Ricardo Parra Montes holding Carlos Santana wax head.  "He's going to go over there, by the Ayatollah Khomeini."
  • Ricardo Parra Montes holding Carlos Santana wax head. "He's going to go over there, by the Ayatollah Khomeini."
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There are three wax-figure museums in all of Mexico. Two of them, Mexico City's and Tijuana's, owe their existence to Ricardo Parra Montes. "I was the director of tourism for the Mexico City government in 1978 and 1979," he says. "That was my job. One of my projects then was to build the Mexico City wax museum. That was my first experience in wax figures. I developed a relationship with many wax sculptors. Later I came to Tijuana with the dream to start this museum. I was living in Mexicali, working in the real estate business over there. But I wanted to be in Tijuana for this reason."

On a stone altar lies a bloody wax cadaver, an offering to the gods whom a diminutive priest invokes nearby.

Eleven years ago, Parra realized his dream when he opened the museum at the corner of First Street and Madero, a block east of the stainless steel arch at the north end of Avenida Revolución. The location is along the corridor used by most of the foot traffic between the border port and Revolución. The municipal government of Tijuana recently spruced up this portion of First Street, cutting off car access, pouring new concrete with a stamped-stone effect, and erecting wrought-iron light poles.

Princess Diana, Marilyn Monroe, Julia Roberts. "Princess Diana is very difficult. Marilyn Monroe, for some reason, is very difficult. They are both very beautiful, but the form of their faces isn't well defined."

From these surroundings, anywhere from 180 to 850 people a day — some tourists on their way to shops and clubs on Revolución, some students from Tijuana and San Diego — climb a short flight of steps into the darkened museum foyer. After paying $1.50 at the ticket window, they walk down a short hall to the right that transports them 500 years back in time and 2500 miles to the southeast to Tenochtitlan, the Aztec capital upon which Mexico City was built. On a stone altar lies a bloody wax cadaver, an offering to the gods whom a diminutive priest invokes nearby. To the left are the taller figures of Moctezuma and Cuauhtémoc, the last two Aztec emperors, and Hernán Cortés, the conquistador who defeated them. "These figures are similar in size to the originals," says Parra, who is tall and neatly dressed with square, frameless glasses that match his square jawline. "We did some historical research, and we found out the sizes. You can see that Mocteczuma and Cuauhtémoc are taller than the average Aztec," he points to the priest and victim, "because they ate better and they got a lot of exercise."

Though Parra buys some figures from wax sculptors in the United States, Moctezuma and company were made in their hometown of Mexico City. "We have maybe 15 wax sculptors in Mexico," Parra says as he walks toward the next exhibit, "and all of them are in Mexico City. There are a few in the U.S. and some in Europe. But wax sculptors are not common."

Because each wax figure costs $4000 to $6000, "and we have 85 figures," Parra explains, "the initial investment was half a million dollars. There were hard times for me for the first few years because this kind of business is slow to be accepted by the people, particularly in a town like Tijuana where people are coming to have a drink, to see shows, to party. And after September 11, it was very hard. But now everyone knows about my museum, and I get lots of school groups."

"Here we have the missionaries," Parra says, continuing his tour. "Padre Kino here built many missions such as the mission of Loreto in the south of Baja." There is a major boulevard in the Rio Zone of Tijuana named after Padre Kino.

"Padre Serra over here built nine missions in the state of California, starting with the San Diego Mission. These padres were very great men. They knew astronomy, they knew agriculture, they taught the people to read. They were both from very rich families in Spain."

Beyond the padres are two Tijuana legends in wax. One is a little old lady set in an alcove. "This is Tia Juana," Parra says, "the founder of the city. The historical society of Baja doesn't want to certify it. They say she was a legend. But maybe she was real. She's in many books. Anyway, she was probably in this figure of face: lighter skinned and European looking, like Spanish people. Because in those days there was a Spanish colony here."

The other legendary figure is Juan Castillo, better known as Juan Soldado. He was a private in the Mexican army who, while stationed in Tijuana in 1938, was executed for the rape and murder of an eight-year-old girl that many believed had been committed by an officer of his regiment. "Some people say you can pray to him for a miracle," Parra explains.

Past Queen Isabella, King Ferdinand, and the man they sent across the Atlantic, Christopher Columbus, a room crammed full of post-independence Mexican political figures opens on the right. First on the right is Miguel Hidalgo, "who was our George Washington. The bell he is ringing is the independence bell. This scene recalls the first time he called the people together. He was a priest, and he rang the bell to gather the people in the church where he told them, 'Come out and follow me. We're going to fight against the Spanish government.' "

Continuing counterclockwise around the room, Parra beams as he narrates the tour. "This is Morelos, father of our independence movement. Benito Juarez was one of the greatest heroes of Mexico. He is our Abraham Lincoln. In fact, they wrote each other and were friends. We call the time of his presidency La Reforma because he consolidated many Mexican laws for agriculture, for social rights, for civil rights. Many of the legal principles we have now came from Benito Juarez. That's why all over my country you will see statues in bronze of Juarez, and you'll see many Benito Juarez boulevards and schools. And there's a big city on the border, Ciudad Juarez, across from El Paso, Texas."

"Porfirio Diaz," Parra says, continuing his tour, "was a dictator at the turn of the 20th Century who was defeated by the revolution. He was defeated by Zapata and Pancho Villa here, the most popular leaders of the revolution. Venustiano Carranza, he gave us the same constitution we're using nowadays."

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