Tijuana’s upholstery heyday

Liked to deal with the gringos


Jose Quezada, 47, calls himself a talón. “A talón is like a hustler. And a talón is important here. Some of the workers–” he rolls his eyes back to the shop where men are banging dents from cars — “think a talón is expendable. ‘We can do without him.’ But the boss thinks, ‘No, a talón is indispensable. We have to have him out there.’ If a person isn’t coming to your shop in particular, if you solicit him he might just come into your shop. If you don’t solicit him, he’ll go around the corner and ten other guys will. So you’ve got to intercept him before he makes that turn over there.” Quezada points down the street, smiles, shakes his head. “A talón is indispensable.”

José Quezada at La Frontera

José Quezada at La Frontera

Quezada is mainly interested in the cars that are in the right lane of Second Street, where his shop, America’s, is located. These are the cars most likely to make the right turn into Ocampo, into the heart of the body work and upholstery shops on Third, just off the corkscrew that disgorges drive-in visitors to downtown Tijuana. But if someone driving in a middle lane waves him over, “I’ll go right out there, sure. Hey, each talón protects his turf. If I went around the corner I’d end up getting chased back, back this way. I only get up to the corner. Each guy got his turf”

Workers at La Frontera

Workers at La Frontera

At one time the talóns would run out onto the street to persuade drivers to get an estimate at their shop, but in 1996 the city passed a law to deter the swarming. Now, says Quezada, it’s against the law for a talón to put his foot off the sidewalk. The places that were especially flagrant in going after potential customers were the ones closest to the corkscrew, shops like Red Cadillac, Maya, Tapia’s. “The bigger shops got together and paid private police [Tijuana cops who worked in the city’s transit division] to keep an eye on those guys. The first time you got a warning; the second time, it’s an arrest. One foot off the walk and you’re arrested. They came with paddy wagons and took them. Except for Joe,” he says, referring to himself. “He goes off the walk, because, where he’s at, he doesn’t bother anyone. There’s no other shops further down.”

Maya shop

Maya shop

Quezada has spent his life in this business, but he wasn’t always a talón. He is, by his own account, an expert upholsterer. And he once had his own shop, in the days when auto upholstery was Tijuana’s signature business, when it was known throughout the Pacific and mountain states as the place to obtain, on the cheap, quality seat covers, headliners, and carpets.

Quezada was 15 when he began work at a shop, one whose owner was a friend of Quezada’s father. They thought the boy would make a good talón, because he spoke English so well. Quezada had attended American schools in Los Angeles and San Diego; he spent several years at the private Kelsey-Jenney school, which in those days was only a few blocks from the border crossing. The shop that hired him was S&S Pan American, well known in the golden age of Tijuana upholstery, which thrived from the 1930s through the early ’80s, when the city closed the bridge that brought traffic directly into the downtown district. “At the entrance to the bridge, one block from the border, were the sales offices for a whole handful of shops — S&S Pan American, M&M, Ricky’s, Thunderbird. These shops are still here in Tijuana, but it’s not the same people anymore.” All the shops he cites are almost legendary. M&M was used for a few scenes in the 1978 Cheech and Chong comedy, Up in Smoke. The movie company, says Quezada, paid the shop by painting the place and laying out some sidewalk.

“Because I spoke English I could relate to the Americans, to explain what they wanted to the guys who were doing the work. I did that maybe ten years. I watched and listened to the workers explain it. One day, around 1980, I decided it was time for me to do some upholstery. I liked what I saw, the creativeness of it. You take material that’s not really anything, and you make it into something. I liked to transform that raw material into art, into the seat covers, the carpet, the headliner. The total job, you know; it’s a work of art. That’s what it is. Especially when you’re working on a classic car. You get your commercial jobs, but then you have people come in who got a ’56 Cadillac, or a Bentley, or the Citroen, and those old pie wagons like Chevys and Dodges...

“Back in the ’70s and early ’80s, we’d get those cars in volume every weekend. Saturday, Sunday, by 8:00 a.m. you had all the customers you could handle for the day. Anything you got after that was for the next day. We had a 24-hour shift at M&M, through the late ’60s, and to the early ’80s. There were night workers and day workers, enough work to go around for everyone.

“Nobody has 24 hours now. You don’t see any work until 11:00 in the morning. Why don’t people customize their cars anymore? Did it go out of style? Or do they just want to do it stateside now, as opposed to waiting in those long lines to get out of here? Or maybe it’s because of not-too-good work or not-too-good treatment. Some guys will get you in there and then not pay attention to you. Or they’ll say, ‘It’ll be done when it’s done.’ They really don’t care. A good way to treat customers is to talk straight to them. If it’s going to take you 10 or 12 hours, tell them that instead of 3 hours, just to get them in there. If someone asks why it takes so long, well, it’s because of the work involved. Good work requires time. If you’re going to do something right, you’re going to need a little time to do it”

In the early ’80s the owner of M&M died, and Quezada bought the business. Most of the workers who were there at the time now have their own shops. “The guy that owns this shop,” he says, gesturing back at America’s, “used to be one of my workers over there. I’m working for him now” He laughs, and jumps out into the street to wave his celluloid wand at a covey of cars steering toward the border right-hand lane. “But it’s all the same. We’ve been together a long time. He knows what I’m capable of. He knows what I do."

Quezada had the M&M shop for about six years, when severe flooding damaged the Puente México, the Mexican bridge, and the city shifted all vehicular traffic to Third Street. “There were homes and a colonia around the bridge; Cuahtémoc, it was called. Now, it’s all curio shops and pharmacies, Plaza Viva Tijuana. I tried to open here [in the Third Street area], but all the good locations were already taken. All the shops here used to be houses. Some guys bought those houses, got all the people out, and turned it into shops. The guy who has Los Panchos, the green place [a well-known shop], he used to be a mechanic. He was always there working on cars, and his family lived in the house. His luck just changed from one day to another. All of a sudden, lo and behold, they close the bridge, and Third Street is now the main entrance into town. He closed his mechanic shop and opened an upholstery and body shop, just because of the new entrance. He’s now the richest guy around here.”

Some of the original owners of the fabled shops of Tijuana’s upholstery era, Quezada notes, have relocated to California; he names Alvin’s in Spring Valley as one, and another place in El Cajon. “But upholstery was the business then. It was fantastic. All the old owners, they got rich. In the old days you’d do two or three leather jobs a week. I more or less specialized in leather. A person who wanted leather was usually recommended to your shop. He’d have a Corvette or a Caddy, and he’d want it restored the original way. I’d take the customer right to the tannery and let him pick out his own leather. When someone is going to restore a classic, they’re pretty touchy.

They want the original materials. But leather is rare now. I’ve been here eight months [at America’s], and we’ve done maybe two or three leather jobs.

“Before, it used to be that everybody fixed up the classic cars. They wanted to customize, have them look nice. From the early ’90s, though, it seems like there’s been an economy crunch. Everybody brings just what is absolutely necessary to fix. Like, The seat’s tom, fix it.’ Or,‘This little section of the headliner, it’s hanging, adjust it.’ Before, it was all different. People really wanted to fix up their cars. At 5:00 in the morning they’d be rolling in. Now you’ll wait until 1:00 in the afternoon before you get some work. Sure, we have our good days, but before you could count on the weekends. Work would be secure, just rolling in, no problemo. What you needed was workers, more workers. There was a lot of work. A lot. Sometimes at M&M we’d have 20 cars there. I could only put 10 in the shop, so we’d have 10 on the street. That meant we had to give the cops a little tip now and then. People would come down, leave their cars, and go to the bars or maybe to Main Street, where there’d be live music. But no more. No more.” Quezada pauses in his recall to look around at modern Tijuana, where the craftsman has taken a backseat to industry and the factory hand.

People then would come to TJ from all over for upholstery, Quezada says, from California, Oregon, Washington, Utah, Nevada, even Canada. “In those days people came recommended. Most of my customers were recommended by other customers. When I first came into this business, I had so much upholstery to do I didn’t have time for body-and-paint. If a guy said, ‘I want to paint my car,’ I recommended him to a body-and-paint man I knew. Nowadays there’s no loyalty to a particular shop, as the old aficionados of certain shops used to be. People now go from one shop to another, looking for the better deal. Before, they looked for quality work, and they wanted a particular shop: Ricky’s, Thunderbird, M&M, S&S Delta, all the old original shops. It used to be that everyone was enthusiastic about their cars, customizing them. They used to come and say,‘I want a good job. Do it.’ Now they say, ‘I want a good job, real cheap.’ They care more about the price than about their cars.”

Quezada’s not sure what caused the recent decline. “Maybe they’re getting the work done stateside now. I was offered a job in an upholstery shop in Spring Valley. The person who owns it says he’s got so much work they’re backed up. You got to make appointments ahead.”

He suspects that some of the reason can be attributed to a decline in the quality of the upholsterer’s art in Tijuana. “It’s less now, the quality. I know all the old workers, the guys who have been doing this for 20, 30 years. I know their work. But most of those guys, they either retired or got their own shop, and they got other people working for them. This place here, America’s, does excellent work. I’ve known the boys here for many years. But a lot of the stuff I see now just doesn’t match up. They might not put a bead in right, things like that. It won’t be as detailed. Or if a job needs cut pieces, they’ll just throw on all one piece. It won’t be like the original. But then, some customers will just want covers. They don’t care if it’s a good job.

“Back in the good years you had so much work you could learn; the teaching was good. Now there’s not much work, so a guy will work a day at one shop, then go to the next shop to see if there’s work. Most of the guys, they jump from shop to shop. They’re not as dedicated to their craft as they used to be.”

In the golden years, Quezada notes, the business was 80 percent upholstery and 20 percent body-and-paint. Now, those percentages have been reversed. The customers have changed too. Once, he says, over 90 percent of his customers were American, by which he means Anglo or black. “Not anymore. Now, only around 20 percent are American. Now, it’s a lot of Chicanos, or local people. It’s too bad, because I used to like to deal with the gringos. As the guy in charge. I’d see to the communication between them and the workers. I used to love my job. You met a lot of interesting people. Each one had their little story to tell, what they did stateside, what brought them down to do the work. Now the people come down and leave their car, and they don’t have too much to say.”

Prices are generally the same downtown, he states. For standard cloth upholstery work, it’s about $160 front and back, with a year guarantee. For a complete job — seats, dash, headliner, and carpet, $450 to $500. As for body and paint, “Prices here are about half what you’d be charged stateside. But there are places here that will charge you about the same as stateside, maybe even more. But people will come to them because they do impeccable work. One place like that is called Indio’s, on Agua Caliente [Boulevard]. I’ve known the owner there for a long time. In fact, when I had M&M I sent jobs to him. And there are places that will charge you a quarter of the prices stateside, like out at El Parque [Teniente Guerrero Park, five blocks northwest of Avenida Revolución). These are freelancers who stand out in the street with hammers. Most also do the work on the street. These guys don’t have a license, but they work anyway. The city lets them get away with it. You’re not allowed to work on the street here, so obviously they’re kicking money back to the inspectors.”

Get a written guarantee, he urges, as 90 percent of the downtown shops will honor it because of vigorous tourist protection. “Some Americans come down and pay the deposit, half or less, and when they come back they’ll look for any little flaw, any little thing to get out of paying the balance. It’s an old trick, but lately we’ve been seeing it a lot. And the shop will usually negotiate the balance, because they don’t want to mess around with the tourists. The tourist office will usually take their side. Shops lose a lot of money with that trick. So we try to check people out, too. before we take the job, to see if it’s an easygoing person or maybe a difficult customer.”

A talón, he says, earns 10 percent of the job he solicits, or 5 percent if he’s working with an assistant that day. “A normal week for me is maybe a hundred bucks. But in eight months I’ve only taken one day off. The best months, though, are June through August. In the summer a good talón can make two or three hundred, sometimes as much as $500.” In the summer a talón might work 15 hours a day.

“I wouldn’t mind having my own place again. I’d train my own people, get them to do the highest-quality job. But I wouldn’t want to be here in the central district. I’d like to be off somewhere, like Rosarito, and have my own customers, people who will come directly to me and just skip all this.” Quezada waves his wand in a general direction and then lowers it so the tip touches the street. “It’ll be in Rosarito. That’s where the old days are now.”

(Since this May interview, Quezada quit working at America’s and moved a few blocks away to a shop called La Frontera, “the cheapest place — most economical — around here.”)

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