He's Got a Mexican (whoa-oh) Video ... Store

If the extent of your knowledge of Mexican cinema begins and ends with Jamie Escalante teaching calculus to inner-city youth in Stand and Deliver or Miklo finding his place among “la onda” in Blood in Blood Out, there is much to be learned. Even watching critically acclaimed 21st-century foreign-language films that were made in Mexico, like Amores perros and Y tu mamá también, is not going to get you to the level of expertise you’d would need to call yourself a connoisseur of Mexican film.

Sure, you may have heard your grandmother talk about her favorite Jorge Negrete movie of the 1950s, or even caught a glimpse of Amigo and Friends, the early-1980s William Hanna-Joseph Barbera dubbed series that depicted popular Mexican comedian Cantinflas as a cartoon character, but could you actually name a few of the more than 100 combined films both men made beginning in the late 1930s? And even if you do remember seeing an obscure title like Negrete’s 1953 film Dos tipos de cuidado (Two Careful Fellows), how would you ever get your hands on a copy? Unless you are shopping online, do not expect to find the film available from Blockbuster or Hollywood Video.

Cue entrepreneur John Florez, 65, and Videos Mexicanos, a movie-rental establishment on the West Side of San Antonio that caters to the Spanish-speaking community. The store, which opened full-time in November 2004, displays more than 7,000 Spanish titles, including the films of Vicente Fernandez, Luis Aguilar, Miguel Aceves Mejia, Sara Montiel, Maria Felix, and India Maria, and has a membership of more than 4,000 clients.

Florez, a graduate of Harlandale High School, “returned back to his roots” in San Antonio after spending a majority of his life in Houston, Texas. While in Houston, he worked as the producer and promoter of the Westheimer Street Festival, which began in H-Town in 1971. After supervising the festival for more than 30 years, Florez decided it was time to retire and enjoy a more relaxed side of life.

“But I didn’t want to just sit around and do nothing,” Florez said. “I asked myself, ‘What am I going to do? Stare at the TV all day and watch Jerry Springer?’”

Instead of transforming into the couch potato he feared, Florez packed up everything he owned and headed west to start a new venture, although he was not quite sure what type of investment he wanted to make.

“Then I thought, ‘Son of a bitch, my sister has an empty store right in Chimi-changa City that I can rent,” Florez said, referring to the high Hispanic population that surrounds the store’s location at the corner of Ruiz Street and Trinity. “I knew there were enough taco stands around that area, so I decided I wanted to rent Mexican videos. It just made sense. Had I found the location in New Braunfels, I would have sold apple strudel.”

Slowly, Florez began to build his Mexican-movie empire. His first purchase, $10,000 worth of videos, began to fill the makeshift shelves he built by combining greeting-card apparati from an out-of-business Eckerd drug store and other scraps of materials he managed to find.

“I really lucked out with some of the equipment I have in my store,” Florez said as he pointed to a garage-sale-bought marquee that featured a poster for the local Pablo Veliz film La Tragedia de Macario. “Little by little, I just want to keep adding to the store.”

Although an entire wall is dedicated to a group of recent and classic American-made films dubbed or subtitled in Spanish, Florez says it is his pure Spanish films from every genre that transport many of his customers to different times in their pasts.

“It’s wonderful to see someone come in and find a movie they saw a long time ago,” Florez said. “For a lot of `my customers`, it brings back memories. I’ve had people in tears because they remember something when they see a movie on one of the shelves. It’s almost like they found a lost child. My favorite words are, ‘Mira vieja. Ven pa’ca. Aqui la tiene. Remember we saw it at the Alameda 20 years ago?’”

For Florez, his most memorable customer in the last two years was an 80-year-old gentleman looking for Pedro Infante’s 1950 biopic Sobre las olas (Over the Waves), in which Infante portrays the famous Mexican waltz composer Juventino Rosas. Florez said the man had been looking for the film because he wanted to dance one of the featured waltzes with his daughter, who was getting married in New York the following week. It was the exact same waltz he had danced with his wife when they got married.

“He had been looking for the movie for six months and couldn’t find it anywhere until he came here,” Florez said. “He offered me $100 to buy it, but I told him I didn’t sell my movies. Instead, I said, ‘You look like a good man. Become a member, rent the movie, and you can take it to New York for as long as you need. Just pay 50 cents a day for late fees.’”

The man agreed and during his three-month stay in New York called Florez to keep him updated on the condition of the video.

“While he was there he called me twice,” Florez said. “Three months after his daughter’s wedding, he came back into the store with the movie and the late fees, and a small piece of wedding cake they had kept frozen for me. It’s things like that that make my job so rewarding. Finding joy in life, for me, has always meant doing something nice for someone else whenever possible.”