By Nick Pernokas
The young boy reached Chihuahua City at dawn. He’d brought a couple of tortillas wrapped around some meat in a paper sack for breakfast. As he nibbled on them, he wondered if his family had noticed him missing from their home in Juarez yet. The year was 1950, and the 15 year old had hitchhiked down from Juarez to sign up for the Bracero program. He thought that nothing could be better than to arrive in North America as a migrant worker. He would soon be making a man’s wages in the United States. As he walked towards the offices, the size of the mob intimidated him. Men were waiting for their names to be called so they could board the trucks to their new jobs. As he pushed his way up to an official with a clipboard, some of the men began to laugh at him. He asked one of them why they were laughing.
“Because you have to be 18, stupid,” said the man. “Go home and grow up.”
The boy hung his head and turned away. Fortunately, he was able to find someone from Juarez to give him a ride home.
By the time Juan Cruz arrived home, his relieved family knew what had happened. His Uncle Vicente Martinez took him aside.
“You know your brother is making boots,” said Uncle Vicente. “Do you want to join us? I’ll teach you how to make boots.”
Sometimes fate moves rapidly. In Juan’s case, the die was cast. He began his true journey that night.
Within a year, Juan became a master bootmaker. This meant that he had built a pair of boots by himself. By 1955, Juan had his own shop in Juarez. Juan, his brother Teodulo, and uncle Vicente and a couple of other workers began making the custom boots for a business across the river in El Paso, Texas. That company owned Franklin Boots and Bronco Boots, and did a thriving, custom mail order business.
Eventually, the three men moved their operation over to El Paso. They began to make boots for Ben Miller Boots. In El Paso they found that they had to specialize, so they began doing the lasting and the bottom work only. By the Sixties, they had moved on to Tony Lama Boots, which was rapidly growing. Again, the family concentrated on filling custom orders for Tony Lama. Tony Lama was so impressed with the trio, that they called them the “champagne of bootmakers.” In 1979, Juan was the supervisor for the bottom work at Tony Lama, but the demand for their boots had grown so much that Juan felt the company lacked the manpower to keep up. Faced with a frustrating situation, he decided to leave.
T.O. Stanley had recently left Lucchese Boots in San Antonio. Juan, and his brother, along with most of their male children, hired on with T.O. Stanley Boots in El Paso. Stanley had brought an old school bootmaker with him, from San Antonio, named Benny Gray. Gray had a reputation as an outstanding gentleman who made an outstanding boot. Gray would change the way Juan looked at boots.
Juan had become a pretty good bootmaker, but it was just a job for him. Then he met Benny Gray.
“He said that he didn’t really fall in love with bootmaking until he met Benny Gray,” says Marcos Cruz, Juan’s youngest son.
Gray knew all of the fine points of making a custom boot and he inspired Juan with his knowledge. Juan always said that this was when he began enjoying his work.
It was also at T.O. Stanley that Marcos got his first taste of bootmaking in the summers.
At the end of the Eighties, Ammons Boots contracted Juan, and again he moved to a new company with his family. In 1992, 25-year-old Marcos was trying to finish school and he needed a part time job. He went to work at Ammons in the afternoons. Marcos began to take the boot work seriously.
“That’s when I fell in love with the bootmaking.”
Marcos decided to learn everything he could about boot construction. He also realized that quality bootmakers of his dad’s generation were disappearing. Marcos concentrated on the bottom work since that was what his family did.
Juan always emphasized quality. He told Marcos, “If you’re going to do something, you need to do it with love and care, or don’t do it at all. There are too many people that do half-assed work and you need to take pride in what you do.”
In 1994, Juan’s mother passed away. He was devastated, and decided to make some life changes. Juan left Ammons.
In Santa Fe in 1994, saddlemaker and silversmith Tom Taylor was looking for a new bootmaker. Marcos and Juan heard about this and they decided to make some sample boots and show them to Tom.
“We made some sandwiches and drove up to Santa Fe to show him our boots in April. Tom said he’d call us,” says Marcos. “He never called, but in September we got 15 boxes worth of boot orders from him.”
J and M Custom Boots was the official bootmaker for Tom Taylor until Jean Taylor sold the store in 2009.
Education was very important to Juan though and he wanted his son to go to college. Marcos would eventually get a degree in mathematics. Marcos was also good at sports and turned down a football scholarship. He played baseball for the Aggies at NMSU for two years.
“I hurt my arm and I decided I needed to do something with my life,” says Marcos.
Marcos wanted to coach, but to do that he needed to teach other classes. He liked math, so he got certified to teach it. He ended up teaching and coaching for almost 20 years.
During the evenings, Marcos would come home and help his dad with the Tom Taylor boot orders. In 2001, Marcos met his future wife, Elizabeth, an elementary school teacher. They had two children.
In 2004, Juan was diagnosed with cancer. It was a tough time, but Juan was able to overcome a lot of adversity and he continued working.
“He’s a resilient guy,” says Marcos.
In 2007, Marcos began to notice that Juan was forgetting things. His habit of reading the Bible nightly, and then discussing what he’d read, tapered off.
In 2012, Marcos could see that Juan was falling victim to dementia and would not be able to continue working for much longer. Marcos quit teaching and went into bootmaking full time. Juan was revived by having Marcos around all the time.
Juan worked until 2019 making boots, but then his dementia took over and he couldn’t do it anymore.
“For 50 years, nobody knew about my dad. They knew about Tom Taylor, and Ammons and Tony Lama, but not about him. It was guys like my dad that made their names. If the man upstairs gives me the opportunity, I want to continue his legacy.”
Marcos’s goal has been to honor his dad’s legacy through J and M Custom Boots. He continually tries to learn more, but also wants to show the public what a good quality boot is.
“You have to have the talent, you have to have the passion and you have to have the work ethic,” says Marcos. “He and his brothers had all three.”
Today, J and M Custom Boots is comprised of Marcos and Ismael Belman. Marcos considers Ismael his mentor. The 59-year-old craftsman, also known as Marce, has worked with Marcos since 1994. Ismael is a perfectionist; and he’s not afraid to say if something needs to be done over to get perfection. It takes about 40 man hours to make a pair of custom boots. They make 50 to a 100 pairs of boots a year.
Marcos has been concentrating on the wholesale market because he has not been able to get out and promote their lines as much as he’d like. Boots and Boogie, an exclusive store in Santa Fe, carries their boots. The Santa Fe store sells primarily retro styles.
“The gentleman in Santa Fe, Ryan Wright, is very enthusiastic and has a passion for boots and bootmakers. I’m in the right place to make them, but not in the right place to sell them.”
J and M Custom Boots has a website under their name, which shows examples of the many varied custom boots they’ve made, but customers usually have to tell Marcos what they want so that he can give them an estimate. Marcos sees a moderate square toe and larger base roping-type heel with a slight slant, as being very popular over the last few years in the mainstream market. Cowboys like PRCA saddle bronc rider Isaac Diaz gravitate towards these styles. The retro market is a little more extreme in the pointier square toe shape, as well as under slung heels.
The wholesale boots, Kaquis Legacy Boots, are shown on a separate website called KaquisLegacy.com. Marcos and Ismael have three other seasoned craftsmen that help them with these boots.
The J and M shop is 1000 square feet housed in a two-story garage in Juan’s home. The humble Sunland Park, New Mexico, neighborhood is not even a mile from the border.
“In the El Paso area, the bootmaker is a dying breed. If you go from shop to shop here, most of the bootmakers are older than me,” says 54-year-old Marcos.
Marcos feels that this is because so much bootmaking has gone to large production companies in Mexico and China, which has driven down wages for a bootmaker. Young people don’t want to make boots because the money isn’t there. Or it could be that bootmaking is a really tough job.
“Nowadays a lot of people buy a pair of boots for $500, and that’s a lot of money for them. But, it will cost me $500- $700 to make a pair of real American boots. It’s what you can’t see that makes a pair of boots authentic. If somebody orders a pair of boots today and they get them tomorrow, you know that’s not right, not custom.”
Marcos plans to continue to improve the quality of his work, as well as make the public aware of his brand – a boot that is as resilient as the folks who make it.
“My goal is to go completely custom, to go bespoke, because that’s who we are.”
To find out more about J and M Custom Boots, go to jandmcustomboots.com or call (915)-727-9701.
J and M Custom Boots
Sunland Park, NM 88063