Mercedes Boot-Making History and Tradition
The boots of Mercedes reside in the National Archives in Washington D.C., a gift to a president from the son of a Mexican immigrant.
It was October 1953 when President Dwight D. Eisenhower rode through Mercedes on Business 83 on his way to the dedication of Falcon Dam. It was the following year when Zeferino Rios Leal and his son, Eli, presented the president with a pair of custom designed boots to commemorate his visit to the Rio Grande Valley.
“Please accept them (boots) with our best wishes for your continued good health and complete success in your efforts to keep this country of ours the finest in the world,’’ Rios and his son wrote to President Eisenhower in sending him boots that featured the U.S. Capitol, the official seal of the United States, and the sunflowers of Kansas, from where the 34th president in the nation’s history hailed.
It was fitting that the president received the specially made boots from a Mexican immigrant who grew to love his adopted country – and brought his family’s long history of boot-making to the Valley, and eventually, Mercedes.
“The Rios family, that is, Zeferino’s father Miguel and grandfather, had always worked as `zapateros,’ or shoemakers in Mexico,’’ said Beatrice Edwards, a Mercedes native, local historian, and retired educator. “Then the Mexican revolution, (in early 1900s), made living in Mexico very precarious, and several family members decided to move to the United States.’’
Zeferino Rios would come to the United States in 1917, living first in San Benito as a youngster, and then moving to Mercedes in the 1930s, and with him came the start of the Mercedes boot-making history and tradition. The legacy of Zeferino Rios is evident today with the 30 nearly six-foot high boot statues that dot the downtown streets of Mercedes, bearing the names of area and state universities. A state-of-the art boot factory in Mercedes bearing his family’s name carries on the tradition of the craftsmanship and quality that Rios and his family started generations ago.
“If I had to say one thing that I know has happened to Mercedes over the last half century is that this town has become known as the home of quality boots,’’ said Trainor Evans, who has owned Rios of Mercedes Boot Company for over four decades. “Most of our employees have worked with us for decades, and as we owners are turning over the business to our next generation, our employees are training sons and nephews, daughters and nieces, to continue the boot-making traditions they have refined over the years.’’
Many apprentices learned under the tutelage of the Rios family before setting off on their own. One of those Rios protégés is Henry Camargo. His handmade and old school boot-making store has been part of Mercedes since 1980, and he and his brother, Santos, carry on their brand of craftsmanship today.
At his shop on Business 83, Camargo reflects on five decades of boot making as he watches his brother smooth over a boot heel with a sanding machine.
“It has brought a lot of people here over the years,’’ Camargo said of the city’s boot-making tradition and its renowned products. “It started with the Rios family, and many of us learned from their great bootmakers, and we’ve done our best to continue that quality and tradition.’’
Ricardo D. Cavazos