Driving south on the Celaya highway, just past the outskirts of the pueblo of Empalme, Paul (El Guapo) and I see a sign marking a narrow road forking off to the left. It reads:
Rusting and long-neglected, its invitation doesn't look any too promising. But I'm learning that things aren't often what they seem in Mexico. Just because a sign is a little amateurish, a little run-down doesn't mean it isn't announcing something of interest.
Paul and I decided to investigate. At the end of the side road we came to a small plaza on which fronted an impressive 19th-century gate.
The gates are made of heavy sheet iron. The plastered brick archway is topped by cantera statues of two unidentified heroic figures and a flagpole carrying the Mexican flag. Intimidating.
In for a dime, in for a dollar. We knock. Ten minutes later, a face appears at a security window. What do we want?
We explain we're there to by some pants, factory direct.
This of course is a blatant lie. We're there to explore, and if we find something interesting, we're gonna take photographs. Moreover I fully intend to publish my findings on the internet, probably something I wouldn't get permission to do were I to ask.
A security guard admits us and asks us to wait. We are not to wander about the factory; we will need an escort. Here we see Paul waiting ever so patiently, while a pickup truck carrying an enormous bobbin of white wool yarn exits.
Many of you ask why I bring Paul with me on these excursions. "Doesn't he embarrass you?" you ask. A fair question and one that deserves an answer.
The truth is that nobody is better at striking up a conversation with strangers than Paul. His fluent Spanish coupled with his utter lack of self-consciousness enables him to extract a great deal of information from people—more, perhaps, than they might have been prepared to give out had they been able to gather their thoughts before Paul braced them. It probably helps that Paul's mien, while not exactly threatening, nonetheless is somewhat intimidating, looming as he does over his interviewees.
And while Paul is extracting trade secrets from the security guard, I'm taking advantage of the distraction to take photographs inside the factory unsupervised, something no factory manager in his right mind would allow.
Photographs like this one, looking inward from the front gate. The scene is like no factory I've ever visited. More like a tropical park than a manufacturing facility.
Paul finds out that we are visiting Negociación Fabril de Soria S. A. de C. V., a small privately-held company that makes fine wool and wool-blend fabrics and clothing. It was founded early in the 1870s and is still held by the founding family who are citizens of France.
The Solunet-Infomex website gives the number of Soria's employees as 250-500 which looks about right, and their annual sales as $50,000 USD. That should set off your bullshit alarm. Let's see: sales of $200 per year per employee, which, if the company achieves breakeven, means that today's employees receive considerably less than 10¢ per hour.
Gee. Do you think there's any possibility they're underreporting income? Maybe for tax purposes?
Eventually, a man picks us up. I figure he's the salesman; not much of a job if you ask me, given that hardly anybody comes this way. He can't be very busy.
He leads us back to a storeroom where a surprisingly large selection of pants, sport coats and suits hangs on industrial pipe racks. There are no changing rooms but hey—we're all just a bunch of guys here, so we make a great show of trying on clothes. They turn out to be quite attractive, high quality and style. After an hour of this, the salesman offers to take us on a plant tour. Wow! Way more than I expected.
Paul loves factories, and this one does not disappoint. Large tin buildings with mysterious dark interiors house hulking machines arranged for batch processing.
Our salesman-guide chatters away about Australian wool, Thai silk and German polyester. When he starts explaining the workings of a computer-controlled spinning machine, Paul comments that he seems very knowledgeable. At this point our host introduces himself: Ing. Enrique Cordova Plata, General Manager.
I was impressed and touched. A couple of badly-dressed and disreputable-looking gringos show up at his gate, and the Boss sets aside two hours of his day to escort us around. He is patient, courteous and informative. He never gave us the impression he had better things to do. That's him in the image below, showing Paul spools of dyed yarn.
Many of the machines in this factory are modern high-tech spinning and weaving gear. Investment is in the millions. Clearly it generates many millions of dollars a year in sales; not $50,000. Not at all what I expected to find at the end of a dusty road in the middle of nowhere.
Oh, and I didn't see any 250 employees. The place is too automated for that many. I didn't even see 50. Maybe 100 years ago this place provided a lot of jobs, but not today.
About the pants ploy: I broke down and bought two pairs of slacks. Given the way Sr. Cordova treated us, how could I not? Moreover, they were great clothes. I bought two wool-polyester blend tropical-weight dress slacks for our projected trip to Buenos Aires this December. Blue jeans won't cut it in that dressy city.
The prices were terrific. These slacks would probably go for the equivalent of $120 in that Mexican high-fashion store, Sears. At the factory, they cost $38 each.
Checkout was more involved than at Sears, though. A hand-lettered bill of sale had to be drawn up and then given three signatures and a stamp. I walked the 20 feet from the accounting office to the front gate where I gave a yellow copy of my bill of sale to the security guard, whereupon he handed me my pants.
On the way out, we spotted a mansion in the middle of the park on the factory grounds: the owners' house. They stay there during occasional visits from France. Way better than the business travel I used to endure. Your own mansion beats the Radisson every time.
I don't know about you, but visiting a place like this is more interesting to me than going to see one more Churrigueresque cathedral. The adventure is in not knowing what's behind the wall, whether I'll be welcomed or not, the surprise of meeting someone like the gracious Sr. Cordova.
There's more. There's a mystery here. Something about this low-key, hidden factory isn't what it seems to be, and I'll discuss that in my next post.