León grew up in Juárez, where he got a job at a Western-wear company at the age of 17. He had no experience in the field, but his bosses taught him from the ground up. "What he started off doing was cuts and stitching," says Kiko Torres, who helps interpret our conversation. Torres owns Masks y Más—the Nob Hill art and retail store León has been working out of for the last four years. Those cuts, or cortes, as León refers to them, are the intricately embroidered exteriors to the boots he's been handcrafting all this time.
He also makes belts, buckles and wallets, using snakeskin and rawhide as his primary mediums. The first buckle that caught my eye was a shiny, silver zia made of python skin set against a black oval of lizard skin. Lately, he's been working on Día de los Muertos skull buckles and a series of colorful luchador masks set over swordfish skin. Other examples of his craft include a pair of boots that depict El Santuario de Chimayó in elaborate patchwork.
León's pieces are distinct in comparison to the large array of factory-made boots, belts, and silver and turquoise buckles found around town. "There's not many people in Albuquerque that do what he does," says Torres. León chimes in proudly with a smile, "Only me in Albuquerque, only me."
His art is embellished with an acute attention to detail. The extravagant handiwork and reptilian ornamentation give Masks y Más a vibrant, macho vibe, and there’s no denying the standard of quality León upholds. "I've never had anybody bring anything back,” says Torres. "I've compared his work to other work and his stitches are just really straight and solid. ... Everything he does he takes pride in."
Yes, León was a big-time luchador, performing in the masked-and-caped tradition of Mexican wrestling. As Torres translates this story, León grins and flexes his biceps. "He's trying to show off all the time," says Torres. He spent three years in the ring. But, "finally somebody took his mask off," Torres says, as León gives out a belly laugh. (The unmasking of a luchador is akin to cutting off Samson's hair.)
Despite his colorful and impressive résumé, León has spent much of the last few decades taking odd jobs—from construction to a gig at Wal-Mart—but he always continued with his stitchwork.