Fighting talk

Hamish Smith meets one of Mexican culture’s greatest proponents and finds there’s more to Tomas Estes than meets the eye


TOMAS ESTES DOES not look like a champion wrestler. At 11 stone nothing, he’s not built for it either. Yet he was a champion wrestler. You see, Estes likes a challenge. In fact, he loves a challenge – he has spent his life creating and overcoming them.

“I was a competitive wrestler in high school – Olympic style not WWE – and I went to university to wrestle,” says Estes. “Wrestling was a great challenge for me – imagine training all year, making weight then facing someone who wanted to kick your ass. I won 98% of my matches but I didn’t wrestle to win, I wrestled to experience wrestling and to do it with style. My techniques were daring – moves that were a little beyond me.”

That was more than 50 years ago. Looking back through the lens of his 70 years, the agave spirits ambassador and Ocho-owner can trace a theme. “Somewhere in my teens I fixed on the idea that the thing I found that had most value was the development of myself. I did this by creating challenges.”

The mid-sixties were interesting times to reach adulthood. The Vietnam war raged and for Estes – creative, liberal and philosophical by nature – the jungles of the Indo-Chinese peninsula were not the best place for him to express himself. “In 1966 there was social upheaval – revolution. Anyone who had been dispossessed of their human rights was looking for possession of them again. In those days my social group wanted to give back to society. Whether it be peace core, volunteering – something to contribute. I became a high school teacher – and wrestling coach.”

Probably we’ve all had a teacher like Estes – the one who tells stories, inspires and has scant regard for the blunter end of the curriculum, but one you’ll remember for the rest of your days. “The Irish poet, Yeates, said: ‘Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.” He was

right – learning should be stirring, invigorating… Teaching freshmen, I was very stimulated.”

Estes was an English teacher for seven years in Los Angeles before his next challenge arose. In 1970 he travelled to Europe. You probably have a fair idea how things went down when Estes says he “discovered Amsterdam”. “This is a place I felt I could really learn a lot about myself. I wanted to move there but I didn’t know how I could do it as public school teacher.” This little detail was figured out during another trip – one that would define his life.

“I took a road trip with my then wife and our seven-year-old son. We drove from LA along the Pan American highway through Mexico and central America. On this drive, I was processing how I would move to Amsterdam. I thought I should create something which fills a hole in the market: Mexican food. There was nobody doing a cantina-style restaurant – big bar, contemporary music, raucous atmosphere.”