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Masks Reflect a Change of Face

August 01, 2000|MARK FINEMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

CUERNAVACA, Mexico — The Esponda brothers insist they're just businessmen. Politics, they say, is for fun--even in these heady days of profound transformation. But the years have proven that the Espondas and one of their product lines are a pretty fair barometer of Mexico's body politic.

Ricardo and Alejandro Esponda are the nation's largest mask producers, and the official responses to their latex presidential caricatures through the past decades have uncannily mirrored the tone and temper of the times.

Witness: When the Espondas made then-President Carlos Salinas de Gortari into a rubber Mickey Mouse look-alike, it was an instant sellout in 1995, but they dared mass market it only after the reviled Salinas left the country in self-imposed exile.

Their nerdy President Ernesto Zedillo version, complete with bug eyes and oversized glasses, sold pretty well--until federal police raided their office, seized much of their stock and left the clear message that the rest of them were banned.

Now, heralding a brave new era of political expression and a new style of the Mexican presidency, the Espondas have produced what promises to be the hottest item of all: the mustachioed caricature of President-elect Vicente Fox. The mask is selling so freely and briskly in Mexico's streets and markets that entire cheering sections at soccer games are wearing the beaming likeness of the man who will be their nation's first opposition party president in 71 years.

Fox's response?

"He thanked us," Ricardo Esponda said as workers at his small factory in a scruffy neighborhood of this industrial town south of Mexico City worked feverishly this week to meet demand.

"We took a chance and sent him one as a gift, and he sent us a letter saying, 'Thank you.' Then his aides started buying them and handing them out to supporters."

In a nation where politics and humor rarely mix and presidents have been off-limits to satirical scorn, yet where a fast-changing society has shattered one taboo after the other, the Espondas' masks are an apt metaphor for Mexico's era of change. And Ricardo Esponda is quick to acknowledge the import of Fox's reaction to his likeness.

Recalling with an impish grin how he offended Salinas years ago when he wore his bald and big-eared mask to a business luncheon Salinas attended, Ricardo said: "For more than 70 years, we've been taught to treat our presidents like gods, untouchable figures on pedestals in the sky. Vicente Fox is changing that overnight. He is bringing the presidency closer to the people."

The tall, strapping rancher, who defeated the candidate of the long-ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party in the July 2 election and is due to take office Dec. 1, has appeared on the Mexican equivalent of "Saturday Night Live," parrying with comedians who had lampooned him. He swigged champagne from the bottle at a public victory celebration earlier this month. And his trademark cowboy boots and open-neck shirts are replacing the dark suits of Mexico's presidential past.

In short, Fox is humanizing the Mexican presidency, cutting an image more akin to the White House and Camp David than to Mexico City's stuffy Los Pinos presidential palace.

But Ricardo Esponda, 46, said he likes the incoming president for less superficial reasons, as well, nodding with a laugh when asked whether he and his brother may well have been kinder in creating the rubberized version of Fox than those of his predecessors.

Ricardo and his elder brother are fiercely independent entrepreneurs whose 52-year-old family business has thrived, overcoming a succession of obtrusive policies that first discouraged free enterprise and then stripped it of any protection from foreign competition.

Their Grupo Rev company is now among fewer than two dozen Mexican toy manufacturers to have survived sudden free-market reforms, which opened Mexico to cheaper Asian imports in the late 1980s. Of the more than 300 toy manufacturers here 15 years ago, just 20 or so remain--so few, in fact, that Mexico's annual toy expo was canceled for the first time this year.

But Fox has promised policies to encourage and protect small- and medium-sized industries such as Grupo Rev, and the brothers say that the man behind their mask already has brought new hope. After all, the political likenesses are really just a sideline for Grupo Rev--a tradition that nonetheless spans two generations of costume mask production.

The Espondas' father, Rafael Esponda Vila, whose initials are the company's namesake, started making the rubber caricatures as a hobby in a backyard shed. He was a practicing dentist who also had a rare talent for molding facial anatomy, along with a keen sense of gallows humor.

The elder Esponda made his first political mask for his own amusement in the late '40s--a frighteningly real likeness of Adolf Hitler. And Ricardo, who started pouring latex in the backyard when he was 6, recalled how his dad once wore it into a waiting room filled with patients.

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