid we saw had the number 10.90 embroidered in his escapulario. I asked him if it was a radio station he liked, and he told me that it was code for toluene, the chemical in paint thinner that gets you high. These scapular signs are excellent, but the most important aspect of Colombiano fashion is its signature haircut, which draws equal parts inspiration from American hip-hop, Puerto Rican reggaeton, and ancient depictions of Aztec warriors. The back is shaved, leaving a rat tail at the bottom. The top is kept short and spiky, with meticulously trimmed, Romulan-era emo bangs in front. Finally and most important, they grow long, Snoopy-like sideburns that start at the top of their heads and are glued to their cheeks with sickeningly large handfuls of hair gel. They call this Estilo Colombiano. The Colombian scene in Monterrey, besides the occasional guy high on solvents, is pretty mellow. For example, the kids hanging out at the 7-Eleven go there because their favorite radio station, XEH 1420 AM, is located on the 20th floor of the building above the store. They use a pay phone to call the station all afternoon to request songs and read 60-name-long lists of shout-outs to their friends and girlfriends. While other northern Mexican music genres like narcocorridos are blatant anthems for local drug dealers and their violent exploits, the songs Colombianos listen to are about love, peace, and friendship. But like everywhere else in Mexico, there is a lot of tension in Monterrey. The drug cartels often use trailers to block the main avenues, grenade explosions are occuring more frequently, and some of the clubs where the Colombianos used to hang out have been taken over by narcos. Everyone’s on edge, and in cities like Monterrey, where the class divide is extremely sharp, people who dress differently or stand out are often subject to discrimination. Many of the guys we met told us stories of soldiers or police officers beating them and cutting their sticky sideburns with scissors or knives. A lot of them have shaved their heads and stopped wearing baggy pants just to avoid harassment. But the dedicated Colombianos soldier on in spite of the adversity, piling gel onto their superlong sideburns as they dance all night to the maddeningly slow beats of their stoner cumbias. We have a new show profiling our favorite photographers called Picture Perfect, and Stefan is our first subject. Watch it Here later this month.
Special thanks to Amanda Watkins.