Boxing Gyms Fight To Save Oak Cliff

They start showing up at the gyms every afternoon around 5. During the summer, it’s still so hot even in the late afternoon that it doesn’t take much movement to have sweat dripping from the tip of your nose. And none of them—the youngest are 8 years old, the oldest in their early 20s—are here to sit still. Parents drop off some, others walk, and the kids stretch and warm up while waiting for coaches to arrive. Some coaches will be in their work clothes when they get there, their shirts ringed with dried sweat, circling from the chest to right below the shoulder and around the middle of the back.

Casa Guanajuato and Vivero Boxing Gym are about a mile away from each other in the yet-to-be-gentrified part of Oak Cliff, west of I-35E, south of Jefferson Boulevard. They are authentic, old-school boxing gyms. Worn and musty punching bags hang among former boxers’ photos in cheap frames and newspaper clippings that have long turned brittle and yellow. Unlike franchise-owned gyms that only use boxing exercises for change-of-pace workouts, these places lack comfort. Blood and sweat have stained mirrors and floors. Countless rolls of duct tape keep the ring’s ropes and canvas from falling apart.

The cliché is everyone here is fighting for a way out, that without boxing they’d end up dead or in jail. While that could be true for a few, most of these young boxers will never fight professionally. Some may not even fight in amateur tournaments. They’re here because, regardless of talent or aspirations, boxing has something to teach.

Boxing—a sport that has increasingly become Latino and, because of that, gets mislabeled as dead—thrives here. For now, at least, while the gym owners can keep developers at bay.

“This is a tough way to make money,” says Gene Vivero, owner of Vivero Boxing Gym, a 501(c)(3) in the Elmwood section of Oak Cliff. A former amateur boxer, Vivero warns each of his young boxers against using the sport as a way out. “One injury and you’re out. One knockout and you’re out. I mean, that’s it. It’s over. As a kid, you get hurt or knocked out, whatever—hey, you ain’t gonna box no more. That’s just the way it is.”

Vivero is a no-nonsense type with a blunt tone that demands respect. Everyone who sets foot inside his gym must shake hands with those already there. “I want them to be respectful,” he says. Not even 15 minutes after stating his reason, a young boxer misses a hand to shake. “He don’t count, right?” Vivero, in his gruff voice, asks him. He repeats himself twice when the young boxer looks confused. “Shake his hand,” Vivero finally commands while pointing at who he missed. Shaking hands is a small gesture but a part of a larger discipline required in boxing. That discipline serves a greater purpose, both in and out of the gym.

Vivero Boxing Gym is a converted automotive garage. If the three garage doors weren’t enough of a clue, below a white coat of paint you can still read the faint lettering of what the building once was. If the gym has air conditioning, you can’t feel it. When the gym is full, breathing feels heavy. It becomes so hot that stepping outside and into what used to feel like a fiery summer breeze instead feels like a relief.

The gym is likely the most successful at producing talent within the Dallas area. “I’ve had more national champs and two Olympians come out of here—and Errol came out of here,” Vivero says with a quiet pride. The “Errol” that Vivero refers to is current IBF welterweight champion Errol Spence Jr., who is among the current top pound-for-pound boxers in the world. “A lot of Dallas’ [boxing] history is at that gym” is how Spence Jr. describes the many who’ve broken a sweat inside Vivero Boxing Gym.

Historically, most of the state’s boxing talent has come from Houston, San Antonio, Fort Worth, and a few areas in South Texas. But within the past decade, Dallas has risen on the boxing scene. As boxing has long been a sport practiced (and watched) by the lower and working classes, Dallas’ increasing economic and racial segregation are not completely unrelated to the rise of the city’s boxing prowess.

Thus, as Vivero sees the change, there are now more boxing gyms and better coaching. Just in his small gym, there are six or seven coaches, depending on how you count them, since one of them is unofficial. That unofficial coach, tutored by the others, is a year away from being certified to teach the sport. He’s Erik Ramirez, a 17-year-old senior at Sunset High School.

“I used to box,” Erik says. “But the sport … takes a lot out of you. My last couple of fights, I wasn’t really feeling it anymore.” When he ultimately stopped boxing, he admits, he felt lost. Almost as if by habit, having boxed for five years of his relatively short life, Erik continued coming to the gym. Eventually, his former coach had him help with young boxers. It was an experience he enjoyed, especially since it meant staying involved with the sport—which he credits with keeping him out of trouble and instilling self-discipline. “They’ve offered me drugs and stuff,” Erik says of some of his peers. “But because of boxing, to stay in shape, I always say no.”

Coaching also offered Erik a chance to stay close to his younger brother, Figo, who remains a boxer. Erik helps to coach him. “Hopefully this takes me somewhere,” Erik says. “Sometimes I think about the future, what will happen if [Figo] turns pro, which I think he really will because he really likes the sport and he’s pretty good at it. If he turns pro, I want to be there with him.”

At the amateur level—away from the bright lights of Las Vegas, New York, or anywhere else where professional boxing is firmly established, away from the valid criticism of the brutal sport—boxing plays a different role in the life of the sport’s young participants. With Erik and Figo, along with many others, boxing is family. If not literally, then it becomes a figurative one. And in areas like Oak Cliff, boxing gyms play an important role in a community that faces socioeconomic change.

If you drive through the residential streets of Oak Cliff, you can see this change in the many construction trucks parked in front of houses being remodeled and the dumpsters filled with the insides of those gutted houses. You can feel it, economically, with escalating rents and property values. You notice it in who lives there, and how that demographic is changing as new construction spreads.

“It’s coming this way,” Vivero responds when asked how he’s seen the area change in the 28 years that he’s owned the gym. It doesn’t need explanation. We all know what it means. “You know at Wynnewood Shopping Center, they’re gonna sink $30 million into it,” Vivero says, almost incredulous at the amount that’ll be invested in a shopping area that counts Fallas Paredes and El Rancho Supermercado—both catering largely to the Latino population—among its major retailers.

“So that’s why I tell you: it’s coming this way.”

The Bishop Arts district, for decades, was essentially abandoned, a cluster of forgotten, boarded-up shops. High school kids could hang out in alleys and on corners with no one bothering them. Now, of course, it is the epicenter of change in Oak Cliff. Signs are in English; just a few blocks south, they’re almost exclusively in Spanish. Commercial and apartment buildings are springing to life. Basic infrastructure—lighting and sewage among it—is being upgraded to the point that some streets are completely closed, at least for now. This section, to put it plainly, is whiter than the other areas around it. In fact, it seems like the only Spanish you hear comes from the construction workers.

This is a different Oak Cliff, separate from what the rest of the area is now and what the neighborhood was historically.

“Back in the day, when I was growing up, there was a lot of shootings,” says Freddy Narro, who grew up in Oak Cliff. “The gang violence was strong in the ’80s and the ’90s.” Narro—who works in construction, installing fire sprinklers—is now the head boxing coach at Casa Guanajuato, a community center that’s about a mile south of Bishop Arts and a block away from the abandoned Ice House Cultural Center.

Narro has a friendly charisma. He’s prone to calling young boxers papá and mija. Individually, each boxer gets a nickname to help them form a sense of belonging. “It turns into a family,” Narro says of the relationships formed with everyone inside the gym. It’s a relationship that leaves him and his other coaches feeling guilty if, for whatever reason, they cannot teach on certain days.

Like other coaches, Narro sees boxing as vital to the communities it serves, providing much more than what’s visible. “If someone would have introduced me [to boxing] when I was young, I wouldn’t have gone to jail as many times. All these little kids,” Narro says while looking around, “just look at them, bro. You can tell they’d be knuckleheads if they weren’t here.”

It wasn’t until his mid-20s, while living in North Dakota, that Narro got introduced to boxing. The move away from Oak Cliff was his mother’s decision, sending him there after he’d been locked up 13 times and experienced the death of a few friends and relatives, before he was even old enough to vote. Once he discovered boxing, Narro fell in love with it because, by his own admission, he liked to fight. “I was like, man, you don’t get in trouble? You get a trophy?” Narro laughs as he reminisces about the first time he stepped into a boxing gym.

When he returned to Dallas, partly to care for his sick mother—“Cancer is eating her up,” is how he describes her health—Narro continued to coach boxing. “All my family is here,” he says on returning to the community he grew up in. “I’m a clean dude, so I’m OK coming back.”

By any measure, Casa Guanajuato is one of the nicer boxing gyms you’ll find. Large, colorful murals—the Virgin of Guadalupe among them—cover entire walls. Besides boxing, Casa Guanajuato offers classes on citizenship, music, English, and job training. Tereso Ortiz founded the community center in 1994 and continues to run it. He’s received multiple awards and recognitions, from both the United States and Mexico, for his service to the community.

Part of this service is celebrating cultural roots and traditions. But among the many programs the center offers, boxing is at the core. “Boxing, for me, has not only been the basis but even the maintenance of this place,” Ortiz tells me in Spanish, “and we’ve also had great success.” Among these successes is Luis Yáñez, a 2008 Olympian who has a mural dedicated to him in a corner of the gym.

“Casa Guanajuato Boxing Gym La Casa de los Campeones”—home of the champions—the mural reads. Yáñez trained not just in Casa Guanajuato but also in Vivero Boxing Gym. Ortiz considers him part of the center’s community, one that’s evolved since Ortiz first arrived in Oak Cliff from Ocampo, Guanajuato.

“I’ll never forget the day: it was the 6th of May, 1971,” Ortiz says. Since then, he’s experienced changes in both the city and the neighborhood. “You get here and at that time even eating beans wasn’t easy,” he says. “There was nowhere to get them. The only Mexican grocery store that existed in those years was in downtown Dallas.”

Latinos now account for about 40 percent of Dallas’ population. Oak Cliff, as a whole, remains among the city’s largest Latino areas. But as Ortiz notes, “If God gives me more years, I’ll be able to live through another enormous change.” Part of this change will not just affect the ethnic makeup of Oak Cliff but maybe even Casa Guanajuato’s location along with it. Developers have already offered a large amount of money for the community center. It is, potentially, life-altering money.

“It’s incredible the amount of money that property is increasing here,” Ortiz tells me. His eyes are wide, brows raised, as if in disbelief that someone would offer so much for a place that cost him $85,000.

“And you know why they want it?” he asks me rhetorically. “To knock it down and build apartments. That’s what they want this for.”

On a Thursday afternoon—an hour after someone’s turned on a Spanish-language radio station to echo throughout Casa Guanajuato, and after some of the young boxers have stretched and warmed up—it’s time to fight. A white thermostat says it’s 90 degrees inside the building. It’d be hotter if not for the two industrial-size air conditioners on full blast, losing their battle to keep the gym cool.

Every coach differs on how often they spar their boxers. At Casa Guanajuato, they spar twice a week. At Vivero Boxing Gym, it’s every day. But regardless of how often they do it, all agree on its importance.

Sparring is where heart and desire can overcome physical limitations. Conversely, it can leave even the most athletic and cocky kid crying, forcing him to abandon the gym when humiliated and never be seen again. “Sometimes, when they get tapped on the nose, they go play soccer,” is how Vivero describes these kids before he laughs softly.

Sparring is where boxing’s greatest lessons take place. Past the handshakes and tough love, past the hugs and nicknames that make you feel like you belong, actual fighting is where one learns to get punched, knocked down, and, perhaps even more important, lose.

“Jogging and doing all these exercises, that’s easy,” says Narro. “The hard part is losing because people don’t know how to lose. Like I tell the boys, ‘Look, man, life’s gonna be harder than this shit. You gotta get back up ’cause you’re gonna lose family members. Your mom is gonna pass away. Your dad. That’s way harder than losing a fight. So if you can’t handle a loss in a fight, how in the hell are you going to deal with life?’ ”

This is why they fight. And why, when it’s time to do so, seemingly everyone at Casa Guanajuato stops what they’re doing and gathers around the ring. The rhythmic sounds of speed bags bouncing off fists and platforms stop. As do the grunting and guttural noises that go with any work on the heavy bags. Two fathers—previously talking to each other, while eating from a bag of generic brand chips and drinking soda from lime-colored cans—suddenly pay close attention to what’s about to go down.

A girl around 10 years old—Chata, they call her—climbs into the ring and faces a boy around her same age. They touch oversize gloves, and in their protective headgear, they fight. If they’re afraid, they don’t much show it. They can’t. At this point, allowing themselves to get paralyzed by fear is beyond counterproductive. Chata punches and moves—bends at the knees, pivots off her back foot—with a fluidity that lets you know she’s been inside the ring before.

As they fight, Narro stands about 4 feet away from them and teaches. “Create space,” he says. “Don’t get sloppy!” he yells. But, most important, he implores them to stay calm. “Dalé, Chata,”—Hit him, Chata—a parent yells.

“Stay calm,” Narro repeats. “Breathe, mija. Breathe, papá.”

The round ends, marked by a piercing bell you can almost feel in your chest. One of the major rules—besides no cursing or taking off your shirt—says after each sparring session, the opponents hug. Without being told, Chata and the boy hug while Narro embraces them both. He congratulates them on a job well done and tells them he’s proud. He then takes off his glasses, uses his shirt to wipe off his sweat, and, squinting, looks around at all the young boxers standing by the ring.

Pato, Frijolito, Joker, El Crusher, Chato (Chata’s brother), and many others stand and wait. Narro puts on his glasses and points at a kid. “You ready?” he asks. The boxer, about 16, already with headgear on—which covers most of his face, leaving visible just his dark-brown eyes—nods.

Órale,” Narro responds. “Get in here.” The bell rings and he fights.

With each new building that’s erected, each previously dilapidated home that’s remodeled, each person who moves in and immediately thinks he knows what’s best for the community, and each business tenant who can no longer afford the rent, it has become increasingly clear that many of these kids and their families will also be forced to move from Oak Cliff. If not now, then soon. Progress is what developers call it. Others call it gentrification. Regardless of semantics, rising property values will increase taxes. For the many who rent, those taxes will increase what they pay for housing. For the few who own, the money being offered may be too much to turn down.

When that happens—for the same reason these types of gyms don’t exist in places like the Park Cities or Preston Hollow—Casa Guanajuato and Vivero Boxing Gym will get knocked down. They’ll get destroyed along with the area’s other boxing gyms, like the 10th Street Boxing Gym, which sort of forms a triangle with the other two. When that happens, Vivero and Ortiz both say, they’ll rebuild. Their coaches—young Erik, redeemed Narro—and the others will follow. So, too, will the boxers. All will arrive at a yet-to-be-determined place. It’ll be the type of place, not too dissimilar from the one they’re at now, where boxing—rather than being considered a dead sport by middle- and upper-class sensibilities—helps keep the largely Latino communities alive. It’ll thrive there and continue to do so, long after the time comes for them to move again.

Why Many Mexican Fans Will Be Rooting for Golovkin in His Rematch with Canelo

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It happened, this odd connection between Kazakhstan’s Gennady Golovkin and Mexico, almost as if by accident.

After crushing yet another opponent—in his fifth bout in the United States after fighting in obscurity throughout Germany—Golovkin was asked by HBO’s Max Kellerman to describe the right hand that felled his opponent and how he, despite also getting hit, stayed up while his opponent crumbled. “Max,” he answered, a sinister smirk on his face, “this is my style, like Mexican style. This is fight. This is not game.”

That was late July 2014 in Madison Square Garden. Less than three months later, Golovkin fought for the first time in Southern California in front of a largely Mexican crowd. “It was one of those moments that creates goosebumps,” recalls Tom Loeffler, Golovkin’s promoter.

As Golovkin walked to the ring, fans stood on their seats. “Triple G, Triple G,” they chanted. It didn’t matter that his opponent was Mexican. “Right there, you could see they embraced him,” Loeffler says. “And I think it is because of his style in the ring but also his character outside [it].”

The love between Golovkin and the Mexican and Mexican American fanbase isn’t new. That those fans would embrace a Kazakhstani boxer may seem unusual, but it’s less so the more you know about how boxing influences Mexican culture and vice versa.

Mexico has a rich boxing tradition. The sport speaks to the culture’s deeply rooted machismo. While a problematic concept that many would argue has had harmful social ramifications, this is where the style—Mexican style, which both Golovkin and Loeffler mention—comes from. It emphasizes offense over defense. Some might argue this fight style is much more reliant on continual pressure, body punches—especially the dreaded liver shot that paralyzes the body—and overall toughness. This is mostly how Golovkin fights.

Abel Sanchez, Golovkin’s trainer, is the man who taught his pupil the Mexican style. That process began almost as soon as Golovkin walked into Sanchez’s boxing gym in 2010.

Sanchez sat Golovkin down and played him a video of Julio Cesar Chavez—a Mexican national hero—fighting Edwin Rosario. They both watched Chavez dismantle his opponent—watched how, round-by-round, Chavez broke down the defending champion. And in doing so, Rosario felt the slow and painful agony of withering under Chavez’s unrelenting attack.

“When I showed him that video, I asked him to give me three years without interruptions, without any kind of questions,” Sanchez remembers telling Golovkin. “I promised him that in three years I would make him the best middleweight in the world, an undefeated world champion, and no one would want to fight him. And I was going to try to mold him like [Chavez].”

Chavez personifies Mexican style. He has Robin Hood appeal, a Mexican working man’s ethos; even if he earned millions from fighting, he could still pass as a poor man who just happened to have money. That distinction is vital. It’s the difference between a folk hero and a star.

Golovkin is a bit more the former. Even though he now has major sponsorships, he’s considered someone who, quite literally, fought his way to the top without ever getting much of a break. Someone who came to the United States not knowing the language and who was forced to remake himself.

“Golovkin is [like], whether people like it or not, the son of that Mexican that came here, crossed the border, busted his ass off,” says Salvador Carrillo, explaining Golovkin’s appeal to the Mexican fanbase. “He is the epitome of hard work. That’s why a lot of us…fell in love with the guy.”

Besides hosting The Boxing Rundown podcast, the enterprising Carrillo also created and sells a T-shirt showing Golovkin’s face imposed on an iconic Chalino Sanchez album cover. He made it prior to Golovkin’s first fight in Southern California. The T-shirt displays folk singer Chalino—his face replaced with Golovkin’s—loading his gun. Atop it, the phrase “Mexicans for Golovkin.”

“I don’t sing, I bark,” Chalino once joked in Spanish. And with that horrible voice, he sang of a way of life—violence and all—that helped audience members reminisce about their lives back in Mexico. He was a “valiente,” a word for which there’s no exact translation in English but meaning essentially a local tough who no one would mess with—unless one sought the same reputation.

Carrillo chose Chalino because he’s a modern-day reference that some Mexican and Mexican Americans relate to. “Golovkin has that scary look to him,” Carrillo explains. “It’s that bad guy that you want to root for. It’s your Pablo Escobar, your Chapo.”

Carrillo sells another Golovkin T-shirt. It shows Golovkin with a neatly manicured mustache and wearing a button-up shirt that’s an unmistakable part of the narco fashion Chalino helped inspire—the same one you can see on the Las Vegas strip. “Chapolovkin”—a reference to El Chapo Guzman—extends above Golovkin’s head.

El Chapo, Chalino and Chavez each have a folk-hero identity. Golovkin, to a lesser extent, has tapped into something similar that Mexican fans recognize and appreciate.

That Golovkin’s aggressive style makes him a favorite among Mexican fans isn’t surprising. What’s surprising is how he’s maintained that fanbase even as, for the second time, he’s about to face Saul “Canelo” Alvarez, a Mexican national and the country’s best boxer, with the WBA and WBC world middleweight titles on the line Saturday at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas.

Walk through the main entrance of the MGM Grand Hotel, the media headquarters for the fight, and the first thing you see is a boxing ring. “Canelo vs. Golovkin 2” is promoted on each of its four sides. There’s a gold-colored statue of a sitting lion inside the ring. It appears life-size, maybe five feet tall. To the left of the entrance is a hotel gift shop with an entire front area dedicated to hats and T-shirts bearing each boxer’s name.

Can Errol Spence Jr. Put American Boxing Back In The Ring?

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As chaos erupts around him, Errol Spence Jr. simply smiles and saunters into the boxing ring. It is his homecoming — the first time he’ll defend his title in the Dallas area — and he has everything to lose. A defeat at the hands of Carlos Ocampo, a largely unknown Mexican boxer regarded highly enough to make him a mandatory opponent, would cost Spence millions and a spot among the top pound-for-pound boxers in the world. And yet, with everything on the line and seemingly everyone in the crowd of more than 12,600 screaming in anticipation, Spence appears calm, as always.

A highly decorated amateur and 2012 Olympian, Spence has thrown his hat into the ring with the world’s best boxers. His success is the sport’s success, helping secure its future in the United States — while putting to bed the tired notion that boxing is dead. Beyond the 683,000 who watched the Ocampo fight on Showtime in June, Spence’s appeal is visceral, even in football-mad Dallas: Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott and several other players were among the sold-out crowd.

Spence, 28, honed his skills at Vivero Boxing Gym, a converted automotive garage in the Oak Cliff neighborhood of Dallas. Gene Vivero, the gym’s owner, “knew [Spence] was an athlete” the first time he saw him. And though Spence’s athleticism allowed him to pick up boxing’s subtleties, not all athletes are boxers. “Sometimes when they get punched in the nose, they go play soccer,” Vivero says of the many kids who trickle in and out of his space. Spence kept coming back.

Spence did grow up playing Texas’ No. 1 sport, lining up at running back and idolizing the Cowboys’ Emmitt Smith. But his slight build didn’t make him a great gridiron fit, and he took to boxing swiftly. Spence remembers Vivero as an old-school gym: “hot … no air conditioning, no nothing.” The high temperatures and humidity of North Texas can make training unbearable. But perhaps it’s Spence’s familiarity with the uncomfortable, rooted in Vivero’s gym, that makes him so calm, composed and, most of all, confident in the ring.

He was only an amateur when a heckler at the Texas Golden Gloves tournament first nicknamed Spence “The Truth.” As Spence earned multiple national championships and watched documentaries and fights of boxing greats, his dream became increasingly realistic and seeped into all aspects of his life. “I want to be the best at what I do and be mentioned with those greats. I mean, it’s only right,” Spence says.

Fighting in the 147-pound welterweight division, which has historically boasted some of the sport’s best, Spence aims high. “He has a pinpoint jab, solid power, good balance, a crippling body attack [and] hand speed, and he throws his punches in combination,” says award-winning boxing writer and historian Carlos Acevedo. Those attributes are only augmented by Spence’s southpaw stance. And yet, as talented an offensive boxer as Spence is, Acevedo points to the left-handed fighter’s needed improvement on defense. “He tends to drop his hands when on the attack, and head movement seems to be an afterthought.”

These deficiencies have yet to cost Spence — whose record stands at 24–0, with 21 knockouts — likely because there are few boxers in the world who can exploit them. Unfortunately for Ocampo, he is not among them.

As the fight began inside the Ford Center at the Star, Spence and Ocampo appeared cautious. In the first minute, they each threw a few pawing jabs and feints to the body, attempting to figure a proper distance between them. As they did, the previously raucous crowd settled.

Despite being the clear underdog, Ocampo, unintimidated, landed a few solid punches to Spence’s ribs. With less than 30 seconds left in the first round, it even appeared Ocampo’s left hook momentarily stung Spence. And then, with three seconds remaining, it happened — so suddenly it wasn’t clear until the replay why Ocampo was writhing in pain, his face contorted as he struggled to breathe.

Spence had ended the fight in the first round with a perfectly placed punch to the liver — among the most painful of locations. And as Ocampo remained floored minutes past the 10-second count, Spence smiled and celebrated while the arena again roared. Spence had reduced Ocampo to a placeholder, a name added to the résumé of his quest for greatness.

The knockout also announced Spence’s place among a small group who will lead the future of boxing in the United States, just as Floyd Mayweather leaves the ring. If he can garner mainstream attention, Spence may appeal to the wider public in the same way “Sugar” Ray Leonard did. While Spence might lack Leonard’s megawatt smile, his quiet charisma and confidence have won over Bible Belt fans in the Dallas area — suggesting a wider marketability. Of course, it all depends on how he fares in the ring. It’s increasingly clear that Spence’s chief rival as the face of American boxing is Terence Crawford (33–0), who dominated a world champion in June. Before either of them stakes any definitive claim to greatness, he will have to face the other.

After the fight, as the crowd is still yelling its approval, Spence says this wouldn’t be his last time fighting at home. Someday, he wants to fight at the Dallas Cowboys’ AT&T Stadium, which seats north of 100,000 — perhaps against Crawford. “You fight there, and you know you’ve made it. You sell out that, you’re an iconic figure,” says Spence. “If I can do that, then I made it to the pinnacle of the sport.” Audacious? Sure. But it’s how The Truth rolls.

How to Steal a Frozen Burrito

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When I was hungry and broke, I’d steal frozen burritos from grocery stores. They never caught me as stealing the burritos (or for that matter, anything else) required patience and really good mentors—namely, my cousin and his two friends who, collectively, called themselves the Shrimp Bandits.

The Shrimp Bandits were in their late teens when they terrorized the frozen sections of grocery stores across El Paso, Texas. They’d developed a simple scheme for stealing frozen shrimp. At first, it was just two of them; to protect the guilty, we’ll call them Shrimp Bandits 1 and 2. They’d simply walk into a grocery store, grab bags of frozen shrimp—always the large, thirty-one to forty count bag that’s already cooked, peeled, and deveined—and run out as fast as possible, hoping to find safety by hiding between nearby houses. After a few close calls, their technique evolved.

They incorporated a getaway driver who’d leave the car running near the front of the store. He’d stand close, pretending to unload an empty propane tank. While he did that, the two original Shrimp Bandits entered the store. Shrimp Bandit 1, who was the fastest, took the shrimp and ran out while Shrimp Bandit 2, the fatter of the pair, stood near a red DVD-rental kiosk. His job, aside from whistling to the getaway driver to signal Shrimp Bandit 1 was on the run, was to interfere if someone gave chase. If security or a worker ran after Shrimp Bandit 1, then Shrimp Bandit 2 would get in their way, allowing Shrimp Bandit 1 an extra few seconds to jump into the getaway car. They’d always leave Shrimp Bandit 2 behind and eventually meet at a prearranged place where the three would split the take. There was no money—there never was—just frozen shrimp.

Authorities never caught the Shrimp Bandits. Just as suddenly as they appeared, they disappeared. The Shrimp Bandits didn’t stop stealing because of a sudden change of conscience or moving on to stealing something of higher value. Rather, each of their mothers—who likely asked once or twice where all the shrimp came from before they just quietly ignored it—told them to stop bringing home so much shrimp. They stopped stealing because their moms ran out of freezer space.

At the height of their banditry, I saw five perfectly stocked refrigerators full of bags of frozen shrimp. Since there was no black market for shrimp, at least not in El Paso, the bandits and their mothers got stuck with the product. They also couldn’t move it in Juárez—El Paso’s sister city across the border—since their price for shrimp was already cheap. Plus, the long lines to cross into Mexico resulted in the shrimp thawing out before they could sell it. No one is crazy enough to buy warm shrimp in a bag. Had the bandits packed a cooler full of frozen shrimp, the Mexican police, which inspected incoming cars, would inevitably demand a kick-back that’d further bite into any money made.

Since few risked buying what was, in essence, second-hand shellfish, the Shrimp Bandits resorted to giving away what they stole. For a few months around the summer of 2005—I remember this well because, as a way of settling their nerves, they listened to Jay-Z’s “Dear Summer” after each successful heist—within a five-mile radius in east El Paso, it became common street knowledge that if you wanted free shrimp all you had to do was know where to ask. All you had to do was knock on the garage of a yellow house on the corners of Diego Rivera and Manuel Acosta Drive—fitting street names for the Shrimp Bandits who once, while high, told me they saw their shrimp stealing plan, and execution of it, as artistry.

I first heard about the Shrimp Bandits’s exploits directly from them. Like many low-level thieves of limited intelligence, they were eager to tell their story. I didn’t believe it so I begged to see it firsthand. It didn’t take much to convince them and I was there for several of their shrimp runs, standing by a payphone that had been demoted to a late-night bathroom spot. From there, I saw everything: a clear sight line to the back of the store, where the frozen section was. To my right was the red DVD-rental kiosk, and all I had to do was turn around to see the getaway driver pretending to be refilling his propane tank.

After seeing it all in action, I realized three things. First, they were serious. Second, they weren’t artists. And third, related to the previous note, their methods were seriously flawed, which, in my view, would’ve eventually gotten them caught. These were the flaws I learned from when I stole frozen burritos.

If you ask me why I did it, I can’t give you a proper answer. I was hungry and didn’t have much money, but it wasn’t like I was homeless or went to sleep starving.

Perhaps I felt some type of Mexican, working-class nihilism. My mother and father moved to the United States to give me opportunities they never had. There’s a burden there, especially when you are remarkably average and silently haunted by voices whispering, “You haven’t done enough to justify others’ sacrifices. You should be more than this.”

In the world I came from, doctors and lawyers born from immigrant families were the exception rather than the rule. As a matter of fact, I didn’t know any doctors or lawyers in the immigrant families I grew up with. The feel-good stories featured on television made me feel like shit. It must be nice to be educated, I’d think to myself, feeling resentment at the pit of my stomach.

With no practical knowledge of the complicated mechanisms for obtaining a higher education, people like me just fell through all those cracks the lie between daydreams, unrealistic expectations, and sensible goals. Sometimes people like me end up working, quite literally, alongside our fathers. The American Dream gets reduced to learning how to speak English without an obvious accent—measuring success by how little translation is required when watching crime and action movies.

So, as far as stealing frozen shrimp or burritos is concerned, well, it felt like affirming a certain level of intelligence. Not books smarts but a mixture of street smarts and bravado, both always held at a premium when one lives in a place—both physically and mentally—that’s otherwise forgettable and lacking a sense of power.

Or maybe that’s just an excuse for why I stole frozen burritos.

The first thing I realized was that of all the frozen items to steal, frozen shrimp may have been the worse choice, save for frozen pizzas. But even pizzas are eaten with greater frequency than shrimp. Eating shrimp was expensive and thus, a rarity. And, at least for those of us who lived in the Chihuahuan Desert, shrimp denoted a level of class—one can’t eat them while wearing sweats without feeling out of place. It’s almost disrespectful to do so.

Frozen burritos, however, were as far removed from the upper class as one could get. Some Mexicans would not even consider fresh burritos to be authentic Mexican food—whatever that means. So, in a sense, a frozen burrito, made in bulk and shipped with labels and names to denote some sort of cultural affiliation (there are never any wrappers saying Connor, Tanner, or Dustin’s Burritos), was a bastardization of food that already lacked a father.

In terms of practicality, frozen burritos were perfect to steal. Unlike the shrimp bags which were bulky and had lots of empty space within them, frozen burritos come in compact wrappers. And like pizza, but easier to steal, there’s an ease in eating burritos that make them a much more convenient choice.

Anyone could eat frozen burritos anywhere, while wearing anything, while doing whatever. Since I was hungry, it mattered little that I found frozen burritos disgusting. Their flavor and texture of unevenly heated canned beans made worse by knowing Juárez—where according to some, was where burritos originated—had the cheapest and best-tasting burritos anyone’s ever had. But I didn’t have time to go to Juárez, plus stealing fresh, delicious food felt more like a crime than taking what passed as burritos from some faceless, billion-dollar conglomerate.

I also realized that one just can’t just go into a store and begin pocketing things; that’s reckless and a sure way of getting caught—which almost happened to the Shrimp Bandits on several occasions. Instead, I planned obsessively, considered all potential variables.

Among the most important lessons is recognizing differences: which cameras see different angles, which cameras weren’t even turned on, and which objects were in fact cameras though they didn’t appear to be. There’s also a huge difference between cameras and security, and while most stores have the former, they don’t equate to being the latter. Also, though I never tested it, I assumed there’s a difference in reaction between stealing from a store that’s family-owned and operated and taking from a national grocery store. It was easy to imagine that someone who owned a store and set their own rules was much more likely to use force than an employee of a major corporation, who may be disgruntled with their pay and hours, might be. But by far the most important difference was knowing the surrounding areas of stores. This knowledge informs everything.

The surrounding area of a store is the greatest indicator of its level of concern regarding stealing. The more affluent the area, the less security they’ll have. If the area is not only affluent but has a high number of retirees, they might as well have a sign advertising how easy they are to steal from. Meanwhile, grocery stores in lower socioeconomic areas can have multiple security guards on duty at a time. To keep it simple, I kept away from grocery stores that catered to the Latino population. These stores usually had a Western Union, jewelry store, and/or check cashing stores that charged inordinate amounts of interest on payday loans. Each of these added to the raw cash coming in and out of the store, which translated to an increased security presence.

In El Paso, where over eighty percent of the population is Hispanic, discerning which store caters to which ethnicity isn’t easy. Had I kept stealing frozen burritos when I moved to Dallas, this difference would have been much clearer. So again, for the sake of simplicity, in El Paso, I targeted grocery stores where people were much more likely to speak English over Spanish. Stores in areas where they saw outsiders as Mexican rather than Mexican American. But stealing from grocery stores in the upper-class part the city meant I had to be careful to not stand out. The first time I stepped into one of these stores—not to steal, just to case the place—I was genuinely taken aback by its differences from stores in working-class neighborhoods. Everything appeared and felt different.

Unlike the light-colored, drab floors with florescent lighting I was used to, the flooring and ceilings in these stores were of a darker color, which, when combined with the drop-down lighting, gave a more modern feel. Most of their produce was several days away from being ripe, unlike the produce found in stores I shopped in which had to be consumed within a day or two after purchase. These stores didn’t have that smell, which is probably a mixture of dried blood from the meat section, overripe produce, and industrial cleaning products. Most surprisingly, these stores had large red coolers next to the freshly baked French bread. Inside were stacks of freshly made tortillas from a tortilleria right down the street from where I lived.

I was angry. Not only angry at how much better the upper-class ate, but that they could eat authentically—for lack of a better word—with little effort or risk of having to travel outside of their comfort zone. But I took comfort in knowing I’d soon be eating for free, and felt satisfied that the storees wouldn’t even know anything had happened.

It seemed the Shrimp Bandits robbed during any time of the day, mostly when they were bored. Unlike them, I figured between 5:30 a.m. and 9 a.m. was the sweet spot. Anything earlier and employees might have thought I’d been up all night. Anything later and they’d think I was unemployed. Both increased the likelihood of me being viewed with suspicion. I also dressed for the role, which meant as plainly as possible. I wore nothing memorable that could have stood out or offered an identifying marker. Not wanting to draw attention, I kept away from bright colors and never wore shorts or sandals. This was also for practical reasons—shorts had little holding room and sandals were a tripping hazard. Instead, I wore high socks (picture the basketball player, Jason Terry) covered by boot-cut, relaxed fit jeans.

As I dressed before each frozen burrito caper, I made sure my socks still held their elasticity. I ran in place while wearing them, all to make sure they didn’t sag and defeat their purpose. They were thick, green, and stretched to just below my knee cap. They were Army-issued and given to me by my father. Once satisfied with the socks, I’d take my hand and inspect the inside of my sneakers—high-top black Chuck Taylors—checking for anything that might slow me down. I’d flip the shoes and remove anything from their bottoms. Little pebbles caught between the ridge patterns can easily cause one to slip on hard floors. Once all of this was complete, I’d carefully put my shoes on, slowly so the sock wouldn’t jumble around the toes and heel.

I once heard that the first thing legendary UCLA basketball coach John Wooden taught his players was how to properly put on their socks and shoes. Any wrinkle in the socks or loose flap inside the shoes could cause blisters. I always thought of that story when I put on my socks and shoes before I double-knotted the laces and made sure my belt held my pants firmly in place.

I never took frozen burritos from a local store. The Shrimp Bandits did this all the time and therefore, couldn’t return to buy a simple tomato without feeling they were being watched. Stealing from a local store also increased the likelihood of seeing someone you know. And when every second counts, someone stopping you for a quick “hello” can make all the difference.

After I picked a store, I studied the parking lot: which exits led to where, which entrances were most busy, and whether the back of the store was an enclosure. Since I was a one-man operation, I parked as far away from the store as possible, closest to the exit I’d be driving through. To park at a distance sounds counterintuitive, but I knew that if I were being chased, I could use my athleticism to my advantage by putting distance between myself and the chaser. Had I parked as close to the store as possible, I would’ve negated that advantage. So, I parked away from the building—and pedestrians—leaving the car door unlocked while, one last time, making sure my socks were pulled up, my shoes tied, and pants secured.

Of all the memorable things during my exploits as a frozen burrito thief, a feeling I’ll never forget is that of the ice-cold air conditioning hitting my body as I entered the store. The juxtaposition of the hot, summer mornings of the El Paso-Juárez borderlands and the air conditioning power of these stores couldn’t have been more glaring. The grocery stores I was used to had a dampness to them—a swamp cooler effect that could make the indoors feel more uncomfortable than being outside. In the grocery stores in my neighborhood, a subtle sweat on your covered chest and thighs would develop, made worse by the floor’s stickiness and the subsequent sounds of queeek, queeek coming from your shoes with each step you took.

Conversely, these fancier grocery stores had an icy feeling to them. Refrigerated air conditioning, powerful to the point one could feel it ten feet before walking through the front doors. It felt so relaxing that if I could replicate a feeling, I’d want to feel that relief of walking from the hot outdoors into the wintry wonderland of those grocery stores.

Once inside and in front of the freezers, I’d patiently look around and even check out prices. The point was to get the most expensive frozen burritos available. This I’d learned from watching the Shrimp Bandits, who always chose to steal the most expensive shrimp. Why settle for only $.79 bean and cheese flavors when you can have the best for free? I’d get something with protein, something with chicken and meat. But always, always, always, I’d also get two of the cheap bean and cheese burritos.

With frozen burritos in hand, I could have run and likely gotten away but there were only a few upper-class grocery stores in El Paso. Had I run out of each one of them, they’d soon recognize me and the entire scheme would have to end. I didn’t just want to eat for one day; I wanted to feed myself for a lifetime. So instead of grabbing and running, I kneeled, pretending to tie my shoe—shielding the inside my leg with the opposite shoulder—and slid the burrito under my pant leg and into my socks. I placed them on the front and back of my calves but never the sides. Most people will see you either from the front or back and the bulk in your lower legs will blend in. But if the frozen burritos are on the side of your calves, it’ll look awkward.

I eventually grew comfortable with multiple cold burrito wrappers pressed against my lower leg. I also learned to alter my walk, just slightly, to decrease the noise made with each step I took. Few things invite suspicion as walking in and out of a store empty-handed. So, to appear less guilty, I’d pay for the two $.79 burritos. The total was always $1.71—less than $2 for ten frozen burritos if you counted the other eight I had stuffed in my socks. Each shin had two, vertically placed and on top of one another but not stacked. Two more against each calf. All eight held in place by socks that tightly hugged me below the knee.

Relax. Don’t look around. Say “hello.” Smile, but not too much. Take the change. Say thank you. Leave.

Every time I walked out of the store, car keys in hand and frozen burritos burning cold against my legs, I felt a slight jolt. This was adrenaline that, since I wasn’t burning it off by sprinting out of the store like the Shrimp Bandits had done, I had to restrain. I also had to quiet the inner voices telling me to look over my shoulder and see police chasing me. I had to convince myself there were no police coming after me. Fighting the urge to look back was one of the most difficult things I’ve ever done. So much of stealing frozen burritos is having the nerve to pull it off, to appear as calm as possible during a moment when your mind is a rough storm.

From my car to the grocery store and back to thee car, it’s almost as if I was two people: one going through the motions and another on the outside, looking down at everything.

The thing about stealing frozen burritos and not getting caught, is that you, almost inevitably, begin to wonder what other things you can take. You begin to justify your actions, daydreaming that if caught and given the opportunity to tell your story, you’d become something close to a folk hero. I began to dream that people, like me, would understand completely why I did what I did. That, even though I never gave to others from my spoils, I’d become some sort of grocery-store Robin Hood—my own version of Pancho Villa, simply by taking something from a corporation so rich they’d never even notice it was gone. Corporations too fancy to even consider setting up shop in our neighborhoods.

But since I stopped with the frozen burritos heists before getting caught, there’s no potential for such sympathy. Rather, telling my story now, devoid of an actual antagonist, I’m reduced to nothing more than an idiot who, for about six months in my early twenties, ate mostly frozen shrimp and burritos.

Too Mexican for Americans. Too American for Mexicans.

Published on D Magazine.

It’s a Tuesday evening in late March, cool enough for a sweater but just warm enough to feel comfortable without one. The sky has been gray and wet all day, alternating between steady, fine mist and pounding rain. It’s all enough to disrupt any semblance of midweek enthusiasm. And yet, inside Al-Amir—a Lebanese restaurant and club in Arlington—a group of friends, members of Pancho Villa’s Army, gathers hours before they’ll travel a few miles to AT&T Stadium. There, they’ll join tens of thousands more and cheer for what’s likely the most popular soccer team in the United States—the Mexican national team.

Pancho Villa’s Army, or PVA, is a barra, or fan club, with thousands of members across the United States. Many of them travel the country to watch and cheer on their beloved Mexican team. At matches like tonight’s—a World Cup warm-up against Croatia—they scream and beat drums and wave Mexican and PVA flags, trying to intimidate, or at least distract, the opposition. Dressed in El Tri’s green, red, and white, most wear dog tags with the PVA logo on them. Some wear sombreros and large Mexican flags as capes. Others wear scarves around their necks that have “Pancho Villa’s Army” printed on one side. The other, if lined up perfectly, looks like a bandolier with a brown-and-tan version of their namesake’s face.

Pancho Villa was a Mexican general and revolutionary with a conflicting history who’s increasingly remembered in mythic terms. To some (including some Mexicans), he was a ruthless opportunist. To others, Villa was a hero who fought against the United States’ influence within Mexico and reaffirmed a sense of national pride. Along with using Villa’s likeness as its logo, PVA structures its group like a military hierarchy—presumably based on Villa’s División del Norte, which at its peak was among the largest revolutionary armies to exist in Latin America.

Every new PVA member begins as a soldado—soldier. The highest rank is general, a designation that belongs to Sergio Tristan, an Austin-based attorney who founded Pancho Villa’s Army in 2011. Members of PVA refer to Tristan as “El General” more often than they call him by name. At just about every Mexico game, you’ll find either El General or El Coronel—Rich Guel, second in command—dressed in the latest PVA t-shirts. Below them are captains, each charged with overseeing city chapters, or battalions, of which there are at least 35 spread across 14 states. Randy Diaz is PVA Dallas’ captain. With Jovany Alejo and Hector Valdez, his two right-hand men, he’s planned for tonight’s game for months.

They’ve organized everything from where the before and after parties will take place to where traveling members of the PVA—some from as far away as Oakland—will stay. They’ll even make sure that everyone follows the group’s strict, nonviolent code of conduct. But for them and many others, joining PVA, even cheering for the Mexican national team, goes much deeper than watching soccer with friends. As Mexican-Americans, cheering for the Mexican national team instead of the United States has to be more than that.

Like most members of PVA, Randy, Jovany, and Hector grew up watching Mexico play. They inherited their fandom from parents and relatives born in Mexico who then carried their passion for Mexican fútbol across the border. Jovany—a sergeant-at-arms in PVA and the only one of the three born in Mexico, though he grew up in the United States—sees the choice as simple. “I’ll always be Mexican,” he says while making it clear he’s grateful for every opportunity the United States has given him and his family. Everyone is grateful; no one here hates the United States. But neither are they blinded to its problems.

“This whole immigration thing has always been around me and a part of me,” says Hector, a lieutenant in PVA, who was born and raised in Dallas but whose father is from Nuevo Laredo. His experiences made his choice to support Mexico’s team easy. “Growing up, things you see around you, you know? The hate you feel from other people,” he says. “Not feeling welcomed or wanted, it doesn’t make me want to root for a team that said racist things toward you, that doesn’t want you in this country.”

He adds, “To me, it’s more like, ‘You guys pushed me this way. To not want to be a part of what you’re doing.’ And then when Trump comes into office and stirs the pot, it makes it even worse.”

Last year, North Texas—labeled by authorities as an “area of responsibility”—was among the areas with the highest percentage increase of ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) arrests, spiking by 71 percent since 2016. The agency arrested more people in the Dallas area than anywhere else in the country. And as often happens, politics end up seeping into sports and affecting why and how people cheer. There’s a privilege in watching sports merely for entertainment.

Randy, tasked with rebuilding the Dallas battalion after a change in leadership two years ago, sees the group as more than an occasional gathering to watch soccer. It’s about friendship and bonds, of which fútbol is just one. “The chapter has turned into more than just something to do,” says a pensive Randy. “It’s way more than that—for me.”

Despite their Mexican heritage and cheering for Mexico, members of PVA aren’t immune to common Mexican criticisms of Mexican-Americans. All three, along with many other members of PVA, traveled to Mexico City for a match last year. Incidentally, Mexico was playing the United States. And though each say people treated them well, at least in person, when Mexican websites featured articles on PVA, the comment sections made clear that Mexicans saw them differently.

“They see us as pochos,” Randy says. A pocho is a slang term used by Mexicans to describe those who they share a heritage with but who they perceive as having lost part of their culture since moving to the United States. Essentially, a pocho is a Mexican who has become Americanized. They aren’t outright rejected but, instead, are considered something less than “authentic” Mexican. Authenticity is fluid with various definitions. Ask someone from Mexico City what being “Mexican” means and their answer will differ from one given by someone in the north, south, or coastal parts of the country. At the same time, each of their answers will probably include living in Mexico.

“To say that PVA has been fully accepted over there in Mexico? No. Can’t say that,” Randy says. “I’d be lying if I said that.” But as PVA, with each passing game, gets more national attention and its membership grows, Hector feels that lack of acceptance will change. “Basically, they’re gonna have to accept PVA. We’re here to stay, whether they like it or not.”

Some within Mexico assume that because a group like PVA consists largely of Mexican-Americans, their fandom is not as pure. That, living on the north side of the U.S.-Mexico border, they cannot possibly comprehend what it’s like to live and die with the south side’s national team. That they are, somehow, shielded from feeling the disappointment and frustrations that are a part of cheering for Mexico’s fútbol team—a team with a passionate fan base despite never advancing past the third round of the World Cup. Further, Mexico always seems to lose in the most heartbreaking fashion. To suggest members of PVA don’t feel this agony is untrue.

The latest instance of this Mexican heartbreak occurred during the last World Cup. Like all fans of Mexico, Randy, Hector, and Jovany vividly remember the team losing to the Netherlands on a horrible penalty call. Say “No era penal”—it wasn’t a penalty—and every fan of the Mexican national team will instantly know what you’re talking about. The phrase is equal parts declarative and mournful, and proof that, just like life, fútbol is unjust. For Mexico fans, anguish that leaves you in tears comes every four summers.

“We endure a lot,” Randy says, before offering an almost philosophical analogy. “It’s like when you grow up in a tough neighborhood. You see all kinds of stuff growing up. At the same time, when you get older, you get out of it and it makes you who you are. It makes you stronger because of it. I mean, I’m going in prepared for [heartbreak], of course. I hope for the best but I expect the worse. I just always think like that, just because—the disappointment won’t be so big anymore.”

Jovany and Hector sit silently, nodding in agreement. The latter breaks his silence and adds, “Growing up a Cowboys fan, you’re used to disappointment.” All three laugh as if it helps to ease the residual feelings of frustration.

“But you never know, man,” says Randy, as if suddenly finding a nugget of deeply buried optimism. “These kids that we have right now, some call them the best squad we’ve ever had. I semi-agree.”

Back inside Al-Amir, each arriving member of PVA gets a warm greeting. They are friends even if they haven’t seen each other since the last Mexico game or even longer. When they meet again, they shake hands and hug, smile and laugh. Like an attentive host, Randy—wearing a red band with a white C for “captain” around his muscular left bicep—walks around making sure everyone and everything is fine.

Both El General and El Coronel arrive and are immediately recognized. But even the newer, lesser-known soldados are friends with someone. That someone will, in turn, introduce them to other members of PVA and they’ll instantly bond. They all speak mostly in English, though if a phrase is better expressed in Spanish, they’ll effortlessly switch. It’s a kinship based on a common heritage and a love of Mexican fútbol, but it’s also one deeper than that. Some things need not be explicitly said. And as drinking loosens dancing legs and singing lungs, these bonds strengthen.

Another soccer match, U.S. vs. Paraguay, plays on televisions behind the bar. If they even notice it, no one seems to care. Instead, everyone sings along as the DJ plays Christian Nodal’s “Adiós Amor”—a song about walking away from an unrequited love despite still adoring the one you are leaving.

They sing with emotion, hard-earned from being intimately acquainted with sadness—apart from the one born out of loving the Mexican national team. These are, after all, the children of those who, in search of opportunity, left loved ones and their home country’s familiarity. That choice led to many being called traitors when in Mexico. And here in the United States, some of them get told to go back to their country. This is who they are and part of what bonds them: understanding what it’s like being too Mexican for Americans and too American for Mexicans.

Identity is a messy, even contradictory, construction. It’s muddled further by the irrational passions of sport. In fairness, there are fans of Mexican heritage that not only root for the United States national soccer team, but are members of the American Outlaws—a counterpart fan group to the PVA. But they aren’t here.

By the time the game starts, optimism is naturally high despite many fans sitting inside AT&T Stadium with clothes wet from walking miles in the rain. The perfectly lined pitch, goal, and its netting all look especially white when contrasted against the green field and crowd where, again, green is the color that stands out.

Most of the more than 79,000 in attendance are here to watch Mexico play. For 90 minutes, they’ll forget it’s raining outside. Perhaps, at least for the night, they’ll even forget whatever problems come from the current political climate: where they fit in, whether they feel welcomed, or—despite being born here—how they’ll respond the next time they’re told to go back to their country.

In June, when the heat suffocates North Texas and the area longs for the cool and cloudy nights of early spring, Mexico will play in the World Cup. The games will matter. Maybe too much. Maybe with good reason. By the time the World Cup begins, the games may act as a welcome distraction from continuing ICE arrests or, perhaps, even the beginning phases of the United States constructing a wall along its southern border.

If the history of Mexican soccer teaches us anything, it is this: there will be a game where the team looks better than expected. A game where even the most realistic will allow themselves to dream. They’ll imagine a summer that they, along with every other fan of Mexican soccer, north and south of the U.S.-Mexico border, will always remember. They’ll imagine this is the year when euphoria, rather than heartbreak, will mark the summer months.

Before each game, just like at AT&T Stadium, they will sing loudly when the Mexican national anthem plays, all of them dreamers in some capacity. Some will sing to the point of tears. And for those few minutes, they will forget, or ignore, that eventually Mexico will break our hearts.

Waiting for Errol

There’s a bright-red sign, flashing beside a door. The word “OPEN” flashes 5 times then, one letter at a time, they flash again. First the O. Then the P. And so on until “OPEN” gets spelled out. The sign flashes 5 times again, drawing attention to a place minimal in how it advertises itself. A black brick wall with the simplest of black fonts on the building’s fascia reads, “Boxing Gym.”

R&R Boxing Club 18

What appears like a 6-pound shot put ball—with a green and white swirl pattern on it—holds the front door open. The back door is also wide-open; presumably to allow the outdoor’s humid air to flow through. The familiar smell of a boxing gym is the first thing you notice. It’s not offensive, but neither is it pleasant.

It’s always obvious when someone new walks into a boxing gym. Everyone—both the new person and those there—do a quick calculus of who is who. Who is a pro. Who is not. Who used to fight. Who never has. Who has a kind face. Who does not. And, though it’s rarely said out loud, who can beat the shit out of who, how quickly, and how.

“Can I help you, boss?” a man asks while getting his gloves tied. He has a prosthetic below his right knee. I wonder what happened. I want to ask but I don’t. Instead, I explain my reason for being there. “I’m here to interview Errol.”

“Cool,” he says, “he should be here in a bit.” He then walks to the heavy bag. Without waiting for the piercing sound of the timer marking another 3-minute round’s beginning, he punches. He circles to his right as if the sweat-stained bag has an orthodox stance. He punches again. You can see a sweat ring developing around the neck of his heather grey-colored shirt. About 10 feet away from him, there’s a man sitting on the floor and reading his phone. He too is sweating.

R&R Boxing Club 17

As with most boxing gyms, it’s hot inside. The heat’s made worse by the simple fact it’s mid-May in north Texas. The high temperature was around 87 degrees though with humidity, it felt like 102. It’s much hotter inside the gym to where waiting outside feels like a relief.

The gym shares the building with a Mexican restaurant that sells barbacoa de borrego. There’s a tire shop is next to the restaurant. Every few minutes you hear an air impact wrench, taking off another lug nut. You don’t hear it but you can imagine the sound of a tire bouncing slightly off the ground before a worker rolls it away to get fixed. The gym’s neighbor is a shop that sells work boots.

I was standing outside, wondering if every nice car that drove by marked my wait’s end, when a man—who must have seen my camera—said something I quite couldn’t make out. Something about if I wanted to take a picture of a shoe. As he got closer, he smelled of alcohol and carried a work boot with a nail poking into its bottom. He limped and wore only a sock on one of his feet. “I paid $200 for these shoes. They are supposed to have a warranty,” he said in his broken English.

I ask him, in Spanish, what happened. Relieved that he could express his frustrations in the language he knows best, he suddenly speaks confidently. In between expletives, he says he stepped on a nail and considering how much he paid for work boots that came with a warranty, he brought them back. I’m not sure if he expected new boots, the shop to cover his medical bill, or something else. Whatever he wanted, they told him no. Annoyed, he says next time he’ll buy work boots at Wal-Mart, pay only $40 and get the same level of protection. He limped away and back into his car. I went back inside and waited. I looked around.

All gyms line their walls with pictures and posters of boxers intermixed with a few motivational quotes. A sign, written in Spanish, says, “You have 2 options…Throw in the towel and quit or use it to dry your sweat and keep going.” There’s another motivational quote, this one written on a dry-erase board, that simply says, “Do more say less.”

Of all the pictures, three boxers seem to occupy the most space: Errol Spence, Muhammad Ali, and Julio César Chávez—the father, not the son. Though, there’s at least one poster of junior; it’s in the bathroom. If you stand there, while urinating, and look at his eyes on the poster you get the sense that junior is trying hard not to look down.

R&R Boxing Club 10

While looking around and waiting, a woman walked through the door. The same man that greeted me—who apparently, when not beating the punching bag, doubles as the information desk—asks how he could help. She inquired about joining the gym. The man’s shirt had turned a dark-colored grey and while wiping his sweat off, as best he could with his boxing gloves on, told her about the gym’s basic membership. The MMA instructor is no longer there so kickboxing class is on hold. He also told her the owner wasn’t there. He pointed to a picture on the wall and said, “if you ever come back, that’s what he looks like.”

She suddenly recognizes a picture though it’s not the one of the owner. “It’s Freddie Roach,” she says excitedly. “Yea,” the sweating man answered, “we are the home gym of world champion, Errol Spence.” She doesn’t seem to know who he is. Or, maybe she does but doesn’t care.

R&R Boxing Club 9

She leaves and we all return to what we were doing before she arrived. Everyone, in their own way, waiting for something or someone who may not even exist.