Cultural History of Boxing in the United States – Syllabus

SYLLABUS – CULTURAL HISTORY OF BOXING IN THE UNITED STATES

Instructor: Roberto José Andrade Franco

E-mail:  Robertojoseandradefranco@gmail.com

Course Description

This course presents an overview of boxing’s societal impact in the United States. We will begin in the nineteenth century and look at boxing’s evolution across the twentieth century and conclude with the current state of boxing. Each class will use one specific boxer as a lens to discuss broader historical topics occurring at time in which they fought. Gender, race, ethnicity, class, and demographic change resulting from immigration are among the topics involved with each discussion centered on boxers and their sport. Each class meeting will include lectures, screening of boxing and history documentaries, and guided discussions. Periodically, guests will join us to discuss their role in boxing. The course considers the social and cultural impact of boxing in the United States—with a lesser focus on other countries.

Required Text*:

Early, Gerald (editor), The Cambridge Companion to Boxing (New York and Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2019).

ISBN-10: 1107631203

*Additional material will be distributed in class or placed on Canvas.

Course Schedule* 

Thursday 5/14 – John L. Sullivan

Prep:

  • Read The Cambridge Companion to Boxing, chapter 2, “The Bare-Knuckle Era” by Elliott J. Gorn.
  • Read Elliott J. Gorn, “Gouge and Bite, Pull Hair and Scratch”: The Social Significance of Fighting in the Southern Backcountry,” The American Historical Review 90, no. 1 (February 1985): 18-43.

Friday 5/15 – Jack Johnson

Prep:

  • Read The Cambridge Companion to Boxing, chapter 23, “Black Slaver: Jack Johnson and the Mann Act” by Rebecca Wanzo.
  • Read Alderman, Joshua Inwood, and James A. Tyner. “Jack Johnson versus Jim Crow: Race, Reputation, and the Politics of Black Villainy: The Fight of the Century.” Southeastern Geographer 58, no. 3 (2018): 227-49.

Monday 5/18 – Jack Dempsey

Prep:

  • Read The Cambridge Companion to Boxing, chapter 6, “Harry Greb, Gene Tunney, Jack Dempsey, and the Roaring Twenties” by Carlo Rotella.
  • Read Richard V. McGehee, “The Dandy and the Mauler in Mexico: Johnson, Dempsey, Et Al., and the Mexico City Press, 1919-1927.” Journal of Sport History 23, no. 1 (1996): 20-33.

Tuesday 5/19 – Benny Leonard

Prep:

  • Read The Cambridge Companion to Boxing, chapter 11, “Jews in Twentieth-Century Boxing” by Steven A. Riess.
  • Read Stephen H. Norwood, “”American Jewish Muscle”: Forging a New Masculinity in the Streets and in the Ring, 1890-1940,” Modern Judaism 29, no. 2 (May 2009): 167-193.

Wednesday 5/20 – Joe Louis

Prep:

  • Read The Cambridge Companion to Boxing, chapter 13, “Joe Louis: “You Should Have Seen Him Then” By Randy Roberts.
  • Read Richard Wright, “High Tide in Harlem: Joe Louis as a Symbol of Freedom,” New Masses, July 5, 1938: 18-20.

Thursday 5/21 – Rocky Marciano

Prep:

  • Read William Nack, “The Rock,” in Sports Illustrated, August 23, 1993: 52-68.
  • Read Russell Sullivan, Rocky Marciano: The Rock of his Times (Champagne: University of Illinois Press, 2002), 1-5.

Friday 5/22 – Benny Paret

Prep:

  • Read The Cambridge Companion to Boxing, chapter 17, “Emile Griffith: The Underrated Champion” by Mark Scott.
  • Read Christina D. Abreu, “The Story of Benny “Kid” Paret: Cuban Boxers, the Cuban Revolution, and the U.S. Media, 1959-1962,” Journal of Sport History 38, No. 1 (Spring 2011): 95-113.

Monday 5/25 No Class – Memorial Day

Tuesday 5/26 – Muhammad Ali

Prep:

  • Read The Cambridge Companion to Boxing, chapter 15, “Echoes from the Jungle: Muhamad Ali in the Early 1970s” by Lewis A. Erenberg
  • Read The Cambridge Companion to Boxing, chapter 28, “Muhammad Ali: King of the Inauthentic” by Gerald Early

Wednesday 5/27 – Mike Tyson

            Prep:

  • Read Gerald Early, “Mike’s Brilliant Career.” Transition, no. 71 (1996): 46-59.
  • Read Hoffer, Richard, “Make Way For Brother Mike!”: When Tyson Left Prison The First Time.

Thursday 5/28 – Julio Cesar Chavez

Prep:

  • Read Read The Cambridge Companion to Boxing, chapter 9, “A Century of Fighting Latinos: From the Margins to the Mainstream” by Benita Heiskanen.
  • Read Roberto José Andrade Franco, “Julio Cesar Chavez Jr. Lost So Much More Than a Fight,” Deadspin, May 11, 2017.

Friday 5/29 – Floyd Mayweather

Prep:

  • Read Brin-Jonathan Butler, “Poison Oasis: Mayweather vs. Pacquiao,” SB Nation, May 5, 2015.
  • Read Patrick Redford, “Four Days in the Squall of a Superfight,” Deadspin, August 30, 2017.

Monday 6/1 Claressa Shields

            Prep:

  • Read The Cambridge Companion to Boxing, chapter 10, “Women’s Boxing: Bout Time” by Cathy Van Ingen
  • Read Sarah Deming, “Claressa Shields is the Real Million Dollar Baby,” Deadspin, May 24, 2017.

Tuesday 6/2 Final Exam

 

*Additional material may be assigned occasionally.

 

How George Foreman Went From Champion Boxer to Evangelical Grillmaster

Published on Texas Observer.


In the moments after he lost to Jimmy Young in 1977, George Foreman vomited. His sweating body shook uncontrollably. In the dressing room, Foreman climbed a table and leapt from it; he later said he’d heard God talking to him.

The match, held on a humid March night in San Juan, Puerto Rico, had been a stunning upset that “traumatized the heavyweight boxing scene.” But for the Texas boxer, its aftermath offered a new start. “With his championship aspirations dying,” sports historian Andrew R.M. Smith writes, “Foreman started to come alive again.”

When he arrived at the hospital, doctors said Foreman suffered from a concussion and heatstroke. He spent a day in the ICU. But by breakfast the next day, Foreman had checked himself out. “It made everything clearer for him,” Smith writes of the near-death experience. At just 28, Foreman—the man who once said “boxing was invented for me”—left the sport that had taken him from poverty to the Olympics and becoming the heavyweight world champion.

Both as a boxer and a person, the 1977 loss transformed Foreman. Smith chronicles that evolution, and the many others in the athlete’s life, in his fascinating, colorful new biography No Way but to Fight: George Foreman and the Business of Boxing. 

“During that half century of public life,” Smith writes of Foreman, “the most consistent aspect of his career remains the ability to adapt and reshape his image.” Over 15 well-researched chapters—which include interviews with Foreman and materials gathered from archives across three countries—Smith chronicles that resilience.

Foreman was born in 1949 in the northeastern Texas town of Marshall. There, his mother and father lived in a shotgun house without rooms, appliances, plumbing, or electricity. One of seven children, George was six months old when the family moved to Houston, following the family patriarch, J.D. Foreman, and his job working on the Southern Pacific Railway.

The Foreman family mirrored Texas’ demographic change. In 1900, more than 80 percent of the state’s African American population lived in rural areas. Fifty years later, 65 percent of African Americans in Texas lived in urban areas. The Foremans moved to Houston’s Fifth Ward, a rough area nicknamed the “Bloody Fifth.” Young George supplemented the money he earned from washing dishes at a local restaurant by robbing people of theirs.

As an adolescent, Foreman seemed headed to prison after he dropped out of junior high and started shoplifting and getting into fights. “He became a statistic,” Smith writes of Foreman, “just at the moment when such statistics mattered to policymakers.” In 1964, as part of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s war on poverty, the Job Corps was founded to provide basic education and vocational training. The program took Foreman from the Bloody Fifth to Oregon and then California, where he learned carpentry, bricklaying—and boxing.

In the 1968 Olympics, Foreman stayed notably apolitical, distancing himself from Tommy Smith, John Carlos, and other U.S. athletes who protested apartheid. While Smith and Carlos raised their black glove-covered fists on the medal podium, Foreman celebrated his gold more quietly, waving a small United States flag. “I just do my own thing,” he said after his victory. “I am no Uncle Tom.” That was the Foreman who became popular with politicians—the Foreman who would meet for photographs and handshakes at the banquets of those politicians who promised to continue funding his beloved Job Corps. When a representative of Richard Nixon approached Foreman seeking his support, he declined because the Republican presidential nominee planned to defund social programs.

There was the George Foreman who became a prize fighter and, especially after defeating Joe Frazier and Ken Norton, appeared invincible. When he fought Muhammad Ali in the famed 1974 Rumble in the Jungle, most assumed Foreman would leave Kinshasa, Zaire, undefeated. Oddsmakers had Foreman as a three-to-one favorite. When Ali won, Foreman scrambled for answers. An existential dread accompanies every loss a boxer faces, a feeling only intensified by an upset to the undefeated heavyweight champion of the world. “I felt as if my core had evaporated,” Foreman said of the loss. Less than three years after losing to Ali, there was the Foreman who abruptly retired, became an evangelical minister, and even went back to where it all began to fall apart. “He returned to Zaire to preach instead of punch,” Smith explains.

And, finally, there was Foreman the comeback story. A decade after he retired, he returned to the ring. An old man by the standards of professional athletes, he was noticed by many but taken seriously by few. Foreman—once described by Norman Mailer as a “catatonic menace”— had changed. He smiled and joked. No longer the muscular 20-something who looked to have the perfect physique for boxing, the overweight Foreman was self-deprecating. Remarkably, two decades after losing boxing’s heavyweight world championship, he regained it. At 45, Foreman jokingly thanked “all [his] old buddies in the nursing home” as soon as he won. “[I] exorcised the ghost once and forever,” a serious Foreman said of that loss in Zaire that haunted him.

That’s the Foreman closest to the one many recognize now: The grandfatherly pitchman who made a fortune selling a moribund grill that came to life once it had his name on it. Previously marketed as the Fajita Express, the product had been a flop, but the rebranded “George Foreman Lean Mean Fat Reducing Machine” went on to sell more than 100 million units. “Foreman’s royalties escalated to millions of dollars a month,” Smith explains of the ’90s kitchen staple’s incredible success.

For a state best-known for its football talent, Texas has also given birth to great boxers. Their stories show that boxing has always been a poor man’s sport. Among the best were Jack Johnson from Galveston, Curtis Cokes from Dallas, and Orlando Canizales from Laredo. But out of all the great boxers from Texas, perhaps George Foreman best represents contemporary society.

From an era when boxing’s influence reverberated across the United States and the globe, to when Foreman became better known for his infomercials than what he accomplished in the ring, No Way but to Fight uses the boxer as a lens to show a changing society. Smith emphasizes Foreman’s ability to reshape and adapt his image while also noting the athlete’s complexities. He writes of a boxer who ultimately triumphed in the most unvirtuous of sports. By what he accomplished inside the ring, Foreman built an empire outside it, ensuring “his descendants won’t have to fight in the same way.”

 

Los Pinches Frijoles

Right now, somewhere, beans are burning on a stove. Whoever was supposed to keep watch, was told to add water continuously. They understood. Dozens of times they’d done it, so being told the obvious felt a bit insulting.

Somehow, they forgot—one of those things without explanation.

Subconsciously, they notice it smells different. But they’ve yet to process what that means.

Eventually and suddenly, that unmistakable smell of burnt beans will make their soul shake. For a split second, they’ll feel that sensation of falling backwards.

They’ll run to the kitchen, hoping, praying, bargaining with God, that the beans are alright. That somehow, a few cups of water will make everything fine. That later that day, when people eat those beans, no one will even notice that for a few moments everything felt lost.

They’ll turn off the stove, wave the smoke away and look toward the bottom of that clay pot. Puta madre. Fuck.

They’ll panic over what to do next.

“A new pot of beans?” they’ll think.

“How do I get that smell out?” they’ll wonder.

“What do I say?” they’ll worry.

There will be nothing to say. The entire apartment complex will know about los pinches frijoles.

 

A Car Club That Lives the Cowboys Life

Published in D Magazine


The scene repeats itself throughout the early day and into late afternoon, as fans, mostly of the Dallas Cowboys but a few of the visiting Minnesota Vikings, begin to converge on AT&T Stadium. Among the cacophony of competing stereos and smell of grilled meats, they see the group of cars, so close to the stadium that surrounding lots charge $100 to park. But it’s not proximity that sets them apart. “Look at that!” someone will say, and then, almost instinctively, they and their traveling party will walk toward the custom-designed cars, pulling phones from their pockets.

Some ask for permission. “Take as many pictures as you want,” the owners of the cars answer. Others don’t. They just take them—selfies, taking turns posing, parents telling children to stand there and smile. A few, as if they realize it’s futile to try to capture the small details of each car in one snap, instead record videos, walking with baby steps around these rolling monuments to the Cowboys.

They capture the candy-colored paint job that sparkles in the sun. The murals on the cars of past and present players and coaches. The interiors lined with so many blue and silver stars that it feels impossible to count them all. The blue chrome 28-inch rims that, at the center, have the logo and name of their car club, CowboysLife—one word added so as not to infringe on trademarks.

These cars—four of them made the trip for the Cowboys’ nationally televised Sunday night game against the Vikings—are part of a club that’s been at most home games since the stadium opened in 2009. In the decade since, the membership has grown. Members as far away as California have dedicated their Hondas, Chevys, or Nissans to the team they love. There’s even a Cowboys-themed lowrider bicycle among the club, as well as a Harley and a four-wheeler.

Everyone can’t attend every game, but there’s always someone here, across from the Blue 10 parking lot. At this year’s season opener, against the New York Giants, 1,000 people attended the CowboysLife pregame festivities. And no matter how many come, they tailgate, cooking on a custom-made 150-gallon grill that’s so big it’s attached to a small trailer, which has a pole flying a Cowboys flag. Under that banner, fluttering in the breeze of this mild day, CowboysLife members eat tacos and drink beer. They listen to music and watch other games on TV until it’s time for their team to take the field.

“I’d had some that, after taking pictures, someone will say, ‘Man, I hate the Cowboys, but I love your car,’ ” Jose Saldivar says. Jose is the founder and president of CowboysLife. He has a CowboysLife tattoo on his left arm, which he got a few months after the club began, in December 2009. Jose drives a 1986 Chevy C-10. Until a drunk driver slammed into it, as it sat parked outside Jose’s house, it was the truck his father used to work as a roofer. Its name is Dynasty. It has Lamborghini scissor doors and a pinstripe paint job in Dallas Cowboys colors, and when Jose parks Dynasty, the truck drops several inches. The bed raises and tilts, looking like a Transformer. Its hood is blue, and at the center, toward the windshield, a mural depicts the team’s five Super Bowl trophies in front of Tom Landry and Jimmy Johnson.

About the only thing that isn’t Cowboys related is the front license plate. It’s the logo—a tando hat atop sunglasses and a thin mustache—associated with lowriders, going all the way back to when they were called pachuco cars, after the Mexican and Mexican-American youths who wore screaming-bright zoot suits. When car culture took hold after World War II, they filled their trunks with bricks and bags of sand and cement, and drove their cars bajito y suavecito. Low and slow.

At the very least, lowriders—and other cars that clubs form around—are an extension of one’s identity. At most, they’re a political statement. It’s a street aesthetic that says something, perhaps everything, about the person driving: where they come from, who they are, what they refuse to hide of themselves. Regardless of what significance they hold, it’s an aesthetic that’s expensive.

From the bottom to the top—wheels and rims, hydraulics or air bags, paint job, interior, and everything else related to the vehicle’s inner workings—it takes money and resourcefulness to make one’s car stand out. Jose estimates his truck has $40,000 worth of work. And yet he spent only about a quarter of that, incrementally—a few hundred dollars here, a few more there, first fixing one part of the truck, then another, doing as much of the work himself as he could. And since it’s part of their purpose and function, Jose, like every other member, relied on the club for help.

“You have a painter in the club, you have somebody who does body, somebody who does hydraulics,” Jose says. “They’re giving you that homie hookup, which is where it was invented. So you have these guys in the club, and he scratches your back, you scratch theirs. That’s how it works.”

For these clubs to work, in general, they must also give something back to the places they come from. They already draw enough attention. “You have to do good in the community to basically keep going,” Jose says. “If you’re out there creating havoc, nobody invites you, nobody wants you. So then there’s no point of you out there as a car club.”

That aspect of CowboysLife attracted Osvaldo Rojas, who until five years ago, when he joined the club, wasn’t even a sports fan. He owns a 1996 Ford Bronco named America’s Tribute. It’s camouflage wrapped, with a large blue star on each door. When he revs its engine, all the ambient music from nearby tailgating parties disappears. “Mainly, what I like to do is charity work,” Osvaldo says.

For CowboysLife and other affiliated groups, that charity work includes annual scholarships and toy runs. They’ve given away bikes. They’ve hosted a car show—Rolling for the Cure—where all money raised went to the Susan G. Komen foundation.

Car clubs form around themes. Some are just lowriders. Others are just cars of a certain make or model. Some clubs are full of cars that remind you of The Fast and the Furious. CowboysLife, of course, unites around a love of the Dallas Cowboys. Most members inherited that love from their families. For some, this is also where their love of cars comes from. Presumably, this is what will happen with the young children running around at CowboysLife’s tailgating events.

“The reason I became a Cowboys fan was because of my dad,” Jose says. On game days, his dad would wear a Cowboys jacket while watching alongside family, including young Jose.

For Randy Samora, it worked the same way. “Since a baby,” is how he answers when asked how long he’s cheered for the Cowboys. Randy, who lives outside of Houston, has been a member of CowboysLife for four years. He saw a picture of Jose and Dynasty in a newspaper and said, “I want to do something like that.” So he joined. He converted his silver 2007 Jeep Wrangler into Dem Boys, a play on the Wiz Khalifa song “We Dem Boyz.”

Randy’s Dem Boys is an ode to the storied history of the team. Players from past and present—Roger Staubach, Troy Aikman, Jason Witten—blanket the doors. The wheel cover at the back has the car club’s own blue star logo, “We ride with pride” circling around it. The only part of Dem Boys that seems untouched by anything Cowboys related is the top. “That will be dedicated to the Super Bowl,” Randy says. “That’s what it’s waiting on.”

An entire generation knows only of the past Cowboys’ success based on what they’ve read and seen in old recordings, along with what older fans tell them. For them, it’s been nothing but frustration. “That freaking field goal from Romo,” Gabriel Saldivar says. “The botched snap, that’s the worst one. You can call it whatever you want; that botch started it. Every year Romo came back, I had confidence until playoff time came around.”

A certified minister with an easy laugh and smile to counter his imposing 6-foot-3 build, Gabriel Saldivar named his chevy Hail Mary.

Gabriel has a 1989 Chevy Caprice. “The same beautiful car that you saw on that movie Hustle & Flow” is how he describes it. A certified minister with an easy laugh and smile to counter his imposing 6-foot-3 build, Gabriel named his blue car Hail Mary. It’s the one that stops the most passersby. Drew Pearson, who caught that last-second Hail Mary pass to win a playoff game in 1975, signed the glove compartment. Original jerseys of Emmitt Smith and Michael Irvin cover Hail Mary’s seats.

At 34 years old, Gabriel mostly remembers the parades from the last time the Cowboys won a Super Bowl. He’s confident they’ll win one again. “First of all, we’re going to try to get into that parade downtown, ’cause you know that’s gonna happen,” Gabriel says as he watches his 2-year-old son play inside the car. “And then after that, on the back side,” he points toward the chrome bumper glistening in the sun, “we’re just gonna add the years. And I’ll have six.”

Tonight, though, the Cowboys lose. The Vikings intercept Prescott’s attempt at a Hail Mary. The slow-moving, postgame traffic feels almost unbearable. Stuck looking at all the red taillights ahead, hardly anyone moving, there is time to reflect on more than two decades of losses, all of the almosts and not-good-enoughs since the last Super Bowl win.

“I feel disappointed,” Jose says. The team he’s always watched while surrounded by friends and family. The team he loves so much that he dedicated a car club to them. “It’s kind of like having a child. They do something wrong, it disappoints you. But you still love them to death.”

Why Andy Ruiz Jr. Matters

Published on Vice.com


Because it has always been a point of violence and contention, most folk heroes within Mexican culture come from the United States-Mexico borderland. During the era of Manifest Destiny and the Gold Rush, there was Joaquin Murrieta. According to folklore, white miners took his land claim, raped his wife, murdered his step-brother, then publicly flogged Murrieta. Murrieta swore to attain revenge, and did. A few years later, in south Texas, Juan Cortina started his own war after defending Mexicans from the abuses of the Texas Rangers and other law enforcement entities.

There was Teresa Urrea. Before she arrived in Arizona in the late 1800s, her supposed miraculous healing powers inspired plots to overthrow the Mexican government. She was 19 years old when the Mexican government deported her. A few years later, again in south Texas, Gregorio Cortez shot a sheriff in self-defense. Texas Rangers and the hundreds of men involved in hunting him killed nine Mexicans in their search for Cortez.

And then there was Pancho Villa, who epitomizes everything these folk heroes were, not least of which is the divide between how they’re portrayed on the different sides of the border: as bandits or heroes, depending on who is judging, when, and where.


On the night of June 1st, Andy Ruiz Jr., who until that night was seemingly just another boxer disillusioned with the sport, became a folk hero.

In the third round, after he got knocked on his ass, Ruiz looked up at the referee counting to 10. He was down, and it felt unavoidable. And as his opponent, Anthony Joshua, the unified heavyweight champion of the world, waited with unnerving patience, that Ruiz would lose almost felt unavoidable.

The moment served as a reminder that Ruiz shouldn’t have even been there. As a late replacement, he had, as The Guardian put it, snatched the golden ticket, and was there to—if all went as planned—simply be the opponent in the highlights of Joshua’s first fight in the United States.

But Ruiz stood back up. He shook his head and raised his gloves to show he was fine. “Eight!” the referee yelled, inches from his face. “You alright?” he asked. “Yea,” Ruiz said. He looked alright. Then again, boxers train themselves to look calm and collected when everything inside them screams.

“Anthony Joshua is a composed and ferocious finisher,” the commentator said, expecting Ruiz’s end. “Watch this.”

The fight resumed and another of Joshua’s punches rocked Ruiz’s head back. Seemingly every bead of sweat flew from his head to the ring’s canvas and front rows. Ruiz kept fighting. And as Joshua threw an uppercut that—had it landed—would have knocked out Ruiz, the Mexican-American boxer responded with a left hook that staggered the boxing superstar.

A few seconds later, Joshua was on the ground. It was Joshua looking up at Ruiz standing above him. It was Joshua listening to the referee’s 10 count. And it was Joshua who looked vulnerable during what should have been his version of the British Invasion.

At that moment, it no longer mattered that Joshua and his team of managers, marketers, and promoters had come to Madison Square Garden to fight and, as he put it, “build up our name.” Nor did it matter that Joshua, a burgeoning global star, owner of three of the four heavyweight boxing titles, had ambitions of staggering wealth. “I need to be a billionaire,” he told GQ Magazine. That Joshua’s goal was realistic shows the shine of his star. But at that moment, it was all falling apart.

A few sitting ringside with a vested interest in Joshua’s success could do nothing but stare while wearing their expensive suits, like they were watching the feed of their home’s security camera through their phones. Helpless, they watched in anguish as a thief broke into their safe built to hold a billion.

Suddenly, Ruiz’s words before the fight—”Don’t underestimate this little fat boy,” Ruiz warned Joshua. “I’m coming for you.”—didn’t seem like the delusions of someone trying to sell themselves as a legitimate opponent.

Little fat boy. Compared to Joshua—6’6″ and 250 pounds of chiseled muscle—it was true. Joshua is built like a comic book superhero; Ruiz was his opposite in more ways than just physically.

As soon as he won the 2012 Olympic gold medal in front of his British home crowd, the charismatic Joshua looked like a star. He became, as his biographer explained, “Britain’s great heavyweight hope.” Everywhere he went, crowds followed. In what became the largest boxing attendance in Britain since World War II, he fought in front of 90,000 adoring fans at Wembley Stadium. Whatever city he fought in, the local economy spiked. And because one of boxing’s old adages says, “as the heavyweights go, so goes boxing,” it was only natural for Joshua to become the latest among those charged with returning the sport to its past glory. A few months before fighting Ruiz, ESPN the Magazine even featured Joshua on one of its last covers. That was who Joshua was.

Ruiz had also tried to become an Olympic hero. When he didn’t qualify for the Mexican national team, hurting, Ruiz almost lost his entire career before it began. He weighed almost 350 pounds by the time he returned to the sport. During various parts of his career, he appeared unmotivated. He’d cancel bouts and explain he was “not mentally prepared to fight.” From fighting on the undercard of Manny Pacquaio pay-per-view events to fighting, still as the undercard, in a Fresno casino, Ruiz wasn’t even treading water, but slowly sinking. When he at last got his break, a former manager sued him days before fighting for a world title. The manager said Ruiz owned him a third of his earnings. He claimed he had not made “one dime in profit from the six years” managing Ruiz through multiple drug-related suspensions. When Ruiz fought for the title—a fight he called the best opportunity of his life and would die trying to win—he lost. Fifteen months passed before he fought again. That was who Ruiz was.

What he became, after knocking down Joshua three more times, was the heavyweight boxing champion of the world. And almost immediately after beating Joshua in the 7th round, as he jumped up and down in the ring’s center, Ruiz became an important symbol to Mexicans and Mexican-Americans on both sides of the border.

Part of the reason is because that label—HEAVYWEIGHT BOXING CHAMPION OF THE WORLD—has never been just a claim about someone’s prowess in the ring. It’s always meant more.


As Jack Johnson fought on the day after Christmas in 1908, he saw a man who stood out among the Australian crowd. The fight was so uncompetitive that Johnson focused on that man. Almost two decades later, Johnson still remembered seeing “one of the very few colored people present” sitting on a fence. The man’s mouth and eyes were wide open as if he couldn’t believe what he saw.

“I became more and more interested in him,” Johnson wrote, “he was fighting harder than I was. Whenever I unlimbered a blow, he, too, shot one into the air landing it on an imaginary antagonist.” When Johnson moved to avoid a punch, that man on the fence also moved. Mimicking every movement Johnson made, the man inevitably fell off the fence. Johnson laughed and then, on that day, became the first African-American to become boxing’s heavyweight world champion.

A few years later, when Johnson lost that title to Jess Willard, the New York Times noted “the satisfaction over the victory of the white man was general and obvious.” They said even those that didn’t follow boxing would feel it. A few days after defeating Johnson in Cuba, Willard landed in Florida, where police struggled to control the crowd running and cutting ropes and trampling fences just to get near Willard. His spokesman then vowed the new heavyweight world champion would never fight another Black man. And in the years after Willard became what the newspaper of record called “a ‘White Hope’ who at last made good,” the photograph of him standing over a fallen Jack Johnson became a common decoration in speakeasies and saloons.

After Johnson, 22 years passed before another African-American became heavyweight champion. That was Joe Louis. He was, as Gerald Early explains, the “anti-Johnson, not nearly so brash, his interracial love affairs hidden, his studied indifference to his white opponents a source of calm, unlike Johnson’s outspoken confidence which proved provocative.” Despite his carefully-crafted image, Louis was no less important to those who saw and recognized something of themselves in him. When he won, the streets of Harlem overflowed in celebration. Even on the darkest days, it was said, one man, sitting inside the gas chamber of a prison in the south, still evoked his name. Surrounded by deadly fumes, he used his last breaths to desperately plea for the heavyweight champion to rescue him. “Save me, Joe Louis!”

“The condemned young Negro,” Martin Luther King Jr., wrote of the possibly apocryphal event, “groping for someone who might care for him, and had power enough to rescue him, found only the heavyweight boxing champion of the world … In a few words the dying man had written a social commentary. Not God, not government, not charitable minded white men, but a Negro who was the world’s most expert fighter, in this last extremity, was the last hope.”

After Louis, it was Rocky Marciano, the only heavyweight champion to retire undefeated, who fought in the postwar prosperity of the 1950s. A time when, as historian Thomas A. Guglielmo says, “Italian Americans began to openly mobilizing around white identity.” With that, he represented an era which, as his biographer noted, was “simple on the surface but considerably more complex in reality.”

Part of that complexity involved great social change around issues of race and ethnicity. And as Floyd Patterson became world champion, none other than John F. Kennedy considered him the ideal representation of who should hold that honored title. Kennedy saw Patterson as an asset to the civil rights movement. It’s why he urged Patterson not to fight Sonny Liston, who was the opposite. Humiliated by Liston—twice, beaten both times in the first round—Patterson disguised himself with facial hair, glasses, and hat. If someone thought they recognized him and asked, “Say, aren’t you Floyd Patterson?” he’d deny it. “No,” he’d respond. “I’m his brother, Raymond.”

After Patterson and Liston came Muhammad Ali. By the standards of professional boxers, he was an old man when he regained boxing’s heavyweight world championship. He beat a man who many thought was unbeatable. Ali did so while it sounded like all of Zaire chanted—”Ali Bomaye!”—for him to kill that man. That was George Foreman, who didn’t do himself any favors when he brought his German shepherd without knowing “that…type of dog had been used by the Belgian police for crowd control and had become a symbol of police brutality and colonial oppression.” Foreman lost. He said he felt as if his soul had evaporated.

Before the fight, Ali talked of retiring. After he won, walking away from being heavyweight world champion proved impossible. He fought until he couldn’t walk and talk like he once did. In his last fight, long after he had been the champion, Ali admitted what everyone already knew—that he also couldn’t fight like he once could. “If I could,” Ali said of his boxing, “I would be looking to get my title back.”

Mike Tyson beat the last man to beat Ali—Trevor Berbick—and became the youngest heavyweight world champion in boxing’s history. Years later, six fights after his release from prison on a rape conviction, when he appeared on the verge of losing again and with that, losing another chance to become heavyweight boxing champion of the world, Tyson bit Evander Holyfield’s ear twice and spit a part of it across the ring. With that bite came the end of what journalist and member of the International Boxing Hall of Fame Jerry Izenberg called the Golden Age of Heavyweight.

As European heavyweights dominated the division for two decades, the United States’ white middle class moved on, content with calling boxing dead. With that, a title historically weighted with incredible symbolism lost its relevance.

Even when Deontay Wilder, from Alabama, won a slice of the heavyweight championship, the rest belonged to Joshua. And in the months leading into his United States debut, it was Joshua who was still being sold as boxing’s savior. “Detached from its American progenitors, the lineage of Johnson … and Louis and Ali and Tyson,” ESPN wrote while profiling Joshua, “heavyweight boxing suffered a lack of prestige, attention and money. It was desperate for an Anthony Joshua to come along.”

From across the Atlantic Ocean, Joshua traveled to get thoroughly beat. The man who beat him, Ruiz, suddenly mattered precisely for the same reasons past heavyweight world champions mattered: He served as a symbol of something greater than himself.

Ruiz, raised along the United States-Mexico border, represented a light during troubled days for those like him. It’s why, within days of his win, musicians wrote songs about him. It’s why Ruiz became a folk hero. And who becomes a folk hero has always said as much about the society in which they are born as just about anything else.

In the moments that followed Joshua’s first professional loss, his promoter, Eddie Hearn, was already talking about a contractually obligated rematch. That rematch landed in Saudi Arabia. But in the days and weeks that followed, as Joshua retreated from the spotlight, Ruiz basked in it. He was seemingly everywhere.

In Mexico, like no other Mexican-American before, Ruiz became a phenomenon. He met the Mexican president, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, who called him “an exemplary Mexican,” in part because he got knocked down and returned to his feet. He had a photo shoot with GQ Mexico. Everywhere Ruiz went, large crowds gathered and cheered. They called it “Andymania,” and it didn’t much matter that he was born in the United States. “I fought for my race and for Mexico,” Ruiz explained. He was—symbolically, culturally, in citizenship, and unapologetically—the first Mexican boxing heavyweight champion of the world during a time of increased violence in that country that now includes cartels warring to control avocados.

In the United States, Ruiz was a guest on Jimmy Kimmel Live. NPR’s All Things Considered spoke of his victory. Academics wrote columns about Ruiz as a disrupter of not just boxing but the “white European standards of beauty, health and fitness.” But more important than that, Ruiz, here, as boxing’s heavyweight champion, became an inspiration at a time of rising anti-Latino sentiment.

Anti-Mexican violence, specifically, has been omnipresent since parts of Mexico became the United States. In those first few decades, Mexicans here, per capita, faced mob violence comparable to that faced by African-Americans. Mexicans were lynched. In fact, the only woman, Josefa Segovia, ever lynched in California was Mexican. She stabbed a white miner a day after he tried to rape her. She was three months pregnant when authorities hanged her in 1851.

Decades later, the Texas Rangers—progenitors of the Border Patrol, first created to protect the property of white settlers coming into Mexico’s Texas—killed Mexicans with impunity. Decades after that, the anti-Latino acts became judicial. California’s Prop. 187—promoted by an ad showing people running across the border and a voice warning “They keep coming”—continued to portray Latinos as an invading threat. After that, there was Arizona’s S.B. 1070. Thirteen other states passed similar anti-Latino laws.

Discriminatory attitudes were even academic. In 2004 Samuel P. Huntington, a Harvard professor, wrote essentially a 400-page lament for the United States’ future. His argument and concern can get reduced to two clichéd sentences: “Assimilation is particularly problematic for Mexicans and other Hispanics. Their immigration poses problems unprecedented in America.” This sort of thing had a long history; academics, more than 80 years before, were already fretting over what they called “the Mexican problem.”

“The United States could rapidly become darker in pigmentation, smaller in stature, more mercurial, [and] more attached to music and art,” a eugenicist warned of what would happen as more Mexicans came north of the border. He also said crime generally would increase, and that drunkenness and rape would specifically.

The tension has always been there. At its best, it quietly simmers. At its worst, it boils over and explodes into violence. You could even say anti-Mexican violence is what binds the history of law enforcement agencies across the Southwest.

But the election of Donald Trump—who announced his presidential campaign by claiming that Mexicans coming to the United States were rapists and bringing drugs and crime—freed that which before largely existed through coded language and laws. Since his election, anti-Latino hate crimes continue to rise.

It was also during his presidential campaign that Trump promised to build a wall—paid for by Mexico—along the United States-Mexico border. To hear Trump talk, one would think the border is a wide-open space. But, again, before Trump there was George W. Bush who signed the Secure Fence Act of 2006 to “help protect the American people.” Contractors built 700 miles of fence to separate the United States from Mexico. Before Bush, several Border Patrol policies and operations further restricted crossing.

Operation Gatekeeper focused on the border’s urban areas, places like El Paso and San Diego. The result was that it forced those who still sought to cross into the desolate borderlands, places like the Imperial Valley desert where summer temperatures can reach 120 degrees.

There, in the desert, bodies littered the barren ground. “Death by sunlight, hyperthermia, was the main culprit,” Luis Alberto Urrea explained. “But illegals drowned, froze, committed suicide, were murdered, were hit by trains and trucks, were bitten by rattle snakes, had heart attacks. The unofficial policy was to let them die where they were found, resting in peace where they fell.”

A few days before he fought Joshua, Ruiz recalled Trump visiting his hometown and how he spoke of the border wall. “There are people who are not letting Mexicans come over,” Ruiz said. “We are the backbone of this country.”

Considering many professional athletes remain apolitical, the statement may have surprised some. But Ruiz—born in Imperial Valley, CA and raised by Mexican immigrant parents from Mexicali, directly across the border—didn’t need a deep political involvement to understand better than most what was happening. You can’t live in places like the desert borderlands without seeing your entire history, present, and foreseeable future as inextricable from the tension that’s always been there. And you can’t ignore what’s happening when those who came before you speak on their experience.

“Latinos, we can do something for America,” Andy Ruiz Sr. said. Like his son, Ruiz Sr. grew up boxing because of his father. “We don’t come here to take the place of the white people. We come here to work, to establish our sons, so they can do something in life.”

Ruiz Sr.’s son did something, and as he put it, he wanted to “[help] out my people.” Ruiz wanted to build a boxing gym to help the kids who, like him, grew up fighting around Imperial Valley—kids who, if they accomplish anything great, will have to overcome incredible odds. When Ruiz did that—becoming boxing’s heavyweight champion of the world—he returned home to celebrate.

At a parade, on the day the Imperial Valley said would always be “Andy Ruiz Jr. Day,” the champ waved and smiled while riding in the back of a borrowed Rolls Royce. “He’s one of us, so this is a big deal,” a parade attendant said. She had tears in her eyes. “People might not understand. He’s representing our community and he’s the first Mexican heavyweight champion. We’re so proud of that.” Similarly, another person at the parade felt overcome by emotions. Asked to put into words what Ruiz’s victory meant and before he could answer, his bottom lip trembled. He took a deep breath to steady himself. “It hits at the heart,” he finally said. “A lot of us in this country had real humble beginnings.”

Later that day, Trump—who increasingly referenced an invasion when discussing immigration, at one point even threatening to close the border—said he was delaying planned ICE raids. “At the request of Democrats, I have delayed Illegal Immigration Removal Process…,” Trump tweeted. However illogical, he wanted what he wanted. “If not, Deportations start,” he warned.

Six weeks after the parade, a white supremacist drove 10 hours from north Texas to El Paso. He calmly walked into a crowded Walmart and opened fire. Targeting Mexicans, he killed 22 people.

“This attack is a response to the Hispanic invasion of Texas,” the killer wrote in his presumed manifesto.


On Saturday, about six months after Ruiz made history and altered the trajectory of his life, he will rematch Joshua. Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, will host what promoters are calling “Clash on the Dunes.” And though it may seem odd that what’s perhaps the most important boxing event of the last several years will occur in Saudi Arabia, boxing has staged important heavyweight title fights in unexpected places: Jamaica, Venezuela, Japan, and Malaysia, among other infamous sites.

In 1974, Zaire hosted the fight between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman. Mobutu Sese Seko, the country’s president who ruled as a dictator and was then forced into exile wanted the fight to show Zaire as a positive example of what an African country could become once pried from the grips of European colonialism.

A year later, Ali again fought in a place eager to use boxing’s heavyweight championship fight as a distraction. He fought Joe Frazier in the Philippines. Ferdinand Marcos, the country’s president who ruled as a dictator and was then forced into exile, wanted the fight to show the Philippines as a stable country despite placing it under martial law.

And even though no agreement ever came between government and promoters, the propaganda boxing and its boxers provided had also enticed Haiti’s Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier, the country’s president who ruled as a dictator and was then forced into exile.

Governments have always used sports as a way of legitimizing their rule and country. Sports have never been apolitical. Sports can even project a specific self-image. Saudi Arabia hosting the rematch between Ruiz and Joshua is no different. And like Zaire and the Philippines before them, they paid a lot of money, “in excess of $40 million,” to host the event. That inordinate amount of money is jarring—more so when considering Saudi Arabia hadn’t sanctioned professional boxing until last year.

That fight, along with the country hosting WWE wrestling, European Tour golf, all-electric Formula E motor racing series, soccer’s Italian Super Cup, and what will be the world’s richest horse race—with a purse worth $20 million—is part of Saudi Arabia’s increasing focus on sports. It’s part of Vision 2030, a plan introduced by the crown prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohammad bin Salman.

“Our nation is ambitious in what we want to achieve,” the Vision 2030 plan said. At its introduction, the plan detailed the programs and reforms that will ostensibly lead, by 2030, to Saudi Arabia as a vibrant society promoting culture, entertainment, city development, environmental sustainability, and healthy living. On healthy living, the government intends to “encourage widespread and regular participation in sports and athletic activities.” Saudi Arabia is modernizing and hosting world-class sporting events is part of the plan.

The social media announcement of Saudi Arabia hosting the rematch included a 40-second video—not of the boxers, but of a brand-new 15,000-seat arena built in what looks like the middle of the Arabian Desert. It shows a rising structure, like it just grew out of the desert floor, that would not only host the fight but also the Diriyah Tennis Cup. Both events, boxing and tennis—two sports diametrically opposed in terms of what they represent in terms of class—would be part of Diriyah Season, a month-long event combining “world-class sport, global entertainment, and culture.”

As soon as the fight’s announcement came, Amnesty International—”citing human rights violations, the murder of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi and the ongoing war in Yemen”—criticized the decision. They said the fight, like the previous sporting events the country has hosted, provides Saudi Arabia with another opportunity to “sportswash” over the country’s human rights violations.

Sportswashing” is bread and circuses but at a larger scale. So long as millions watching at home—enjoying events like the Olympics, World Cup, NBA, boxing’s heavyweight championship fights—get entertained, everything else is secondary. So long as we can see Ruiz “show the greatness of Mexican boxing in Saudi Arabia,” as he promised during the fight’s press conference, he can continue as a symbol against anti-Latino oppression.

Ruiz is that. He’s someone who won and made others like him cry because his accomplishment meant something more than a title belt, someone with future goals of starting his own promotional company to help Mexican boxers exploited by managers and promoters—boxers who, according to Ruiz, get forced into signing contracts written in English even when they only speak Spanish.

But with this fight, Ruiz is also someone taking a great deal of money from a country that is itself an oppressor. Just like Joshua did. Just like Eddie Hearn—who negotiated the fight and justified it as having an “obligation to grow the sport of boxing to new areas and regions”—did. Just like Ali did.

The thing about folk heroes is that they must be pliable enough to symbolize different things at different times. Murrieta was eventually portrayed as someone who tried to regain California for Mexico after the United States-Mexico War. Cortina is still called the “Robin Hood of the Rio Grande.” Urrea became an icon, someone like La Virgen de Guadalupe, among some Chicanos. Cortez ultimately fought in the Mexican Revolution on the side of Victoriano Huerta, one of the country’s most treacherous figures. Folk heroes evolve.

Today, Ruiz is boxing’s unified heavyweight champion. With that title, he became a folk hero in a way that matters because of the past. What Ruiz will mean years from now depends on what happens this weekend and in the days that follow—not just with him, but with United States society at large, and what place Latinos, especially Mexican and Mexican-Americans, take in it. Boxing has always said something about society. Who its heavyweight champion is says something more.

 

The Ghosts of Cement City

Published in D Magazine


Faded photographs are among the few things left of what once was. Of those buried in this cemetery and those who’ve tried their best to keep their memory alive. Those moments captured so long ago that it’s difficult to tell if they were always black and white or if the sun, day after day, year after year, ate away at their color. A few have faded to nothing. Only a yellowish-white piece of paper remains. Some photographs are cracked and crumbling, like they might disintegrate into dust in your hands.

They hang, arranged like a collage, inside a thin case exposed to the outside world. From the rain and sun, the snow and dirt, the wind and time, part of that case has rusted. It’s a few steps inside wrought-iron gates and a sign. Campo Santo de Cemento Grande, it says. Weeds hide a few of the dozen or so markers that remain. The unruly plants are trying to reclaim the land that was Dallas County’s first Hispanic cemetery. A Mexican graveyard, to be exact. Once found, some markers have legible names and dates of life and death. Other gravesites are distinguishable only by what looks like a regular brick. If ever engraved, those words have vanished.

Three large flags—of the United States, Mexico, and Texas—fly above. Their colors match everything else that’s fading here. Their tatters echo a broken bench leaned against a tree. A few small, angelic statues stand silent with their once-sharp facial features eroded. And in the middle of all of this: a dilapidated shrine that someone must have taken hours to build. It’s made of blue-painted plywood, and it houses, among other things, a statue of La Virgen de Guadalupe, the patron saint of Mexico and long considered the symbolic mother of those who trace their roots back to that country. The shrine’s backside has a hole that looks like a boot kicked right through it.

All of it—the photographs, the cemetery, the bodies buried here—tells a story about Dallas, a hidden history that many people don’t know. Maybe it’s because it isn’t often told. Maybe because they don’t want to listen.

For decades, vandals ravished this cemetery. They shot at headstones engraved with names like Martinez, Garcia, and Buendia. When visitors came, they sometimes saw graves that appeared to have been looted. Vandalized so often that one person who watched over the cemetery felt the need to explain that while the coffins held the invaluable, they contained no material worth.

“They had no gold or silver,” Feliberto Martinez used to say of those buried there. “They were just workers. We buried their flesh and bones.”

Those flesh and bones, the once-new photographs, flags, funeral mementos, and headstones—they are all behind a chain-link fence in what some now call Pinnacle Park, around Cockrell Hill Road and I-30. The cemetery once covered 2.6 acres, but all that remains now is a shrinking plot of land. The longest side of the plot measures 126 feet long. The shortest is just 89 feet. It’s in a small corner of a parking lot for some AT&T corporate offices.

Campo Santo de Cemento Grande looks almost abandoned, and it almost has been. For more than 70 years, no one has been buried there. But the Martinez family is hoping it is big enough for one more body.

Memories are among the few things left of who Eladio R. Martinez once was. You see his name on historical markers telling you that, in those places where they stand, something else once lived. This wasn’t always an abandoned cemetery overrun by weeds, the markers say. This wasn’t always across the street from a Walmart parking lot.

This place was once alive, and it existed outside of dusty folders kept within various historical archives throughout the Dallas-Fort Worth area. And as you read those decades-old papers and see the names of those who have long passed and others still alive but stripped of their once-vivid memories, this is one of the few ways to understand who Eladio was. Why his name lives on. Why there’s a school, park, and street named after him—all in this place once known as Eagle Ford.

Within those archive folders—some of their papers so brittle you must wear white gloves to handle them—the past is present. Anthropologists kept oral histories of those who can no longer speak. They tell you who the Martinez family was, is, and why they reflect the history of Mexicans and Mexican-Americans in Dallas.

They tell you how the father, José, fled the Mexican Revolution. How he traveled from San Felipe, Guanajuato—the state to which a substantial percentage of Dallas’ Mexican-American population can trace its roots—then paid a nickel to cross from one Laredo to the other. Initially working on the railroads, like the many other Mexicans that laid more than half of the Western tracks, José heard there was work in the cement plants of Eagle Ford. He arrived, and, soon after, he sent for his immediate family. Part of his extended family also came.

It’s there in those archives, in those papers—some over a century old—where you see a place that, today, is unrecognizable. They tell of the physical toll it cost to make this place, Dallas, into what it is. How concrete transformed the skyline and roads. How making the cement for that concrete, which José did for 50 years, was dangerous and bone-breaking work. There was the time a young man’s leg got caught and mangled in the gears of a mixer. He lost consciousness and never woke up. Another time, a worker’s foot got caught in the belt of a shaft. The machine spun his entire body, causing his head to hit a beam. Pieces of his brain sprayed across the work area.

Vandals have had their way with the old cemetery, watched over by a shrine to La Virgen de Guadalupe, the patron saint of Mexico. But time and the elements have also ravaged it.

Cement City is where this happened. And although a few of the original concrete boundary posts are still there, it’s difficult to tell what remains of the exact location. Part of Cement City included land once belonging to La Réunion, the Utopian colony founded in 1855. Less than two years later, those dreams of a perfect world failed in part because the otherwise idyllic land wasn’t suitable for farming. But the soil was full of limestone, clay, and schist deposits, each essential for making cement.

At the turn of the 20th century, when Dallas County’s population was just over 82,000, Cement City was the quintessential company town. It had a store that sold essential items on credit. The type that Tennessee Ernie Ford would later sing about, lamenting there was no way he could die since he owed his soul to the company store.

The companies that made up Cement City also built villages for their workers. For $2 a month, they could live in a room. One village was for whites. The others—Campo Grande, Campo Chico, and Eagle Ford—were for Mexicans. Before Little Mexico became a center of Dallas’ Mexican community, only to get displaced by what is now Uptown, these were among the city’s other original barrios. Those barrios were around Cement City because Mexicans helped make the substance that became the literal foundation for Dallas’ growth.

This is where José Martinez lived. Where he and his wife, Maria de Jesus, arrived, ended their pilgrimage, and raised their family in a community with other Mexican workers who tried to replicate home. A community with contaminated water under a cloud of dust and fumes that came from making cement. A segregated community that faced discrimination just like other Mexican communities in the area.

It was in Pike Park, the centerpiece of Dallas’ Little Mexico, where Mexicans could swim only during the early morning hours. Fifteen minutes before 9, they were hustled out, told to drain the pool, clean it, and put in new water for the white kids to swim in. Dallas’ Lonestar Restaurant Association distributed signs to its members for them to hang in the windows. “No Dogs, Negroes, Mexicans,” the signs read.

And although Eagle Ford wasn’t immune from its own problems, it was the Mexican workers’ community. They made their own beer and celebrated Mexican holidays by singing folk songs of the revolution. Those songs—about Mexico, hope, and people like Pancho Villa and Emiliano Zapata fighting in the face of insurmountable odds to reaffirm their sense of belonging—are still sung today. They became the soundtrack of a hard life for many of the Mexican laborers. Those who knew that even though this was home, their place within it was tenuous.

Some of those workers returned to Mexico when they could. Sometimes they’d return with their children born in Texas. Born in a place and a time where even if you named your youngest son Enrique, the name would become Henry. And as they all got older and the family roots ran deeper into the Texas soil, they returned less often. A few years passed between visits. Then longer.

Eladio was the firstborn son of José and Maria de Jesus. More than 70 years ago, Eladio was the last person buried in Campo Santo de Cemento Grande.

Stories are among the few things left of what once was. Oral traditions help preserve a history for people forgotten and often ignored. From one generation to the next, stories get told and, inevitably, altered.

Have you seen a building on Chalk Hill Road that, until recently, looked abandoned? That was Eagle Ford’s elementary school. As the crow flies, it’s less than three-quarters of a mile from Campo Santo de Cemento Grande. Some say ghosts haunt Chalk Hill Road because devil worshippers once practiced their craft in the basement of Eagle Ford’s school. The same school Bonnie Parker attended. The same school that the Martinez kids—Eladio, Feliberto, Felicitas, and Henry—attended.

Have you seen that building across the Pearl/Arts District DART stop in downtown Dallas? The one that’s over a century old and was Dallas’ first high school building? It, like the Eagle Ford school, looks increasingly out of place as the surrounding area changes. (The interior has been renovated for the offices of an architecture firm.) Dallas High School, it states on the building’s frieze. But that building was also Crozier High School. That was where the Martinez kids each attended, back when Crozier was a technical school. They’d ride out there on an old, broken-down bike passed from one sibling to the next. Back when Mexicans attended Crozier because those who made the rules believed learning a trade and doing manual labor was the limit of their capabilities.

Often these schools, the ones that taught trades instead of providing an academic education, became the default Mexican schools within cities. Crozier Tech, before it became a business and management magnet, was Dallas’ Mexican school. It taught auto mechanics and metal working. It often restricted Spanish from being spoken. Sometimes parents, wanting their children to assimilate so that perhaps they wouldn’t face the same discrimination they did, told their kids to speak only English—even if they didn’t speak the language themselves.

One story that used to get told much more often was that serving the country led to an easier path to becoming accepted as “American”—that catch-all, flawed descriptor that creates an identity out of geography while often using race to decide who belongs. Theoretically, the story says, if you fought for this country to extend its mythical ideals, then you’d receive a measure of those standards. And so, after graduating from high school, a few years after he signed his mother’s death certificate listing one of the principal causes as “poorly nourished,” a few years after he buried his 37-year-old mother in Campo Santo de Cemento Grande, the military drafted Eladio to fight in World War II. He served in the infantry, on the front lines.

The thing about the stories we tell ourselves is that sometimes they’re rudely and abruptly interrupted by reality. The idea that you would give your life in service of your country, because you were born here, and through that you’d become an equal—it makes sense only until it’s proven false. So long as you aren’t a veteran and a United States citizen who is still deported.

Eladio fought in the Philippines, as did another Mexican-American from Texas, Felix Longoria. “KIA”—killed in action—appears next to Longoria’s name in the National Archives’ military records. He died in 1945. Far from home, far from his young, widowed wife, Beatrice, and the 4-year-old daughter he left behind, Longoria lay buried in the Philippines for years. It wasn’t until 1948 that the Army telegraphed his wife. They told her Longoria’s body was coming home. They asked where she planned to rebury him. Three Rivers, she said. His hometown.

Three Rivers—about halfway between San Antonio and Corpus Christi—had only one funeral home. They refused Longoria’s body because he was “Mexican” and “whites wouldn’t like it.” Desperate, Beatrice sought the help of Hector P. Garcia, a Mexican-American World War II veteran and civil rights activist. Garcia investigated and heard the same response from the funeral home’s owner. “Whites wouldn’t like it.”

Garcia—who incidentally has an elementary school named after him in Grand Prairie—petitioned Senator Lyndon B. Johnson. Long before he served as president, Johnson was a teacher at a school in Cotulla, Texas, about halfway between San Antonio and Laredo. Most of his students were Mexican-American children of farmworkers.

“Few of them could speak English,” Johnson would tell Congress, decades later, “and I couldn’t speak much Spanish. My students were poor, and they often came to class without breakfast, hungry. They knew even in their youth the pain of prejudice. They never seemed to know why people disliked them. But they knew it was so, because I saw it in their eyes.”

Soon after Garcia involved Johnson—who has his own contentious history with Mexican-American politics, often making promises while campaigning and then ignoring them once in office—the family was able to reinter the young Mexican-American in Arlington National Cemetery to end the Longoria Affair.

Like Longoria, Eladio died in combat. “KIA” also appears next to his name. Like Longoria, Eladio died from a bullet shot by a Japanese sniper. Like Longoria, Eladio earned a Purple Heart. And, like Longoria, Eladio lay buried in the Philippines.

When the Martinez family heard their firstborn son had died, his sister, Felicitas, became ill. She was 20 years old when she passed and was buried next to her mother in Campo Santo de Cemento Grande. The death certificate lists tuberculosis as the cause of death. But those close to her tell a different story.

“She was very sad after she heard about Eladio,” Henry Martinez Jr. says of his aunt. “She was devastated. She didn’t want to eat for days. She didn’t want to eat.” Henry Jr. repeats himself, with his soft-spoken voice.

“They say that she died of tuberculosis, but I don’t know. To me, she died of sadness.”

Henry Sr. told his son he wanted to be buried with his family in Campo Santo de Cemento Grande. Henry Jr. (pictured) is determined to see it through. “I don’t care how much it takes,” he says.

Promises are among the few things left of what once was. After the Martinez family reinterred Eladio’s body in Campo Santo de Cemento Grande, his brothers, Feliberto and Henry, made it their mission to keep his memory alive. In doing that, they also preserved their place in history. Sometimes when you find it hard to belong, you hold on to those with whom you always felt at home.

“My dad, that’s all he talked about,” Henry Jr. remembers. “He said, ‘My brother didn’t come home. I want to do something for him as a memorial because he lived here, he went to school here, and he fought for his country, and there’s nothing here that memorialized him.’ ” So, they did, together, the two remaining Martinez boys. And then it was just Henry Sr.

Feliberto’s obituary from October 2003 stated that after he served in World War II—he was also in the Philippines when Eladio died—he attended art school in Chicago. He dreamed of being an artist. But when he returned to Dallas, there was no work for him. Discrimination is how his daughter explains it. With few other options, Feliberto worked for 32 years in a cement plant.

When Feliberto died, Henry Sr.—the youngest of all the Martinez children, the one who signed his sister’s death certificate, the last person from Eagle Ford before it became incorporated into Dallas—became the last living member of one of the original Mexican families who had come to this part of Texas. The Martinez family, who deserve mention among the other important families in the history of Dallas. The Cockrells. The Santerres. The Caruths. The Marcuses. The Loupots. The Martinezes.

For 50 years, as everything around him changed, Henry Sr. fought to keep the history of his family and birthplace alive. He headed the Ledbetter Neighborhood Association, which helped preserve the Campo Santo de Cemento Grande. When Southwestern Bell (before it became part of AT&T) began building next to the cemetery, Henry Sr., Feliberto, and a few others saved what remains today. The neighborhood association helped raise money to pay for the historical markers that tell you of the things that once were. The places and people who once lived. They tell you of a history that’s often forgotten.

That fight became part of Henry Sr.’s everyday routine. Daily, he’d visit the cemetery and spend hours there. Daily, he’d drop off fresh flowers at the various historical markers representing what was home and the people who once lived there. And as he got older and struggled to walk, the flowers Henry Sr. left became artificial. They lasted longer and saved him the pain of moving as often. As he got older, rather than walking the small hill that leads to the cemetery, Henry Sr. would park curbside instead. He’d sit in his truck, beside that segregated graveyard that some say the cement companies gave to their Mexican workers when they had nowhere to bury victims of the 1918 flu pandemic.

Sometimes he’d think about his mother, sister, and uncle who were all buried there. Other times, he’d think of Eladio, also buried there. He’d think about the last letter he received from him. How Eladio told him, his baby brother, to have his car ready and to tell his girlfriend he was coming home. When Eladio came home, Henry Sr. spent as much time as he could with him.

“When I come here, I can feel that he’s here,” Henry Sr. would say.

It’s why, before Henry Sr. died in August of this year, he said he wanted to get buried in Campo Santo de Cemento Grande. To be there among his family, close to the place where he grew up. Among people who lived and created a community within what some saw as a strange, foreign place far, far away from home.

To get buried among those who died young. Like Guadalupe Pena, who was 15 months old when she died of bronchopneumonia. Or Hurbano Hurta, who died of pneumonia at 6 months old. Or Felisitas Garcia Perez, who was 16 when she died of tuberculosis.

Or Juan Buendia, who died at 21 years old from a shotgun wound to the head. They say a white man killed Buendia because he trespassed and was eating pecans. The white man shot Buendia, loaded his dead body on a horse, and took it back to Eagle Ford—where Buendia lived, where Hurbano, Guadalupe, Eladio, Feliberto, and Henry Sr. all lived. An unnamed white man claimed Buendia had shot first. But those who knew Buendia say he didn’t even own a gun. Buendia’s murderer faced no charges. They say Buendia’s headstone marked a dedication. They say that as Buendia’s body slowly entered the ground of Campo Santo de Cemento Grande, his sisters were inconsolable.

On October 18, 1925, Juan Buendia died. “Laborer” is how his death certificate describes his occupation. It lists his name as John Goodday Jr.

Erased histories are among the few things left of what once was. Dallas—like many cities searching for more—privileges certain histories while ignoring, or forgetting, others.

It destroys and buries part of the past. Sometimes, the only way to recover it is to live, for a few moments, among those who long ago died. Sometimes you must follow them into a cemetery that’s slowly dying. A cemetery like Campo Santo de Cemento Grande, where part of Dallas’ unflattering history lies buried. A cemetery where Henry Martinez Jr. wants to bury his father.

The state tells him he can’t. They fear that since no one knows with certainty the number of Mexican laborers buried there, they risk uncovering a body if they excavate. They tell him that to know, they must run expensive tests—which they won’t do. Henry Jr. remains determined. “I don’t care how much it takes,” he says. “My dad wants to be buried there with his family.”

He says there are Mexican-Americans in Dallas whose families also lay buried in Campo Santo de Cemento Grande. He says they don’t even know it.

 

Artist “Cimi” Alvarado Teaches History Through the Murals of El Segundo Barrio

Published on Texas Highways


It’s sprinkling rain and the surrounding desert smells of wet dirt as Jesus “Cimi” Alvarado, an artist and an arts and culture coordinator for the Boys & Girls Club, takes his phone out of his pocket. He taps the phone and points the camera at a mural he painted on the side of El Mandadito de Waneks, a locally owned corner store at Campbell Street and 4th Avenue in El Paso. The mural, titled Barrio Soul, has a background shade of green that almost matches the color of prickly pear cacti found in this part of Texas. Featured on it are enlarged, black-and-white photographs of late El Paso radio personality Steve Crosno and local musical acts from the 1950s through ’70s, including The Nite Dreamers and The El Paso Drifters. These bands play oldies you can still hear from windows of homes and slow-moving cars on a Sunday afternoon.

 

Cimi is standing in El Segundo Barrio, a working-class neighborhood whose southern border is outlined by the Rio Grande separating El Paso from Juárez; Texas from Chihuahua; and the United States from Mexico. Historically, El Segundo Barrio has been one of the first stops for many Mexican citizens arriving in the U.S. It’s known as another Ellis Island. Walk around and you’re more likely to hear Spanish than English.

 

As Cimi steadies his phone, the mural suddenly comes alive. Thanks to the Augment El Paso app, which debuted in 2015, Barrio Soul becomes an interactive experience where you can hear the music of each of those artists and read their short biographies. But because the stories behind the dozens of murals that inhabit El Segundo Barrio aren’t readily available—they’re oral history, not written record—part of bringing the murals to life through the app includes searching for people who lived that history and can convey it. “We don’t have these archived,” Cimi says of the photographs he uses as models, “so we have to go find these viejitos and be like, ‘Hey, we want to talk to you.’”

 

Viejitos is a loving term for older people. They are the grandparents who walk through El Segundo Barrio during the day. Sometimes, they walk their gentle steps while holding the hands of their grandchildren. Sometimes, viejitos see Cimi working on a mural, and they stop to reminisce. They point at the mural and tell their grandchildren about how they grew up. How El Segundo Barrio, for better or worse, is changing. How new apartment buildings have replaced the old houses that once stood there. How a few decades ago, gangs on every other block would have made it difficult to even stand there, in the heart of El Segundo Barrio, and admire one of the many colorful murals that says something about this place. Viejitos help bring to life all of these murals, which collectively tell the story of the area’s deep ties to Chicano culture.

 

While walking between a few of the eight murals he’s painted in different parts of El Segundo Barrio, Cimi points at one of the others that has been there for decades. “That’s by Felipe Adame,” he says, nodding at a mural. Adame is a celebrated muralist who passed away in 2017 and whose work colors many walls of the barrio. “[He’s one] of the guys that, now as an adult, you go back and realize what they were doing, or trying to do—the same thing that we’re doing now. They were case workers or social workers who were working with gang members and doing the murals.”

 

Cimi, 42, was born in Juárez and raised here. Keeping El Segundo Barrio’s history alive is important to him. In high school, as he learned more about Chicano and indigenous history, young Jesus became Cimi, a Mayan word representing that culture’s concept of “continuous growth.” It was also there, at Bowie High School, that Cimi met Gaspar Enriquez, an art teacher and artist whose work is displayed in the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery, among other places. “It inspired me,” Cimi says of his would-be mentor’s art, “because it was like, whoa, he’s painting us. He’s painting who we are. And he’s not ashamed of doing it.”

 

In the past two decades, Cimi has painted several murals across Texas. They depict figures and symbols that reflect Mexican and Mexican American identity—Emiliano Zapata, Cesar Chavez, indigenous iconography, and the international bridges that, in a border town like El Paso, many people cross daily.

 

In Dallas, Cimi’s murals color the walls of the Oak Cliff neighborhood, another historic Mexican barrio in Texas. Last year in Marfa, Cimi and his team painted a mural that retold a part of that city’s lesser-known history. The mural, titled Pages from the Marfa Storybook, features an adobe building that for almost 60 years served as Marfa’s segregated school for students of Mexican descent. Also last year, Cimi painted murals in Mexico City, Los Angeles, and of course, El Paso.

 

“I wanted to teach history,” Cimi says, “and then I ended up doing muralism. I’m still trying to, I guess, do the same thing.”

 

Back in El Paso, Cimi is standing in front of one of his other murals, El Corrido del Segundo Barrio, located at 801 S. Florence St., near the Boys & Girls Club. “They’re from el barrio,” he says of the two musicians—one holding an accordion, the other a guitar—at the center of the mural. “They go from little bar to little bar or restaurant, and they play.”

 

In the lower left-hand corner, the mural shows a mother bathing her son inside of a metal tub in the middle of a tenement courtyard. Cimi then points to the lower right-hand side. There are three people carrying backpacks who are about to cross a bridge during sunset. “They are migrating through the rio,” Cimi explains, incorporating Spanish words and phrases into his conversation, as he often does. “[It’s] how a lot of our people, our families, got here.”

 

Walk around El Paso’s Segundo Barrio and it’s impossible not to notice that it’s changing—gentrifying, to speak plainly. But a constant are the murals that artists like Cimi and others before him have painted. Some have been there for decades. Others are relatively new. Each of them continues the muralist tradition of telling stories of the past within a changing present. Documenting these narratives, through viejitos or other sources, is crucial to keeping this history alive in the app-driven, digital era.

 

“I see it as an obligation to teach our youth about who we are and the stories that happen, especially in this community,” Cimi says while walking across the park behind the Boys & Girls Club. There, he’s working on yet another mural on the history of El Segundo Barrio.