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Tuesday, July 26, 2011
Updated: July 31, 9:28 PM ET
Surf monkey on endangered list


Enough monkeying aroud, this guy's for real.

Once upon a time, in the little border pueblo of Tijuana at the frontier of Baja California Norte and Alta California, an unknown artisan experienced a flash of genius and soon gave unto the world the once exotic, now iconic, plaster-of-Paris "Tijuana surf monkey." Standing 12 inches tall, wearing a striped short-john, standing akimbo on his scooped-nose board and offering a look like, well, he's getting totally shacked.

The surf monkey held the top slot among all the borderline bric-a-brac hustled to tourists since at least the early '70s. Within a decade of its creation, this statue that should have insulted surfers' collective image of themselves tipped from lowbrow ridiculousness into cultural status. He graced both the big and little screens, often stood-in for a contest trophy, held a position of importance in many a bachelor pad, and finally earned the moniker, "The Southern California garden gnome." By the mid-'80s, hardly a Baja-wanderer, Navy private, fraternity brother or surf bum existed who did not possess an image of the one they called "Chango."

After wearing out four generations of molds, however, sales of this fading merch-star were eclipsed by upstarts like Bart Simpson and Elmo. Remaining surf monkey statues were placed in dusty corners of border shops. Production ceased, molds were lost, and Chango it seemed, was destined for the great dust heap. This is where Beth Slevcove, a surfer and longtime Baja coyote entered the monkey business.

One word: dedicated.

She'd begun traveling to Baja with church groups as a kid and then as a surfer. Over her 25 years of trips, she'd always made time for the counterfeit merchandizing jungle known as the borderline. While friends waited in their cars, she explored the labyrinth of tchotchke stalls. Of the tedious bargaining and the claustrophobic mayhem, she says, "I just love the dance." And what she particularly fell for was the surf monkey. "No self-respecting Mexican family would own one," she admits, but Slevcove bought multiple monkeys on each foray. She gave them to friends and family, but then, well into the new century she noticed that Chango had become harder and harder to find. "After I searched long enough, merchants would pull down beat-up monkeys with bad paint jobs," says Slevcove. "The Tijuana monkey was in danger."

This is when Slevcove began to investigate Chango's origins, inquiring as to the factory that produced him, his creator, and his date of his birth. What she learned was, "Facts are just different on that side of the border. The origin story, the dates just change with the person telling it," she says. Slevcove's search finally lead her, among the multitude of "garage-style" factories that produce Tijuana's mementos, to the owner of one of the few remaining surf monkey molds. The factory still made Chango's cousins: plaster seagulls and the Virgin de Guadalupe. Slevcove convinced the owner into putting Chango back into production. "I decided to turn this love of the monkey into a little import business," says Slevcove. "I imagined it as a way for people to tell stories about their trips to Mexico."

When she began her mission Slevcove believes that between three and five bootleg molds existed in the Tijuana/Ensenada corridor. She has yet to learn the identity of the noble artisan who created him, or the exact year of his inspiration, or how many statues were put into circulation. Though the monkey screams late-'60s kitsch, Slevcove cannot verify a date earlier than '71 or so. Every time she seeks these details, a new story emerges. This ambiguity leaves Chango's Wikipedia entry rather shallow. But what Slevcove has learned is important. The surf monkey originally came in a series of sporty beasts: skiers, bikers, etc. And also, that Chango is not a monkey at all, but a chimpanzee -- which is a primate, like you and I. The most defining element Slevcove discovered however, is the depth to which this statue has penetrated Southern California and border culture. The nostalgia for a Mexico where Chango was a common sight runs deep. So from now on, as many years as Slevcove's passion endures, "The monkeys will reproduce as long as there are hands with which to adopt them."