CICERO – A crisp, brimmed Stetson hat, ostrich skin belt and buckle. Tony Llama lizard-skinned boots, a pearl-buttoned plaid shirt and a western-embroidered jacket with matching pants.
This is not the look of those cheesy cowboys from the 1950s television shows. This is the new western cool, and Cermak Road in Cicero may very well be the Rodeo Drive for those who like to be seen cowboy.
With a cruise down Cermak Road, one might wonder if they missed a turn at Harlem and ended up in San Antonio, considering the number of western wear stores that line the street. They didn’t open for business to capitalize on Cicero’s rich Bohemian culture, but followed the towns changing demographic from European to Latino.
Sanchez Bros. Authentic Western Clothes, 6031 W. Cermak Road, has been around since 1993. It’s easy to spot. Raudel Sanchez opened the Cicero store in 1985. He had one in Chicago for a time but sold it. He also owns a store in Aurora as well as his “Country Ranch” in Mendota, where he hosts rodeos in the arena and banquets in the banquet hall.
There’s a full-sized fiberglass horse out front. One step inside and you leave the kitsch behind and surrender to your inner cowboy. White and black brimmed hats with numerous different crowns and brim width beckon from the walls and counters to be placed on your head. Just try to leave the store without trying one on. Exotic skinned belts look like they are ready to slither across the floor. Jackets silently sing Mariachi music.
And then there’s the boots, ranging from $100 to $1,100 a pair.
Natural tones of a variety of skins and leather line the store with highlights of blue, red and green. The variations between boots can be dizzying. Walk into a Banda club and whatever music is being played at the time – boleros, corridos, baladas, rancheros or cumbers – the pairs of Tony Llama, Joan Sebastian or Luchese boots will be seen sliding across the floor.
Arnulfo Sanchez of Stickney said he was in the fifth grade when he started learning the business by working here and there in the store. Boots, he said, are a big seller.
“The trend is coming back,” he said. “Country music is in, it’s hot. The boots are very modern and stylish.”
As for the customers, don’t think they’re solely Latin in persuasion, Arnulfo said. The customers are Latino, white, black, Asian – you name it. The boots fit all cultures.
Don’t think for a minute this is a costume store for wannabes. Go to the back of the store and there is a selection of tack, including bridles, bits, halyards, lariats, chaps, half chaps and yes, saddles.
Sanchez Bros. caters to the charro – traditional horsemen from the central-western regions of Mexico. Unlike vaqueros, the Mexican equivalent of cowboys, the charro compete in teams at Charreadas, or Mexican rodeos which incidentally, is where the rodeo was born.
“This is the real, real deal,” Oscar said.
The store didn’t start out full-blown western,” he added. They were selling jeans, shirts, some western wear, but dresses as well. Then they decided to go western all the way.
“Everybody wanted to wear western,” Oscar said. “The (Banda) music was here, the dancing, choreography. That was big in the Latin community. A lot of the kids wear western because they see their dad’s wear it, or they see a band or entertainer. “Rodeos are big right now,” he added. Everybody has horses in the countryside. Everybody loves to go to the rodeo. It’s an Adrenalin rush, it’s outdoors. It’s like a little vacation from the city.”
Part of their regular trade comes from the Banda bands looking to look sharp for their fans.
“We dressed them all,” Oscar said. “The band managers came to Dad and said ‘we want custom clothes’ and he said ‘we could do it.’”
Western wear, said Oscar, is normal for many Latinos, many having lived a ranch life.
“A lot of the traditions continue,” he said. “The thing I’ve realized is maybe there are less jobs. Money the people used to have to buy boots or hats or go to concerts and dances, they don’t have it. But everybody still loves it. They want to continue the legacy. Maybe they’ll all go back to riding horses some day.”
The patriarch of the Sanchez dynasty, Raudel Sanchez, opened his first store in on 47th Street in 1985 after working 20 years “behind the Yards” as a butcher. Oscar said his father “has a fire in him,” he can’t sit still, he doesn’t stop until the job gets done.
Raudel Sanchez, who lives in Bolingbrook, said he opened the store with the name Sanchez Bros., to draw in partners. But when none came he decided to keep the name in reference to his sons, Arnulfo and Oscar, who run the stores, and his family. His daughters Eva and Sandra, and his wife, Victoria, also come in to help when needed.
As for his sons, they work hard, he said.
“I told my family, my sons, they have to work hard,” Raudel said
Scratch the skin of Raudel Sanchez and he bleeds saddle soap, although he doesn’t own a horse.
“I don’t have time,” he said. But as a boy in Mexico, he grew up on his father’s ranch.
“I came to Chicago because there was more money,” he said. “It was my dream. I’m happy here in the United States.”