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Latinx Files: The night Mexican identity stepped into a boxing ring in Las Vegas

Oscar de la Hoya throws a punch against Julio Cesar Chavez
WBC Super Lightweight Champion Julio César Chávez, left, of Mexico, reels from a punch by challenger Oscar de la Hoya in the fourth round at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas.
(John Gurzinski / AFP via Getty Images)

This week marked the 25th anniversary of the epic fight between Julio César Chávez and Oscar De La Hoya. In celebration of this historic event, The Times published an oral history of the fight. You should read it even if you don’t know or care about boxing. Pound for pound, it might be one of the most important works of journalism about Mexican Americans written in 2021.

Chávez versus De La Hoya was more than just a boxing match. It was also “a proxy for all the complexities that come from being of Mexican ethnicity, living in a place that was once Mexico.”

In one corner, you had Chávez, one of the greatest Mexican boxers of all time. He wasn’t just a champ. He was the people’s champ, un idolo del pueblo on both sides of the border. He was also, as I discovered from reading the oral history, a key player in opening Las Vegas to Mexican performers.

“Chávez used to go a lot to the Vegas Hilton, and all the dealers were prohibited from speaking Spanish,” said Fernando Paramo, former La Opinión sports editor. “Then Chávez started coming in with his buddies, a lot of the heavy guys from Mexico, coming in with big rolls of money, and started playing the tables, and the whole place is full.

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“After about six months, a year, they requested the dealers speak Spanish. Not just that, but all the guys — [Mexican singers] Juan Gabriel, Rocio Durcal — they were playing in the little bars, they weren’t playing at the big scenes. It wasn’t until Chávez came on that they started opening at Caesars for the big shows.”

And then you had Oscar De La Hoya.

Raised in East Los Angeles, De La Hoya used boxing to escape poverty. After winning a gold medal at the 1992 Olympics, the “Golden Boy” went on to become one of the most successful boxers in recent history. In short, De La Hoya was the embodiment of the American Dream. He was also a marketer’s dream.

“Oscar had Hollywood star good looks,” Mark Taffet, then-senior vice president of HBO Sports, said.

“When we used to go on press tours for all his pay-per-view mega-fights, there would be as many, if not more, women in attendance than men. He had a rock star appeal. He was the first pay-per-view star where we specifically targeted marketing and advertising to the female audience.”

The actual fight would only last four rounds — the ring doctor stopped the bout because Chávez was bleeding profusely from a cut above his eye. The victory for De La Hoya signified a changing of the guard.

“To my mind — as a writer, a sportswriter, a Mexican, a follower of boxing, whatever — that was the night Julio pretty much gave the flag to Oscar,” Paramo added.

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More importantly, Chávez versus De La Hoya also exposed a loss of some kind of innocence for the Mexican American community.

“[Mexicans] always have a certain nostalgia for their country,” said Paul Rodriguez, comedian and longtime friend to both fighters. “They can never erase it. We’re here, we’re totally American, but you ask us, and we’ll say, ‘Yo soy de Sinaloa.’ (I’m from Sinaloa.) If you have parents that were from there, they always had this nostalgia that someday they’ll make enough money, or be financially set, and they’ll return to their Mexico.

“The truth is, we die here and get buried here. But we have an affinity to Mexico. We love Mexico even though Mexico doesn’t love us. And we know that because we’re treated different. But that’s part of the mystery of us. We have this undying loyalty and patriotism to a country that doesn’t want anything to do with us. It’s strange.”

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‘How do you show up to Guatemala and tell Central Americans how to behave?’

Vice President Kamala Harris
Vice President Kamala Harris during her speech in Guatemala on Monday.
(Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times)

If the Biden administration wants to prove that its approach to immigration won’t be more of the same tried-and-failed policies we’ve seen for the last 30 years, Vice President Kamala Harris’ speech on Monday in Guatemala was not the way to do it.

“I want to be clear to folks in this region who are thinking about making that dangerous trek to the United States-Mexico border: Do not come. Do not come.”

Harris, who is the byproduct of immigration to the United States (her mother came from India and her father is from Jamaica), has been tasked with being the administration’s point person on the matter. Her trip to Mexico and Central America was supposed to be about tackling the “root causes” of migration.

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Perhaps she should read a history book or two.

As journalist Jean Guerrero points out in a recent Times op-ed, you can’t have an honest conversation about mass migration from Central America without acknowledging the United States’ complicity in the corruption and violence fueling it.

“[Harris] made no mention of the U.S. role in those conditions, such as training right-wing death squads, financing coups or investing in extractive and exploitative industries,” Guerrero writes.

Harris’ words also don’t take into account the obvious: People don’t put their lives in danger making the trek north for funsies.

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“It’s not like people want to leave,” Luz, a Honduran asylum seeker who is currently living in New Mexico, told my colleagues Cindy Carcamo and Andrea Castillo. “People are desperate because of poverty or because of the violence and corruption in these countries.”

And if this speech was intended to appease moderates or conservatives, if sending such a harsh message is meant to be a calculated risk to get meaningful policies later, I have bad news: It won’t work.

As I’ve written before, the notion that there is a “crisis” at the border is nothing more than a bad faith argument by opponents of immigration reform. Harris’ speech only gives them more ammunition.

Even worse for Harris, her comments all but undo all the work she’s done as a senator and presidential candidate to paint herself as a champion of immigrants.

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The trip to Central America and Mexico is as much about optics as it is about fixing a problem. Unfortunately for the Biden administration, rather than coming out looking good, they’ve come across as tone deaf.

“How do you show up to Guatemala and tell Central Americans how to behave?” said Suyapa Portillo Villeda, an associate professor of Chicana/o Latina/o transnational studies at Pitzer College.

Scenes from the Zoot Suit Riots Cruise

cars crossing a bridge
A vintage car crosses over the 4th Street Bridge into downtown Los Angeles.
(Steve Saldivar / Los Angeles Times)

Times video journalist Steve Saldivar has this photo essay from the Zoot Suit Riots Cruise that took place over the weekend in Boyle Heights and East Los Angeles.

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The cruise, which began in 2018, is meant to serve as a reminder of those 10 days in June 1943 when U.S. military men on leave attacked pachucos for having the audacity to be Latinx and proud of it. The Times itself egged on this violence; last summer, the paper apologized for how poorly it has covered communities of color and promised it would change.

“You have to remember your culture and your roots,” Art Zamora, one of the co-organizers of the Zoot Suit Riots Cruise, told Saldivar.

“You have to learn your history.”

The best thing on the Latinternet: Sorry Texas, but this historian has the receipts

On Monday, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott signed into law a bill that critics say will severely limit how teachers in the state discuss and teach U.S. history. According to Abbott, the new law will promote “patriotic education” by focusing on foundational documents.

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But whereas some fear that this is yet another effort to whitewash Texas history — something the state has been doing for years now — one historian sees it as an opportunity to teach the truth.

In a Twitter thread that is very much worth your time, historian Brian Franklin outlines just how this law — dubbed the “1836 Project,” a play on the New York Times’ award-winning “1619 Project” — gives educators a chance to teach students the very stuff politicians don’t want them to know about, like the fact that Texas is the only state in the country to have fought a war in defense of slavery twice.


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