There is a lot of quirky nonsense in Tijuana. There is the three-story house that has a naked lady sculpted around. There are several cars and motorbikes modified beyond imagination. Cars are more than just low-riders or classic vehicles, there is one with an exposed engine with a fake wolf’s head popping out of the hood. There’s a motorbike with spikes, horns, and skulls that pulls a small caravan. But one of the most recognizable oddities in the city is Don Zazueta and his van covered with monitos.
“Right now I am sick, I am fighting against cancer,” Don Manuel Zazueta, better known as el Señor de los Monitos (Mister Trinket Toys), tells me in his family’s diner. “They have done homages for me, but I believe the biggest one will be this next one in Parque Morelos. I was telling you, on Sunday between 12 and 6 p.m., Los Angeles artists are coming to tribute me.”
I saw Don Zazueta as he struggled with the three short steps to enter his family’s diner. He sat across the table from me, speaking softly, looking brittle, toying with his medicine, ignoring the bean soup his wife served him. Don Zazueta is 71 years old and was diagnosed with cancer six months ago. Back in July he was gravely sick in a social security hospital, Clínica 20. His most recent homage was during Mexico’s Independence Day where his van lead a parade.
“I only bought like a dozen — the rest, more than 5000 that you see [on the van], are from people just telling me ‘Here, take this.’” Don Zazueta says he started covering the van with toys around 13 years ago. “I didn’t have any studies, (I studied) up till grade three. I came to Tijuana with nothing, and this city gave me a lot. I was thinking how to give something to Tijuana, which wouldn’t offend — 100 percent healthy for anyone's view — and I had the idea of the van... Of covering it with monitos.”
The iconic GMC van is covered with PEZ dispensers, Legos, Disney figurines, McDonald's toys, and other trinkets. He claims none of the toys have ever been stolen. On the front and both sides of the van, there is a donation box.
Don Zazueta hails from a small town in the middle of nowhere in the state of Durango, where he grew up with nothing. He never had a real toy in his childhood. He remembers that during Christmas, his siblings and he would scribble their wish list to Baby Jesus (Mexico’s version of Santa Claus). The girls would get a sock filled up and tied with a piece of twine to somewhat resemble a doll. The boys would get a car toy made from a piece of wood, with bottle caps nailed in to resemble tires.
Don Zazueta and his wife arrived to Tijuana in the early '90s empty-handed. He held several jobs — cleaning cars, sweeping the streets, selling knick-knacks — until he saved enough for the van, and his own business of polishing headlights, which he swears he is the best at.
“I try to help the community, while I still have days left. Right now I don’t know if I will last until Sunday.”
The family’s diner is located on 11th Street and Pio Pico in downtown Tijuana. There is a bigger chance you will find the van outside the diner, which serves comida corrida, homemade budget meals. They accept donations for abuelitos in this location as well.