Walk a block in Monterey Park as the sun sets on a summer Sunday, or throw out questions at a local boxing event, and no one lacks an opinion. Nobody shrugs when they hear the name.
Oscar De La Hoya is a son of East L.A., a superstar rising from the barrio into the arms of Madison Avenue and the nation at large.
But even as he piles success after success, for reasons that touch the passionate heart of this sports-crazed community, in East L.A., he is openly disparaged and dismissed as a glamour boy who abandoned the community and who never will receive the love bestowed on Julio Cesar Chavez, his opponent Friday night at Caesars Pal ace in Las Vegas.
De La Hoya can go home again, but he better not expect roars of appreciation.
“What was the first thing he did after he came back from the Olympics? He moved out of here and went to the Montebello hills,” said Gladys Martinez, who attended neighboring Roosevelt High at the same time De La Hoya attended Garfield. “He couldn’t drive that Corvette or whatever fast enough out of here.
“All the people that I know, they want Julio to beat his butt.”
In an unscientific survey, people questioned overwhelmingly said they wanted Chavez, a Mexican hero, to beat De La Hoya. The responses tell only a sliver about the complicated, roiling emotions the East L.A. community holds for a 23-year-old who could be the most successful crossover Latino athlete in American history.
De La Hoya has been booed at many of his fights and local appearances, expects the crowd Friday to be hugely pro-Chavez and even had an egg thrown in his direction during a recent appearance at Garfield.
Alternately agitated and apathetic about the subject, De La Hoya has called his detractors “jealous back-stabbers,” but rolls his eyes when asked what he can do to change the attitudes. He has suggested that he might have to lose--or get cut in a victory--in order to gain the respect of his home area. But he adds that he has no interest in sacrificing his body for the people.
“You go down the neighborhood and you shake people’s hands,” De La Hoya said. “And they say good luck and this and that--kick his butt, beat him for us. And you turn around and they’re saying, ‘Oh, he’s going to lose.’
“You sense it right away. I mean, they’re just after you for your autograph, let’s take a picture. But, when you’re not looking, ‘Oh, he’s going to get his butt kicked.’ ”
From the interviews, everything that makes De La Hoya appealing to outsiders is what draws scorn from those who knew him first: He is too concerned with his looks, things have come too easily for him, and he is too interested in golf and the fast life to care about the community from which he came.
“Oscar’s got two big problems: He’s attractive and he’s damned near perfect,” said comedian Paul Rodriguez, also a product of East L.A., and a friend of De La Hoya’s. “Which makes for a lot of petty jealousy. But Oscar is absolutely the best thing to come down the pike. He’s the real deal--trains like a monk, is absolutely clean, has no skeletons in the closet.
“And he will go down as the first superstar celebrity who can totally cross over.”
Rodriguez suggests that the contrasting attitudes held by Mexican nationals in East L.A. and American-born Mexicans (of which De La Hoya is one) play a large part in the situation. But none of those interviewed, who included some born in Mexico, the Unites States and one Nicaraguan, specifically mentioned De La Hoya’s country of birth as an issue.
Instead, the main theme was that Chavez has stayed true to the Latino ideal--and that De La Hoya is aiming for success as measured by Anglo-America.
At a booth in an Atlantic Avenue sandwich shop--which is running a contest in which people guess who will win the fight, on this day the total is 295-215 for Chavez--Eddie Espinoza says that De La Hoya is arrogant.
“De La Hoya’s Mexican and everything, but he’s got the fat head about him,” Espinoza said.
Said Jesse Castellanos, who goes to school in East L.A.: “I don’t like De La Hoya at all. He’s too much of a showoff. I used to like him when he won the gold medal. You look at Chavez, and see he hasn’t changed. De La Hoya? He left East L.A., didn’t he?”
Many local leaders express only gratitude and joy for the things De La Hoya has accomplished--and for the money he provides to Garfield and other projects. And De La Hoya recently has moved to purchase the struggling Resurrection Gym and turn it into a major youth center.
“Some people think that because Oscar moved out of East L.A., he deserted the community,” said Maria Elena Tostado, Garfield’s principal. “But I have to say he has contributed to scholarships here since he graduated, he has provided us with additional funding for activities at Garfield, he’s still involved with the school. He’s never abandoned us.
“And he hasn’t abandoned the community, either. I don’t think they know what they want of him.”
De La Hoya, born poor in the heart of East L.A., moved his family out of a tiny, run-down house to a $500,000 home in Montebello, considered one of the tonier sections on the outskirts of the community. Recently, De La Hoya has moved out on his own to a condominium in Whittier, and has talked about buying a house in Newport Beach--a move sure to fire up the negativity even higher.
“It does get tiresome,” said his older brother, Joel. “It . . . me off, that’s what it does.
“First of all, they say, ‘Oh, Oscar doesn’t come around.’ What is he going to do? Is he going to shake everybody’s hand in the community? Go around East L.A. and shake everybody’s hand?
“People don’t appreciate him, what he does for the community. He puts in a lot of time talking to children, donates a lot of money. People expect him to be walking the streets of East L.A.”
De La Hoya’s girlfriend, part-time teacher Veronica Peralta, says high school students scream “Chavez!” in her classroom, and that her boyfriend is concerned about his relationship with his hometown.
“I know he’s bothered by it,” Peralta said. “The people from East L.A. say he doesn’t come back to the community. But he does so much, he doesn’t have to brag or announce everything he does.
“What did the community do for him when his family was poor? The community didn’t feed him. He has to be satisfied with what he’s done for the community, if they notice it or not. He has nothing to lament.”
Some of those interviewed said they just want De La Hoya to act as though he wants to be part of East L.A.
“Why don’t we like Oscar? He’s conceited,” said current Garfield student Christina Avilla, as her two schoolmates laughed in agreement. “He thinks he’s all that. We do like his body, but still, I go for Chavez.”
Said comedian Rodriguez: “A lot of my Chicano [American-born Latino] friends misunderstand being shy for arrogance. Oscar is not a very talkative guy. Oscar is reserved and shy, and he’s not the kind of guy to go out to Lincoln Park and have Budweiser with the boys. That’s what they want. But he can’t do that, it’s not in his system.”
Sugar Ray Leonard, who experienced some of the same coldness with his home area in Maryland until late in his career, says most of the strong feelings emanate from East L.A.'s deep affection for the workmanlike, grind-out-the-victory style of Chavez, who has never moved from his impoverished hometown of Culiacan, Mexico--in contrast to De La Hoya, who has blown out almost all of his opponents and has never been cut.
“I think it’s all about the perception here that Chavez, his background and his culture, really is blue-collar,” Leonard said. “And Oscar is a white-collar fighter. I kind of went through a little bit of that with Tommy Hearns.
“The way it was with me wasn’t on this grand of a scale. I don’t know how it is with Oscar. But, tell you what, depending who wins this fight and how impressive it is, there’s room to change.”
Sitting in a restaurant in Monterey Park, Ray Rivera, who favors Chavez but says he holds no ill will toward De La Hoya: “I’m glad he’s doing commercials. I don’t see too many Mexican-Americans doing commercials. I’m not jealous of him, I’m happy for him.
“He’s living everybody’s dream. . . . He’s living my dream.”
Which, of course, is what may be the problem.