Published in Rio Grande Review, Spring 2019
“I am going to tell you why I fight as well as I do,” Julio César Chávez once said. “Never before have I spoken of this, because people might say, ‘This man is crazy.’ A few years ago, back in Tijuana, God blessed me; I get goose pimples when I think of it. I saw Christ on the cross.”
Growing up, I often heard stories from people claiming they’d seen God or something holy. When I heard Chávez saw God in Tijuana, I wondered if I heard those stories because of where I was raised. My family is from Juárez, which like Tijuana, is on the border of Mexico and the United States.
Juárez is across from El Paso and for longer than they’ve been separate—the result of the U.S-Mexico war in the mid-1800s—the two cites were one. El Paso del Norte it was called, until the river that ran though it became what separated the United States from Mexico, Texas from Chihuahua, and what became El Paso from Juárez. As with most borderlands, there is a history of violence there. Countries don’t lose or gain territory without bloodshed. And yet, it’s exactly in these types of places where the belief in God flourishes, even if only to counter the perceived omnipresence of evil.
When my immediate family moved to the north side of that border, as far as Colorado—part of which also once belonged to Mexico—my mother and father would send me back to Juárez during the summers. As a family, we’d also return whenever we had a chance, sometimes a couple of times a month. But during summer, when I wasn’t in school and had no one to watch me, I returned to the south side of the border.
Back in Juárez, I’d split my days between both of my grandmother’s houses. They lived in the same neighborhood, a block away from each other. My paternal grandmother’s neighbor had a son, El Richie. He was one of the people who claimed to have witnessed a holy apparition.
El Richie’s real name was Ricardo. But his name became one of those things that get altered when living between two countries that were, in many ways, two worlds.
“Did you hear?” the talk around the neighborhood asked, in Spanish, of course. “El Richie saw La Virgen De Guadalupe.”
El Richie was about 10 years older than me. He hung out with my older cousins and after he spoke of what he saw, people began coming around his house. The first few days after El Richie said La Virgen appeared in front of him, the line coming out his front door was 30 deep, mostly grandmothers—abuelas—wearing their rebozos and clutching their rosaries.
I don’t remember if my grandmother was among these women though I suspect she was. She was devotedly Catholic. It was that Mexican brand of Catholicism that mixed indigenous beliefs. The type to think that, under certain circumstances, when prayers needed reinforcement, seeing a curandera—something like a witch doctor—wasn’t a bad idea.
Besides the heat that caused you to sleep almost naked on the tile floor, just so you could cool down, the worse parts of spending my summers in Juárez was looking for excuses that got me out of going to church, which my grandmother attended a few days each week. I’d pretend to be asleep. I’d pretend to fall asleep. I’d pretend my stomach hurt. I’d delay taking a shower and then, as the time came when we had to leave, I—still not dressed—would humbly suggest they go on without me. It never worked.
One Sunday, when one of my aunts flatly refused to go to church, my grandmother snapped. She yelled. She reached for a bottle of holy water she kept in the cabinets. She splashed it on her because, according to my grandmother, my aunt was possessed. After that day I never tried as hard to come up with excuses to stay home. I went to church, albeit begrudgingly. I didn’t want my grandmother to think El Diablo lived in my soul.
The fervor over El Richie having seen La Virgen de Guadalupe lasted about a week. Day after day, the crowds became shorter. Increasingly, El Richie could walk around the neighborhood without being asked, again, to explain what he saw. After a couple of weeks things returned to normal. Most people eventually forgot about what El Richie saw. We’d only remember when El Richie reminded us. “Oh shit, that’s right,” we’d respond on those day, “I forgot you once saw La Virgen de Guadalupe.”
Like many people there, I believed El Richie. And because I did, when I heard Julio César Chávez saw God, I believed him too. Growing up, you were almost conditioned to say “gracias a Dios”—thanks to God—or some variant of that phrase, after experiencing any good fortune.
Similarly, whenever you saw or lived through something that couldn’t be explained, like the time I flung a wet stuffed animal so high in the sky it never came down, you just assumed it was part of God’s mysteries.
When each summer ended, my mother and father would drive back to Juárez to pick me up. When my father was in town, his old neighborhood friends came around. They drank and reminisced. They listening to music blaring out of someone’s car trunk.
If you listen to Mexican men from the barrio talk long enough while they drink, you’ll eventually hear stories of street fights. This is how I learned my father and my uncle—my father’s youngest brother—were known around the neighborhoods for fighting.
I heard these stories retold through laughter. Tales of how people, from a few neighborhoods over, sought out my father to fight. Stories of how Los Sapos—a gang my uncle started—were feared across Juárez. I heard that my father fought with the ferocity of Julio César Chávez. Had those stories been about someone else, I wouldn’t have believed them.
Usually, on these nights, there’d come a point where my father would talk to me. “Look at all these people,” he’d say with his bloodshot eyes, his breath smelling of Carta Blanca beer. “You can walk up and down these streets and everyone will respect you because of me.” I’d nod, pridefully. I felt fortunate that I was my father’s son.
“But always be careful,” he continued. “Be careful when you’re away from these familiar streets.”
I’d nod again. “Gracias a Dios,” I’d think.
My grandmother walked everywhere. And because she walked so much, I did too. During my summers in Juárez, it felt like I walked for miles each day. To the grocery store, to pay bills, everywhere we needed to be, we walked. We’d even walk under the desert sun just to be able to go walk inside department stores whose air conditioning was so cold that you could feel it blasting 10 feet before you walked inside their open doors.
A few times during the summers we’d walk across the international bridge to El Paso. We’d cross, and not too far from the downtown bridge, there was a mural. “God is Mexican,” it read.
“Abuela,” I once asked, “is God Mexican?”
“You know Porfirio Diaz?” she asked.
“The street?” I responded.
“No, the person that the street is named after.”
“Is he a luchador?”
“No, mijo,” she said while looking at me like I was dumb. “Porfirio Diaz was the president of Mexico. He used to powder his skin to try to look white. He was convinced Mexicans suffered being so close to the United States and so far from God. But Diaz was wrong. He always was.”
Abuela must have seen the confusion in my eyes. She was always smarter than everyone else. She stopped walking. And when I took a few extra steps to catch up, she softly grabbed me by the shoulders. “Hijo mio,” she said, “We may be close to the United States but that doesn’t mean we’re far from God. Because…,because…,” She paused as if contemplating whether to divulge a secret she’d sworn to keep.
“God is Mexican,” she finally said, “just like that mural says.”
“God is Mexican,” she continued, “but you know who else is Mexican?”
“Julio César Chávez,” I wanted to say. He was the first person who came to my mind. But I didn’t answer. I was smart enough to know I had stupid thoughts.
“No,” I said, “who else is Mexican?” I expected to hear more great news.
“El Diablo,” she said.
“Fuck.” I thought, careful not to say it out loud. “Not him again.”
For as many stories as I heard about the divine, I also heard a lot of stories of Satan—called El Diablo or Satanas. The latter always sounded so formal. Like it was the name of some local businessman—Satanas Villalobos—who lived in those big houses we often walked by.
“El Diablo once appeared to your grandfather,” my grandmother once told me. “Your grandfather thought it was a regular man so he spoke to him. It wasn’t until that mysterious man left that your abuelo, smelling the Sulphur, knew he’d just talked to El Diablo. That night, your abuelo came home drunk and crying. He apologized for everything he’d done and vowed to change his life.”
I never met my grandfather. He died months before I was born. He died of a broken liver. I once heard that during his final few hours, laying on his death bed, he again asked for forgiveness. “Perdoname Maria,” I imagine him saying between tears. “Si José,” I imagined her stoically responding.
“You see that bar there?” my grandmother asked during one of our other walks. She pointed at one of those bars that look abandoned in the sunlight. One of those bars that under the moonlight, look alive and filled with lust.
“Yes,” I’d answer.
“One night, inside that bar, Satanas danced all night. When the lights turned on and someone finally saw that the handsome, dancing man had the legs of a chicken, someone screamed. Satanas suddenly disappeared.”
“Fuck,” I’d think, not daring to say it out loud because if I did, I’d get slapped.
Sometimes I heard these stories and it felt like some invisible hand dumped ice water down my spine. When other people heard these stories, I’d see them trace a cross with their hands, over their heads and down, across their chest. I did the same figuring I had nothing to lose and potentially, everything to gain.
I’d see people wearing amulets and sometimes I did too, just in case evil—in spirit or in any other form—lurked.
I was 7-years-old when Julio César Chávez fought Edwin Rosario. I was too young to remember for certain but I’m assuming we watched if for no other reason than we, as a family and neighborhood, always watched him fight. We’d crowd around a small television that some neighbor would put out of their porch.
“Chingatelo Chávez!” someone would always yell, telling him to fuck up whoever he was fighting.
I’m almost certain we watched. There’s no way we would have missed the fight between Chávez, a Mexican national hero, and Rosario, the defending world champion from Puerto Rico.
Mexico vs. Puerto Rico is one of boxing fiercest rivalries. Being so young, that rivalry—to me— extended into everything. When we lived in Chicago and our neighbors told us not to cross a certain street because that was the Puerto Rican barrio and us Mexicans didn’t belong there, I didn’t even have to ask why.
Before their fight, Chávez heard a rumor, one of the many you hear when you hang around boxing gyms. But this one was different. This one said Rosario’s mother had put a spell on Chávez. It said that somewhere—in some corner of a grimy boxing gym, you imagined—there was a picture of Chávez inside a bucket of ice. Presumably, Rosario’s mother or her witch doctor, put that picture there. And because it was there, Chávez, before the fight, would be stricken by a cold. Weak and unable to fully breath, Chávez would then struggle in that fight.
Upon hearing of the spell, Chávez’s trainer suggested they visit a brujo of their own. They did. And that brujo told them that to counteract the spell, Chávez and everyone in his corner had to wear a red headband. And so, from that fight on, Chávez wore a red headband. And because he did—after I heard that story—whenever he fought, I wore one as well.
When I was young, stories like these scared the shit out of me. It wasn’t until I got older that I realized Mexicans, or at least the ones I grew up with, liked to tell these stories. It wasn’t until I got older that I realized they only half thought they were fake. That’s why Chávez wore that red headband. It’s why, years later, when Chávez said he saw El Diablo, there was a part of me that believed him.
I believed him because in the Juárez neighborhood where I spent many of my summers, on certain nights you’d hear someone—usually the old man who sat outside and when strangers came around, he’d arm himself with the small knife attached to nail clippers—say “El Diablo anda suelto”—the devil is on the loose. When you heard those words, even if you were in the middle of playing, it was time to go inside.
On those nights when El Diablo ran you off, I’d sit especially close to my abuela as she prayed her daily rosary. I couldn’t help but stare at her. I notice that because she closed her eyes tightly, she looked more wrinkled than usual. Her mouth moved rapidly as she mumbled her repetitive prayers. It sounded like she was whispering to God and La Virgen de Guadalupe.
She’d finish but not before asking them both to watch over her children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren. “Keep them from El Diablo’s reach and temptation,” she’d beg. She’d also apologize to them both, for that day when she visited my grandfather’s grave and left a bottle of liquor and a single rose.
“It was the 2 loves of his life,” she once told me. I knew what the bottle was all about but the rose didn’t make sense, so I asked. “Rosa was a neighborhood puta,” she answered. She was certain my grandfather loved her.
“I shouldn’t have done that, but I did. That’s why I left that goddamned rose.” Not knowing what to say, I sat there in silence. She didn’t save me from it. After what felt like an hour, she just stood up and not wanting to be alone, I followed.
“Who do you want to pray for?” she once asked me. “For Julio César Chávez,” I once bravely said, thinking that if God is Mexican, then there was no harm in asking that Chávez never lose. But as soon as I said it, abuela looked at me with eyes that made me feel like an invisible hand had dumped ice-water down my spine.
I quickly changed my prayers. “For my family and orphans, I mean.” After that, I never said it out-loud, but I always prayed for Chávez to win. Sometimes I prayed during each minute of his fights.
On the night Chávez beat Meldrick Taylor, it sounded like the entire neighborhood screamed. I heard many people call it a miracle. And that night, as the referee waved off the fight, my father hugged me so close that my red headband almost slid off my head.
“Gracias a dios,” I thought.
Back then I still believed. Back then I still hadn’t decided that the wet stuffed animal I threw high into the sky, must have gotten stuck in the trees.
El Richie, who years later told me he was high as shit when he saw La Virgen de Guadalupe, ran out his house when Chávez won. He was in his underwear. For years I thought that on that night, he had glassy eyes because Chávez’s win had also made him cry.