Feb. 29 2012 01:09 PM

Local surfer gives ‘monkey business' a whole new meaning

Photo by Beth A. Slevcove
When I met Beth Allen Slevcove at a Chevron gas station in San Ysidro, she seemed giddy with anticipation. For the past three years, Slevcove's been at the helm of the Surf Monkey Fellowship, an online destination devoted to preserving one of the more iconic plaster-of-Paris figurines sold at the San Diego / Tijuana border: the doe-eyed ape clad in an old-timey striped bathing suit and riding a wave atop a 15-inch surfboard.

The 43-year-old mother of two calls him “Chango,” and she lives and breathes him.

Slevcove became familiar with the whimsical, kitschy statuette during high-school church-group trips to the TJ slums and vividly recalls that first encounter.

“I distinctly remember noticing three figures: a striking cobra, a skull with a Nazi helmet on and Chango,” she says.

She's not a snake-loving Third Reich sympathizer, but the surf aficionado was immediately interested in the plaster primate.

“My first thought was, How tacky.Who would ever buy that?” Slevcove recalls. A few trips later, the image of the hang-10 (or, in this case, due to a design anomaly, hang-eight) simian was imbedded in her mind, and she eventually changed her tune.

Her sentiment was shared by surfers who, in pre-narco-warfare-headline days, would embark on lengthy Baja surfing trips and buy the monkeys as mementos. In what he calls “product placement,” TV personality Larry Himmel proudly had one sitting on the desk from which he would open and close his San Diego at Large show.

Those were Chango's glory days.

With the advent of SpongeBob and Dora the Explorer figurines, and with sightings of Chango at the border noticeably decreasing, Slevcove—known on the shores of Tourmaline as “the monkey lady”— stepped in to protect the nearly extinct epitome of border lowbrow.

Her quest led her to a distribution warehouse on the U.S. side of the border, where a lone, dusty Chango rode amid a sea of Elmos. She encountered conflicting stories regarding his origins. (“He was made by my brother-in-law,” claimed the shopkeeper, Raquel, who later changed the story several times.) Apparently, there were also skiing, golfing and motorcycle-riding variations of Chango, though those molds have long since been lost. One thing was certain: He's been around for a good 40 years.

Slevcove wanted to find the factory where the figure—which she calls “the southern California garden gnome”—is still churned out, but it took years of persistence before Raquel would budge.

“I guess she finally realized this crazy gringa meant business, and she softened to the idea,” Slevcove says. So, hand-drawn map in hand, Slevcove and I met at the gas station to venture deep into Tijuana.

Her excitement was so contagious that I hopped into my car to follow her with the gas nozzle still in my tank. After crossing the border, parking and fending off a slew of cab drivers, we set out on foot to find the plaster Promised Land in Tijuana's Colonia Libertad.

Slowly but surely, after traveling down a series of dirt roads, we arrived at the shanty. There was no sign, but a sea of plaster dust on the floor in front of it let us know we were at the right place.

“I can hear the angels sing,” Slevcove said. The setting was surreal. It included endless figurines in several stages of completion, a date palm in the middle of the space that shot up through the ramshackle roof and an Island of Misfit Toys-worthy damaged-goods area that was home to the likes of a legless Rottweiler, a snapped-neck Galapagos tortoise and an earless Rudolph with a Van Gogh-style bandage wrapped around its head.

We were greeted by Nestor, the head honcho, who promptly instructed his helper, fernando, to prepare a “surfo”—local slang for surfer. Diligently, the worker fetched the lone mold from a sprawling collection of Hello Kitties and Tasmanian Devils, and using an egg whisk and a repurposed bleach jug, prepared the mix the calls “the milkshake.”

A few minutes into it, he allowed Slevcove to help. “Más rápido?” she timidly asked as she whisked.

The mixture complete, fernando—who's been making the figure since the 1970s and claims it's unique to Tijuana—proceeded to pour it into the mold and shake it vigorously to get the plaster into all the figure's nooks and crannies.

“Believe it or not, that one there is easier to make,” he said, pointing at a 5-foot-tall naked lady called Rebecca, given that her legs and arms are attached to her body, unlike the akimbo chimp.

Fifteen minutes later, a freshly minted Chango was revealed.

“For the quarters,” fernando said, as he held the still-warm statue and gave it the finishing touch—a carved coin slot behind its head—before sending it out to the paint area.

We hopped on an overcrowded van and paid five bucks to ride back across the border. Amid the intoxicating whiff that only the blend of churro grease and a Black Ice air-freshener tree can provide, it was clear Slevcove was still riding a high.

“It was the ultimate Big Wednesday moment,” she mused.

And Chango's Theory of Revolución lives on.

Write to enrique@sdcitybeat.com and editor@sdcitybeat.com.


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