There was a time, not so long ago in Oscar De La Hoya’s memory, when the “Golden Boy” from East L.A. was treated not to hometown worship, but to boos.
On Saturday, he fights Steve Forbes, and for De La Hoya it is in a sense a homecoming because he hasn’t boxed here in eight years.
Many close to the Olympic gold medalist predict a cascade of cheers from the expected capacity crowd of 27,000 at Home Depot Center’s soccer stadium -- a tribute, they say, that will finally end what they see as a stubborn backlash to De La Hoya’s success.
That success came swiftly. He won instant fame after the 1992 Barcelona Games, and his leading-man looks and charisma fueled wild popularity when he turned pro.
Yet, there was an undercurrent of disfavor.
Some still call him a traitor. Others still revile him as a pretty boy. Some in his own neighborhood still are ready to boo him. The disdain is less mean now, though, and certainly less enveloping.
“I didn’t understand it,” De La Hoya said the other day. ". . . Everywhere I’d go, I’d get booed. It was frustrating.”
Ron Shelton, who wrote and directed “Bull Durham” and “White Men Can’t Jump,” has closely followed De La Hoya.
“We have a lot of icons in L.A., but not many of them are homegrown,” Shelton said. “Magic was drafted from Michigan, Koufax came from Brooklyn, Fernando was from Mexico. This guy’s one of us. And he’s immortal.”
Fame came so fast for De La Hoya, now 35, yet has been so lasting: A bronze statue of the boxer will be joining those of Magic Johnson and Wayne Gretzky outside Staples Center.
It began with the gold medal won for the U.S., and for his mom, who had died of cancer. Many still remember how he fought back tears on the victory stand.
By 1996, he was 21-0 as a pro. Then he landed a fight against the legendary Julio Cesar Chavez of Mexico. Chavez, who held the World Boxing Council light welterweight title, was beloved by Latino boxing fans here for his toughness, his Mexican roots and his common-man persona.
De La Hoya destroyed Chavez in a fourth-round technical knockout. He destroyed something else too: part of his fan base. Many Latinos were left feeling angry, they loved Chavez so. They openly mocked De La Hoya as a pretty boy and a “pocho” -- not a true Mexican, and not a true American, the boxer’s former publicist Bill Caplan recalled.
This scorn flew full force later that year, when Chavez fought Joey Gamache in Anaheim and De La Hoya made a public appearance there. He was greeted with ear-splitting boos.
“Here I am, an athlete thinking only about being a champion,” De La Hoya said. “I beat the biggest name in Mexico, and it was like everyone turned on me. The die-hard boxing aficionados couldn’t stand me. I didn’t understand.”
Alexandro Jose Gradilla, assistant professor of Chicano studies at Cal State Fullerton, said De La Hoya probably never will be able to win over Latinos with strong roots in Mexico.
“This hits at the heart of the ‘old’ versus the ‘new’ thinking,” Gradilla said. “While De La Hoya represents through his charities and financial success something that many can point to as a great thing, a source of great national pride is boxing.
“This is something the immigrant does better, and for some, the one thing they at least had was boxing and Julio Cesar Chavez.”
Gradilla noted that even De La Hoya’s style gets picked on.
“From the perspective of Mexicans, they don’t get Oscar, a Mexican American, walking into the ring with mariachis. . . . It’s a combination of national and male pride,” he said. “Oscar can’t measure up to the ‘manliness’ of a Mexican man. He’s always going to be viewed with suspicion.”
For De La Hoya, Saturday’s bout is a pre-Cinco de Mayo celebration intended to welcome fans from all backgrounds and income levels -- some tickets have a face value of $25.
“He’s good for us, because he’s an example to everybody,” Jairo Contreras, 23, an admitted former gang member, said last week as he stood on an East L.A. corner distributing job fliers to students at De La Hoya’s old school, Garfield High. “We need more people to come out of the ghetto, you know?
“You need a spark, because without a spark, there’s no hope. . . . There’s a better life. Seeing Oscar do it from here, you say, ‘I can do it too.’ ”
It is clear De La Hoya has helped to inspire. He has held several world boxing titles, is building his L.A.-based Golden Boy Promotions, and with John Long, founder of real estate investment firm Highridge Partners, formed Golden Boy Enterprises to invest in housing and mixed-use developments in Latino communities.
“I grew up in a rough and tough neighborhood, but you have people there who want to succeed and work hard and live the American dream,” De La Hoya said. “I struggled, I came from humble beginnings. But I’ll continue to fight and make sure the message is still out there: Work hard, go after your dreams.”
But the boos made it tough. It got so bad that De La Hoya was criticized for something as simple as moving from East L.A. to Montebello, which is next-door, though he now resides in Puerto Rico with his wife, Millie, and two of his five children.
At one point, “I said, ‘The heck with it, I don’t need to be the guy who gives back,’ ” he said. “And I had this mind-frame for quite awhile.”
Comedian Paul Rodriguez, a friend of De La Hoya, said the audience that rooted most venomously against De La Hoya was “the Mexican who speaks Spanish and who roots for the Mexico soccer team over the U.S. soccer team, even though it’s hard to understand why you’re loyal to a country that wasn’t loyal to you.”
That sentiment still exists in spots.
Robert Hernandez, 50, emerged from working under a pickup at Rosemead Radiator in Boyle Heights to explain that he thinks of De La Hoya as “kind of a sissy; he’s never fought the tough guys.”
At Sunday’s Fiesta Broadway downtown, Fernando Lopez of Oaxaca, Mexico, said he won tickets to De La Hoya-Forbes on a radio call-in show but refused to take them because he dislikes De La Hoya.
Lopez, wearing a Mexican soccer club’s jersey, also admitted his favorite boxer was Chavez. “I don’t like [De La Hoya] much because he claims the American flag and the Mexican flag,” he said. “He can’t decide where he’s from. And he fights like a woman.”
Amid a lunchtime crowd at El Tepeyac Cafe in Boyle Heights, school bus driver Gabriel Aguilar, 30, recalled how he once dismissed De La Hoya’s victories as “fixed fights” and had explained away Chavez’s loss by citing the loser’s age.
Yet, Aguilar said, he finally realized some of the ridicule was misguided after his female cousin said her husband “hated” the boxer but, he said, “that was only because she had got Oscar’s signature on her bra.”
Working at a swap meet on East L.A.'s Whittier Boulevard, fan Veronica Montesdeoca badly wanted to talk about De La Hoya. A Spanish speaker, she hurriedly found a translator.
Montesdeoca, 29, who has bought every De La Hoya pay-per-view bout since 1998, said women she knows watch him “just because they like him and how he fights.”
“His face is so beautiful,” she said. “The guys say things. . . . I guess when you fight, your face is supposed to be ugly. But I’m proud of him. His family is Mexican, and I’m Mexican.”
Shelton, the director, said De La Hoya took care of whatever boxing questions lingered in his last dozen bouts by going 7-5 against some top fighters: Felix Trinidad, Shane Mosley (twice), Fernando Vargas, Bernard Hopkins, Ricardo Mayorga and Floyd Mayweather Jr.
It was Vargas who taunted De La Hoya before their match by declaring himself the “real Mexican.” Vargas lost in an 11th-round technical knockout, and then tested positive for steroids.
It was that stirring triumph over the street-toughened Vargas, Aguilar said, that gained De La Hoya the greatest respect from his most fervent doubters.
“When someone is as successful as Oscar is, some resent it,” Shelton said. “He’s the greatest thing to ever happen to Southern California boxing. He’s crossed over ethnic lines, gender lines, young, old. He’s a movie star who doesn’t act, and he’s never failed to fight well.”
De La Hoya has donated millions of dollars to Southland causes. On L.A.'s Eastside, he has opened a youth center and cancer treatment and neonatal centers at White Memorial Medical Center. He has also established the charter Oscar De La Hoya High School and routinely offers food and toy giveaways.
Helping his hometown, he decided, was the right thing to do, even if, he said, “two out of 100 people are booing you.”
“You think about the big picture and realize people need help,” he said. “I still hear things here and there, but I chalk it up to characters whose girlfriend may have a crush on me. I hope those people who were booing me have had kids born in this country now who they want to achieve the American dream, like me.”
That dream is still fresh.
“From the day those fans -- literally thousands -- went to LAX and greeted me after Barcelona, there was no way I’d ever forget that,” he said. “The flashbacks from that day, that reminds me that they’re the ones who started my career, and this is something I have to do back for them.”
Rodriguez points to De La Hoya’s “presence in the community, his investment in us,” and said that some in the community should bring signs to Saturday’s fight reading, “I’m sorry.”
“He’s suffered hearing those things that he’s too pretty, or not Mexican enough,” Rodriguez said. “But, for my money, he’s the best thing to ever come out of East L.A.”