Master craftsman and ex-luchador’s stitchwork is seamless
By Sam Adams
The first thing that struck me about Francisco "Pancho" León were his hands. Callused and scarred, his palms look like they belong to a cattle roper or someone who escaped a fire. Perhaps a knife fighter. Or maybe ... a man who's worked a sewing machine for the past 40 years.
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."
That pride carries over to his side projects. While working in El Paso—eventually for renowned Western-wear company Tony Lama—he would commute back to Juárez to see family as well as to pursue one of his passions. "He was living in El Paso when he was 23 or 24, and he would go and participate in the municipal gym, and he was known as El Acuario," says Torres.
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.
He started in the back of Masks y Más in December 2007, after Torres was introduced to him through local boot-maker Roberto Robledo (who León still occasionally works for). Robledo also sold Torres the 1908 Singer 31-15 sewing machine that León operates. It's the same model he started on in Juárez 40 years ago—a model he was taught to take apart and put together. He knows it like the back of his weathered hands.
Masks y Más
3106 Central SE
Monday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m.
Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. to 7 p.m.
Sunday, noon to 5 p.m.
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