It’s Cold in Omaha

Roberto José Andrade Franco

March 31, 2018

It’s a mid-March morning in Omaha, Nebraska. Allegedly, it’s Spring Break across other parts of the country but in the edges of the Great Plains, the cold continues to bite. Grass and leaves have yet to spring back to life and instead of green, everything appears a shade of brown. The trees look naked and cold. Scattered islands of snow on dead grass—where a building’s shade guards against the sun—have yet to melt. This side of the holidays and close enough to imagine warmth, the weather feels especially cruel.

There are areas in downtown Omaha, mostly its northern parts, where it’s hard to distinguish between abandoned and occupied buildings. That distinction becomes clearer the closer one gets to Interstate 480, or Gerald Ford Freeway, named after what’s likely Omaha’s most famous son. Omaha is also the birthplace of Malcolm X but unlike Ford, there’s no freeway named after him. Instead, a historical marker in the predominately African-American part of the city—north Omaha—retells how as a young child, the Ku Klux Klan’s Night Riders chased Malcolm Little and his family out of town.


Around Interstate 480, downtown Omaha’s identity intertwines with Creighton University and—since the city hosts the College World Series—baseball. Here, new apartment and university buildings are under construction. Several bars and restaurants take their names from baseball-related terms. If you stand on Cass Street, between North 15th and 16th Streets, you can see the area’s transition. There’s Creighton University’s Morrison Stadium, where the Bluejays play soccer. There’s CenturyLink Center that, within the past 2 weeks, hosted Miranda Lambert and Kid Rock. And of course, there’s TD Ameritrade Park where Creighton plays its baseball, but most importantly, it’s the park that each summer attracts fans from all over the country to cheer on their college baseball team.IMG_2851


Each of these structures are relatively new. They are part of what I imagine local politicians—always careful with their phrasing—would show as proof of downtown’s “revitalization.” But also on Cass Street, there is a few city blocks that with each passing month seem more out-of-place. Among them, a non-descript boxing gym. A real boxing gym, not a fitness gym that uses boxing exercises as part of its work out routines. Instead, the boxing gym on Cass Street is the sort where the owner knows they’ll likely never make money from it and in fact, they’re much more likely to lose it. This is C.W. Boxing Club.

In terms of details—how old and worn bags are and where they’re placed, the size of the ring, the degree to which it smells of stale sweat, etc.—each boxing gym differs. But in what they represent, all boxing gyms are essentially the same.

Inside, there’s a father telling his son, in Spanish, to work his jab. While his young son shadow boxes, the father—again in Spanish—tells another father how his son just can’t lose his prepubescent paunch. “No le baja esa pinche panza,” he says. There’s also a raspy-voiced trainer yelling instructions in both English and Spanish. “Manny,” is how he introduced himself. He’s a former boxer-turned-trainer who seemed excited when he found out where I was from.

“You’re from El Chuco?” Manny asked, almost as if yelling though I stood a foot-and-a-half in front of him. “I fought in the fucking Lower Valley. I used to train in San Juan gym.” I know that gym, I told him. It’s a few miles from the Mexican border, in a part of El Paso that even local politicians aren’t interested in redeveloping—at least, not yet.

“I used to go across to the coliseum in Juárez. Fuck, I’d only go spar once in a great while over there cause them dudes…,” Manny pauses, contemplating his words while sitting on the ring’s apron and tying his shoes, “they’re dirty fighters, man.”

Our conversation ends abruptly when a young, lanky boxer—5 foot 11 inches, 135 pounds, I’d guess—arrives and Manny asks if he’s been running and if he’s ready to spar.

There’s another young boxer, 9 or 10 years old, who for the last few minutes has been telling Carl Washington—the gym’s namesake—why he can’t spar that day. He shows him his hand, apparently bruised, and mimics throwing the punch that caused the hurt. Washington, a quiet but welcoming man who wears an old, blue Dickie’s work shirt and pants, listens patiently before telling him he must spar. The boxer’s father, also dressed as if he just finished another day’s worth of manual labor, agrees. He tells his son, “sin miedo y sin llorar”—without fear and with no tears. The advice sounds so simple.

Inside of a gym like C.W. Boxing Club, even those with realistic expectations allow themselves, even if only on rare occasions, to dream. A way out, perhaps, of either a place like the forgotten blocks of downtown Omaha or from fear and self-doubts. The frequency of these dreams increase in direct proportion with those who made it out. C.W. Boxing Club, like every gym, lines its walls with memorabilia of its past Golden Gloves champions and even those who became professionals. Included in these pictures is a young Midge Minor, who all boxers out of this gym credit as a father figure and a reason for their success. Still, there is one boxer who stands out above the rest. And while even the gym’s most accomplished boxers may have their pictures and newspaper clippings scattered about, one boxer has an entire wall dedicated to his accomplishments. That boxer is Terence Crawford, or Bud, as everyone here calls him.

img_2906.jpgCrawford may be the best boxer in the world. And even if he isn’t here physically—he now owns a gym in north Omaha—he remains omnipresent. His wall of fame includes a photocopy of a young Crawford, with the phrase, “C.W. Youth Needs You”—presumably, a flyer used to raise travel funds. A pair of boxing gloves hang next to the picture, autographed by Crawford and dedicated to C.W. Another pair, dedicated to Carl, hang nearby.

Grover Wiley, the last person to beat the great Julio César Chávez, also came up in this gym. During his day, he was the only white kid here. Wiley, who is in his early 40s, tells me he immediately saw Crawford’s greatness. “I knew since he was…12 years old. Just the work ethic and the want to win.”

“He was just mean,” Wiley says, as if finding it difficult to reduce Crawford’s talent to a few, easily understood adjectives. Finally, Wiley simply states, “I always knew. I always knew.”

IMG_2902If you see Crawford fight, you understand what Wiley means. Crawford looks like a sadist with gloves on—the boxing kind. You also understand why Crawford inspires so many people in C.W. Boxing Club and around Omaha. Parents and their young boxers use Crawford as a motivation on mornings when naturally, they’d rather sleep under warm blankets than walk into the cold. The former wakes up to work and rush home to make sure their child gets to the gym on time. The latter wake up to run during early mornings when the wind chill adds to the discomfort and lonesome part of boxing. Those mornings when it’s raining and frigid but rather than hearing your trainer tell you to take the day off, he instead says something like, “Yes, it’s cold in Omaha. What did you expect?”

In a few months, it’ll be summer. The cold will retreat, grass will grow green, and leaves will again cover trees. The College World Series will come to Omaha and fill its downtown streets and hotels. Baseball in the United States has always been the romanticized ideal by which society wants to represent itself. And yet, it’s boxing—and all its bullshit—that reflects what that society really is.

One can’t help but wonder how long C.W. Boxing Club’s gym will stay open, at least in its current location. It feels inevitable that, like most inner-city boxing gyms, it’ll soon disappear. But I suppose what matters now is that it’s open today. That today, like every other day, Carl Washington drove his white van to pick up young boxers and bring them to the gym. Or that, today, former boxers dedicate as much attention to young boxers who on their best day won’t have a fraction of the talent that Crawford had on his worse.

As the sun goes down on downtown Omaha and it again feels empty and cold, the gym is open. The student traffic from Creighton University has ended for the day, and CenturyLink Center, just like TD Ameritrade Park—as they are for most of the year—are empty along with their large parking lots. The only sign life in downtown Omaha is C.W. Boxing Club and the dreams that, for today, live within.


“This fucker just won’t stop eating”

It’s 5:30 in the afternoon on the easternmost edge of the Great Plains, less than a mile-and-a-half south of the Missouri River that divides 2 states. A couple of storefront locations from a large pawn shop that’s so big it occupies a third of a city block, there’s a non-descript boxing gym.

On one of its doors—the one that’s always locked and reduced to functioning as a window with a keyhole and door handle—hangs a poster of the 2016 United States Olympic boxing team. The poster’s been hanging so long the sun has faded its color to different shades of blue.

Inside, a father telling his son, in Spanish, to shadowbox. He sits there and watches. “Asi, asi”—like that, like that—the father says, showing his own version of a jab though his level of expertise is unclear. His son punches at the air, copying his father’s jab. Each time, his shirt slightly rides up his midsection. When he feels a breeze on his navel, he pulls the shirt down. From time to time, the boy—9 or 10 years old—responds to his father, in English. “Dad. Dad. Like this?”

Another father, sitting not even 10 feet away, is also there with his son. In between offering advice to their young boxers, the fathers talk to one another, mostly in Spanish. Their conversation sounds like quiet laments or excuses for why, despite their efforts—perhaps even prayers—they aren’t raising prodigies.

“Este cabron no deja de tragar,” one father explains his son’s prebubescent paunch. Cabron has no exact English translation but if said in the most loving of ways, “fucker” comes close. “This fucker just won’t stop eating.”

The son either doesn’t hear, pretends that he can’t, or has heard it so often he no longer cares.

The dangerous game Donald Trump is playing with MS-13

Originally published

Members of MS-13 — a gang made up of Central Americans — are “tougher than any people you’ve ever met. … They’re killing and raping everybody out there.” Or so contends President President Trump. In his State of the Union address, Trump referenced MS-13 as the latest in a long line of mythical Bad Hombresand the reason the United States needs to build a wall, now.

But these statements are stereotypes designed to foster fear, not a description of reality. The level of local or national threat posed by MS-13 does not matchthe increasing hysteria they inspire. And this distortion matters.

Fear helps to win support for the border wall under the premise that it will help solve the problem of MS-13. But in reality, such rhetoric will only create stereotypes and anxiety that could punish innocent Latinos in the United States, citizens or otherwise, while doing little to make Americans safer.

Of course, this is not the first time politicians have used a Latino group as a boogeyman for political gain. Seventy-five years ago, it was the fear over pachucos — a group of Mexican and Mexican American youths who lived along the United States’s southwest border — that rose to a hysteria, culminating in a riot that remains a historical scar. The riot alienated many Mexican Americans, which in turn helped shift their politics away from what some would consider assimilation.

Many believed that the pachucos originated in the El Paso-Juárez borderland in the early 20th century, where El Paso still bears the moniker El Chuco. From this nickname came the term “pachuco,” a name that, in many ways, symbolized the mixing of two cultures in an area that may have been defined politically as part of Mexico or the United States but still was contested in terms of cultural identities. In this space, pachucos created a bicultural identity — one that was not quite Mexican but also not accepted as American.

Their unique slang, called Caló, was yet another example of biculturalism.

Though intelligible to one another, it was neither English nor the dialect of Spanish spoken in Mexico City. Pachucos also distinguished themselves through their style of dress. They wore zoot suits: baggy, oversized suits that originated in 1920s black culture and later became popularized by musicians in jazz clubs. The pachucos adopted this fashion by the 1930s and 1940s.

Eventually pachuquismo spread from the El Paso-Juárez borderland all the way to Los Angeles.

While some in Mexico saw pachuco culture as betraying Mexican authenticity, authorities in Los Angeles saw it as the embodiment of their worst fears: outsiders unwilling to assimilate. As Eduardo Obregón Pagán wrote in “Murder at the Sleepy Lagoon,” Pachucos revived talk of the “Mexican problem” among Californians. They debated “whether Mexican citizens and their American-born children were culturally, politically, intellectually, and biologically capable of living within a white, civilized, democratic society.”

World War II intensified these concerns about the “Americanism” and patriotism of pachucos. As the police department heightened its proactive efforts to stop street violence and youth gangs, the pachucos, quite literally, stood out. As part of their answer to the supposed problem of Mexican American youth delinquency, the LAPD arrested large numbers of the youths, sometimes for no reason other than congregating on street corners. The LAPD charged them with curfew violation, vagrancy or other minor crimes. A few days later, if the charges proved groundless, authorities released them.

Some within Los Angeles’s Mexican American community complained their youths were being unjustly arrested. They were right. But it didn’t matter. Arrest statistics climbed, giving police the justification they needed to further their efforts to quell Mexican and Mexican American crime.

Then, on Aug. 2, 1942 — some six months after Japanese internment began — this concern about pachucos transformed into hysteria. Early that morning, authorities found José Diaz’s lifeless body by a reservoir in East Los Angeles, known to the community as Sleepy Lagoon. A party from the previous night had resulted in Diaz’s fatal stabbing.

With press reports celebrating police heroism, the LAPD rounded up more than 600 Mexican American youths. Authorities charged 22 of them with murder. Despite the lack of evidence, in January 1943, a jury found 17 of them guilty.

In the aftermath, the police, media and community leaders equated anyone wearing a zoot suit with a criminal. Such stereotyping and fear resulted in a riot that began June 3, 1943.

There are various versions of how it started. Navy officials say pachucos, months before, had attacked some sailors. Others placed blame on the sailors who, on leave from a local military base and unfamiliar with their surroundings, unwittingly walked into the Mexican part of the city and caused trouble. Whatever the cause, a group of Mexican Americans beat up a few sailors — either unprovoked or in self-defense. Later, hundreds of sailors returned in what journalist and social activist Carey McWilliams called “taxicab brigades.”

McWilliams described the logistics of the attacks this way: “Sailors in the lead car sighted a Mexican boy in a zoot suit walking along the street. The ‘task force’ immediately stopped and, in a few moments, the boy was lying on the pavement, badly beaten and bleeding. The sailors then piled back into the cabs and the caravan resumed its way until the next zoot-suiter was sighted, whereupon the same procedure was repeated.”

From June 3 to 8, the Zoot Suit Riots took over Los Angeles’s downtown section. Sailors even beat Mexican and Mexican Americans who were not pachucos, at one point dragging innocent people from movie theaters. The LAPD did nothing to stop it and arrested only those of Mexican heritage. Eventually, military officials barred sailors from going into the downtown area, bringing an end to the violence.

During the 1960s, the Chicano movement celebrated Pachucos as positive symbols of resistance. But at the time of the riots, even some members within the Mexican American communities feared that the pachucos were a violent gang. The context of World War II intensified patriotism, which in turn magnified perceptions of people who were different as un-American. All of this fed into the public’s increasing concern over supposed gang violence that the LAPD, media and community leaders sought to suppress.

In short, the volatile mix of stereotypes, fear and national security concerns fueled the Zoot Suit Riots. These ingredients are mixing again with national discussion of MS-13.

The question is not whether MS-13 exists or how dangerous the gang is. Rather, the question is whether that danger is equal to the national attention Trump gives them. The escalating controversy over MS-13 has even included an Albuquerque Journal political cartoon that intertwined MS-13 with Dreamers and border security. In the cartoon, assailants with baggy and sagging pants — one wearing a vest marked, “MS-13” — mug a well-dressed white couple. With their hands up, the white man tells the woman, “Now honey … I believe they prefer to be called ‘Dreamers’ … or future Democrats …”

Like the pachucos 75 years ago, MS-13 has become a perfect villain. The fear over the gang is the latest example of the tired trope that immigrants, or anyone perceived as an outsider, commit more crimes than native-born citizens. But in fact the opposite is true. Cracking down on MS-13 is not the solution to crime or immigration.

Indeed, funneling resources toward battling MS-13 has taken them away from other pressing problems. Opioid addiction and human trafficking both constitute bigger threats in Los Angeles, Long Island and outside Washington, D.C., the three areas where MS-13 has its largest presence.

As the Zoot Suit Riots showed, turning a group of people into a bigger problem than they actually are does nothing to ease tensions, and instead only adds to them. And in this case, it is taking resources away from fighting actual threats to public safety.