Miguel Solis Did Not Make the Runoff, But He Will Take His Campaign With Him

Published on DMagazine.com


Miguel Solis’ campaign ended where his career began. The mayoral hopeful and his treasurer, Chequan Lewis, started their Election Day by greeting voters about 100 feet away from the Thomas C. Marsh Preparatory Academy, the middle school where Solis realized he wanted to teach. Until then, on the advice of his mother, he had wanted to practice law. “I used to tell him that all the time, ‘You need to be an attorney because all you want to do is argue with me,’” his mother, Sherrlyn Solis, remembers.

That dream faded. The young teacher, inspired after serving as a staff member on President Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign, found a home at the front of a classroom. Some of his students even joked that one day  young Mr. Solis would become president. First, he became the youngest trustee to serve on the Dallas Independent School District’s board. Now he wanted to be mayor.

“Hello, my name is Miguel Solis,” the 32-year-old candidate would say, over and over, always flashing an easy smile to passing voters. “I’m running to be your next mayor. I hope you consider me.” Some recognized Solis and shook his hand. Others smiled as they walked by. “Vote for Solis,” Lewis would add.

This dance between candidate, campaign treasurer, and voters repeated for the entire day. From the cool morning outside of Thomas C. Marsh that smelled of wet grass, to the breezy afternoon outside of Unity Church of Dallas. They stood under the shade of trees and used their hands to block out the afternoon sun. They killed time between pitching themselves to voters by quoting poetry—William Ernest Henley’s Invictus that speaks of an unconquerable soul and Tennyson’s Ulysses—and talking about the merits of the Wu-Tang Clan. From 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., Solis and Lewis stopped and visited no fewer than 10 polling stations.

It became Pavlovian. See a car and wave while wiggling that orange “Miguel Solis for Mayor, Together for Dallas” sign. See a person and say hello; if you’re close enough, shake their hand. “Hello, my name is Miguel Solis,” the candidate would repeat countless times, like he has for months.

The years of dreaming and talking, the months since January when Solis announced his candidacy at a small home turned community center in Dolphin Heights, was coming to an end. Perhaps, with this end, something new would begin.

“One of the things we’ve been talking about since we met almost 10 years ago now, “Lewis says, referring to Solis. Lewis, a Harvard Law school graduate who calls Solis his first friend in Dallas, ponders his words. After stopping mid-sentence, he begins again. “We spent a lot of time in this city thinking about what Dallas has been and we want to grab the reins to start steering Dallas toward what it can be.”

This was the hope. And their daylong, simple interactions with voters gave oxygen to those flames.

“We had to make a gamble early on,” Solis says, “we knew that our campaign was going to be running against people who could potentially self-fund, who had access to money from years of fund-raising for other people, so we knew we were going to have to win this thing with people power.”

This people powered campaign helped raise more than a half-million dollars—the second-highest among the nine mayoral candidates when you don’t take personal loans into account. Solis was running a campaign at ground-level, the type of widespread strategy not often seen in Dallas politics. Here, candidates vie for the support of the business community and campaign hard in northern districts where voter turnout is likely to be highest. Solis took to the entire city, visiting churches and recreation centers and living rooms in all the districts. Few experts knew what to make of it; he was able to back up his platform with big dollars. But would that bring voters? Solis is a candidate who can say “I’ve always found politics to be an outlet for good” without bullshit.

There is something there, in those interactions between Solis and voters. Some wish him luck. “I voted for you,” others tell Solis, sometimes yelling it out of their car. One woman, the epitome of a loving grandmother, brought Klondike bars for Solis and Lewis. That cold treat helped them deal with the humidity left from a week’s worth of rainy days. Outside of Henry W. Longfellow Career Exploration Academy, they thanked her and hugged her and took a photo.

Solis wanted to become not just Dallas’ first Latino mayor but someone who recognizes the city’s diverse set of experiences, ideas, and history. Solis aimed big in his messaging. He often spoke of knitting together a segregated city. “We’ve got to figure out a way to bring this city together,” Solis said, “and it’s going to take bold change.”

Months of talking and listening and campaigning were ending. You could feel it. It was equal parts somber and awe-inspiring that it had even made it this far. The long voting day brought Solis a few moments of reflection. He thought about his grandmother who fled the Mexican Revolution. He thought about his father who, through education, made it out of poverty. He thought about former students who, unlike him, couldn’t enjoy what he calls, the “infrastructure of opportunity.” He thought about his young daughter who, through her early life’s health scares, taught him to keep things in perspective.

“You never want to lose anything,” Solis confides, “I think we’re all wired to want to win, to be successful in every venture of life. But I’ve learned a lot over the course, specifically over the course of being in elected office but with the things that I’ve experienced personally.”

It was getting close to 7 p.m. The polls would close and Solis’ watch party would begin. Solis and Lewis stood in an open lot near a house on the corner of W. University Blvd. and Roper St. for the final minutes, working for every vote.

“I appreciate you taking this ride with me,” Solis says to Lewis, both clutching orange signs. They fist bumped and recorded one last video. Solis speaks into the phone’s camera. Together, they watch the recording. They both nod their approval. A handshake between them soon turned into a hug. “Thank you,” Solis told Lewis, again. “Thank you,” Lewis responds. They then, like they’d done all day, drove to their next stop.

The watch party was filled with hopeful supporters. Solis anticipated a tough night. Early voting had him in the lower tier, sixth of ninth. He’d earned 9.89 percent of the vote, fewer than half of the leader, state Rep. Eric Johnson.

“Right now, I kind of have a sense of where we are,” Solis said during their drive. He walked toward a kitchen entrance of the Maplewood, a private social club inside a nondescript gray building off Inwood. “It’s going to take a lot for us to kind of break past the other people…just to get into second place. But you never know … We’ll take a look at it for like the next hour and then see.”

For that next hour, guests increasingly filled the small venue. Families with small children hugged other families already there. Young kids laughed and played. Other attendees nursed beers. Solis’ young staff and group of volunteers were there, as were his family and supporters, some of whom had hosted house meetings where Solis listened to community concerns.

Some supporters sat inside the rectangular building, others stood in the patio. They talked among themselves, trying to ignore their nerves.

“I am definitely nervous,” Eugenia Castañeda said, “but I am also very pleased with how we handled our campaign and all the hard work that we put into it.” Back in 2013, on the first day Solis ran for the DISD school board, Castañeda volunteered her help. She is now a finance assistant in Solis’ campaign. She is also one of Solis’ former middle school students who he inspired to dream.

“Even since I was in 8th grade,” Castañeda remembers, “[Solis] would write on my papers: ‘This is Princeton material, you’re gonna go far.’ He would do “Si Se Puede” (Yes we can) posters in the classroom. It made me realize that I could also do it and that I was also a part of that political world.”

While most waited anxiously, Solis remained in a separate room. He reviewed the voting results to see if he would, in fact, make it to a runoff for City Hall. As Solis watched and paced or did whatever he did, Chequan Lewis sat in a booth.

“I’m all in, emotionally, on this one,” he said. And now, he sat, sometimes slumped, while he nibbled on food. “Disappointed,” is how he described feeling. He cleared his throat and repeated himself. “Disappointed. And proud.”

The hours spent laughing and smiling and waving and shaking hands and reciting poems and lyrics seemed like another day. Also gone, at least for tonight, was the hope that the conversations between him and Solis would become much more than just talk. “We have spent the last seven years talking about how we can make this a better country. A better state. A better city.”

Gone, though, not dead. But, at least for tonight, not yet born either. And that—knowing their dreams would have to wait longer—was enough to hurt.

At about a quarter past 9, Solis spoke to about 60 of his supporters. “Though our campaign ends tonight,” he said, “the needs of our remain and the hopes for a brighter future still exist.” He shared quotes from Winston Churchill and Ulysses.

“I am forever changed by you simply by trying to become your mayor,” Solis said from a small podium. “As Tennyson once said through that great, weary sailor: ‘I am part of all that I have met.’”

Solis keeps a notebook filled with quotes from books and poems that mean something to him. Around the time his father died in 2009—his first week as a middle school teacher—his wife, Jacqueline gave him that notebook. You can picture Solis reading something, feeling it deeply and reaching for that old notebook. You can picture him repeating that quote to himself until he memorized it.

If you talk to Solis long enough, you’ll hear him recite quotes from memory. Hear him talk longer and you understand why, when he ends his speech by thanking everyone there, people—young and old, black, white, brown—rush to hug him. Some of them wait patiently behind others. Once in front of him, they put their hand on Solis’ shoulder and say a few words. Jacqueline stood next to her husband and wiped away tears as he gave his concession speech. So many eyes look glassy. In between whatever they say, Solis nods. He smiles, like he did all day, even if there is finally disappointment in his grin.

 

Taco Libre Brings a Demon to Dallas

Published on Dmagazine.com


The man stood outside a white, air-conditioned tent about an hour before he was scheduled to fight. He shook hands and took pictures with the few men, women, and children who recognized him. Most walked right by him. If this were Mexico, his many admirers would have swarmed him. He wore a luchador’s mask with his plainclothes; in a different setting he would’ve stood out. But at Taco Libre, inside the Farmer’s Market near downtown last Saturday, he was far from the only person wearing a mask.

He also wasn’t the only luchador at the 5th annual event, which combines tacos, music, and lucha libre. Had he walked among the crowd—taken in the live music and the smell of freshly made tacos—he may have even been lost in the company of those who wore masks while they ate and drank. But unlike them, he’s worn that mask for decades. He doesn’t take it off for relief from the heat. He inherited it from his father. He’ll be buried in that mask. It’s why the few people who recognized him, largely of Mexican heritage, shouted his name. He flew from Mexico City to be here; this was one of the few chances these people had to see him in the United States.

“Blue Demon Jr.!” one man yelled, flashing a boyish grin and posing for a picture next to the masked man. Blue Demon Jr. took a few more pictures, shook a few more hands, pet a dog, and then disappeared into that white tent.

An hour later, as the sun descended and the building’s shadows crept across the hot concrete floor, he emerged from that tent fully dressed in his luchador’s attire. Wearing that iconic mask and a blue and silver cape that flowed from his bare shoulders, he hurried from the shadows of the late afternoon and into the ring’s lights. He walked past those who reached out their hands and angled their phones to get a decent photo. His name came back at him in two syllables: “De-mon! De-mon!” He took off his cape, handed it to someone, and prowled the ring while seemingly everyone stared at him.

Like tacos, the Mexican style of wrestling, lucha libre, has become increasingly popular in the United States. But it’s mere sports entertainment here. Wrestling in Mexico is part of the country’s identity. At its best, lucha libre is a staged satire where everyone in that ring represents a part of everyday Mexican life, particularly for the working class. It’s a metaphor where the rudos, or heels, enjoy corruption in its many variations. They work against the people. Técnicos, or faces, best represent these everyday people. The referees—because they uphold the corruption—are often despised and even hated.

Everyone knows rudos are corrupt. They cheat. It’s built into the system. Most times, the best you can do is survive. A few fight back and get crushed. Fewer fight back and win, even if only symbolically. They become heroes and icons. This is why people cheer wildly for Blue Demon Jr., who comes from one of lucha libre’s immortal figures.

Blue Demon Jr. was 5-years-old when he discovered his favorite wrestler was his father. Blue Demon, his father, along with El Santo and Mil Máscaras, are the three most important luchadoresin Mexican culture. They starred in movies where they fought against devils and vampires and monsters and Nazis. They were just frail enough to remain relatable. When Blue Demon died of a heart attack at 78-years-old in 2000, the country mourned. And just like El Santo, Blue Demon wore his mask during his funeral. With the death of his father, Blue Demon Jr. became the only person allowed to wear that official mask. That mask is everything.

“Masks are part of Mexican culture,” Blue Demon Jr. says in Spanish. His light-colored eyes look greenish-blue when contrasted against his cobalt blue and metallic silver mask. “[Masks are] part of the global culture because it’s not just Mexicans who have worn them. The Mexica (the indigenous rulers of the Aztec Empire), the Egyptians, the Sumerians, the Celts, all of them wore masks. So, they’re definitely not solely ours but they’re part of our values. As Mexicans, the Mexica culture has given us a lot, a lot to understand the world with. And Mexican wrestlers are now a world-wide reference. When one sees a mask, one thinks of Mexico.”

Some of Mexico’s greatest public intellectuals have written about the role that masks play in Mexican societyThey both hide and create an identity. In lucha libre, a few masks are symbols of something greater. When a rudo carried Blue Demon Jr. to the top rope for the entire audience to see, you felt a sudden tension as he attempted to rip off the mask.

The referee told the rudo to stop but did little else. The opponent—wearing a devilish mask with sharp, fanged teeth and skulls on his pant legs—untied it and tried taking away everything that Blue Demon Jr. is. “La mascara!” a boy yelled out as Blue Demon Jr. fought to keep it on his face. Our hero fell backward with his feet jammed under the ring corner’s top turnbuckles, hanging upside down with his mask pulled above his chin. A girl in the front rows covered her mouth as if in disbelief.

There’s a part of all of us that want to see Blue Demon Jr.’s face. There are always a few that cheer for the rudos. Thus, there are some that would like nothing more than to see a person’s soul exposed. You understand that temptation. You may even feel it. But most also understand that discovery isn’t worth the loss of something greater.

Blue Demon Jr. is an antihero befitting of the country he’s from. Part of loving Mexico is acknowledging the deep flaws that exist within its breathtaking beauty. It is both a wondrous and frustrating place. Like in every country, it’s a place where both saints and demons exist, sometimes within the same person.

“I definitely think it’s the social place in which we live,” Blue Demon Jr. says before the fight. “We’re tired of hearing promises that are never fulfilled, and that they [those making promises] see themselves or want to pass themselves off as heroes or saviors of society. Regardless of medium used, I try to help people and do things for them. I always try to give something to the people.”

To the delight of the people, Blue Demon Jr. recovered. He still fought the rest of the match with his mask untied. When he stood in the ring’s corner, lights shined off the silver and the blue. It shined like satin. Combined with the sweat glistening from his torso and arms, Blue Demon Jr. appeared to glow.

After losing their first fight, the técnicos won the last two bouts. Satire cannot cross a certain line or else it mocks those who use lucha libre to find a bit of solace in many of Mexico’s contradictions. And so, Blue Demon Jr. kept his mask. He always does. Once his wrestling days end, in the same way he inherited it, Blue Demon Jr. will pass his legacy to his son.

Presumably, so long as lucha libre exists, that process will continue. It’ll create the type of lineage associated with royalty. And so long as there are men and women who tell their children about the great Mexican luchadores—who they are, what they represent, what they symbolically fight for—there will always be someone eager to shake the hand of someone like Blue Demon Jr., even if they live in a different country from where lucha librefunctions best. For those same reasons, there will always be someone who gasps at the sight of a rudo attempting to destroy the existential being of what those técnicos represent.

When the fight ended, Blue Demon Jr. grabbed the microphone. In Spanish, he thanked the crowd for their love and support. Another luchador, a técnico who was Blue Demon Jr.’s tag team partner, spoke in Spanish, then in English. He mentioned the absurdity of building walls. Wicked rudos can enjoy tacos and build walls. Blue Demon Jr. listened and nodded.

Blue Demon Jr. left the ring after the speeches. He took a few more pictures and shook a few more hands as fans—some wearing his mask or a t-shirt with it emblazed on it—watched intently. Men, women, and children again yelled his name. They reached out to touch him as he returned to the white tent. Mexico, where his message is always needed, was waiting.

The Murder, Memory and Myth of Mexican Revolutionary Emiliano Zapata

Published on Remezcla.com

Shortly after the sun rose on April 10th, about a week and a half before Easter, Emiliano Zapata was already awake and riding his horse. He rode along the cool countryside with the comfort that comes from knowing the land. The obvious and hidden trails, the creeks, the hills, he knew them all. Zapata had both hunted and hid in that land.

Years before, when he fought for Francisco I. Madero—who eventually disappointed him—this land was among the first places Zapata had seized control of in his beloved home state of Morelos. Together, he, Madero and several others wanted to overthrow the government. The plan, Zapata thought, would be to redistribute the land. Most revolutions die without accomplishing much. It’s why the successful ones become ingrained in a nation’s psyche. Almost inevitably, they become romanticized and referenced by those whose politics are far removed from the revolutionary.

The Mexican Revolution lived—at least in as far as it overthrew and replaced a government. And so, remarkably, the first goal lasted long enough to make the failure of the second goal hurt men like Zapata that much more. As the leader of the campesinos saw it, Madero had betrayed the cause. Madero was killed—betrayed—but lived long enough to hear Zapata call him a traitor. Zapata lived and, as a master horseman, continued to ride like he did that spring morning in 1919.

Known as a dapper man, one can easily imagine Zapata riding on that cool morning, his mustache immaculately groomed, wearing his usual dark-colored, three-piece suit. A neckerchief tied loosely around his neck, a large sombrero shading not just his eyes but part of his face, all of it smelling like it had been out in the sun and dirt for too long. He rode and breathed the fresh countryside air and pondered. There had already been several attempts on his life. As with Madero, it wasn’t uncommon for the highest of leaders to die at the hands of treacherous men. And yet, it was that same betrayal brought Zapata to this idyllic place that morning. He’d grown desperate.

Years before that morning, Zapata and Pancho Villa—leader of the northern revolt—sat side-by-side in the presidential chair in the country’s capital. They posed for a picture. Villa smiled, his grand mustache not large enough to hide his jovial eyes and smile. Zapata sat to Villa’s left. He gave a stoic, almost menacing stare into the camera. If you were among the poor, this picture captures what was arguably the high point of the revolution. If you were among the elite, the picture concerned you, even if only symbolically.

But since that day, the fortunes of both Villa and Zapata—the revolution’s most charismatic figures—had turned. Villa lost several key battles, twice in Celaya, and eventually retreated to the Sierra Madre mountains, where he hid from the US forces intent on capturing and killing him for raiding their country. Similarly, Zapata and his men fought to survive. This, among other reasons, was why he reached out to Jesús Guajardo, a constitutionalist. Years before, Guajardo had presided over the killing of hundreds of unarmed Zapatistas. But now, he claimed he was ready to fight for Zapata.

Their first contact was the type that happens in love and war. A few weeks prior to that morning, Guajardo had received an order to once again attack Zapatistas. But instead of following orders, Guajardo was discovered by a superior a few hours later in a cantina, presumably drunk. He was jailed before he was ultimately allowed back in the field, and Zapatista spies said Guajardo felt hurt and disgruntled by the scandal. It became the perfect moment for Zapata to smuggle a note to Guajardo.

Like teenagers in an illicit love, they wrote and snuck messages to each other. Zapata asked Guajardo to join his side. Guajardo agreed. Eventually, they met and as a sign of good faith Guajardo killed fifty-nine of his own men. He also brought the one thing all those in revolt consistently want for: weapons and ammunitions. Still, Zapata was wary.

As the day became hotter, Zapata continued to ride. He’d been fighting for the better part of a decade. In Anenecuilco—his home, some twenty kilometers north of the Hacienda de Chinameca he was riding outside of—his family had fought for far longer. During the War of Independence, Zapata’s grandfather was one of the boys who snuck across Spanish lines and delivered whatever insurgents needed in their fight for liberation; tortillas, gunpowder, liquor, salt. Later, Zapata’s uncles fought in the War of Reform. They also fought against the French Intervention. On both his maternal and paternal sides, locals associated Zapata’s family with courage. The type of people who wouldn’t betray your trust. A century of fighting and now, potentially, the future of Zapata’s fight, and by extension the fight of his people, rested on this meeting’s outcome.

He waited. While waiting he heard reports federal troops were near. Zapata and his men investigated. They found nothing. He waited longer. He waited so long, in fact, that Guajardo sent a formal invite from inside the house hosting their meeting. Zapata, not yet ready, declined. When Guajardo sent Zapata a beer—to combat the escalating heat—he again declined. Perhaps it was a poisoned drink, Zapata thought. Perhaps, as some of his spies suspected, this was all a ruse.

Finally, hours since dawn, in the early afternoon—2:10pm to be exact—Zapata decided to meet. He told ten of his men to follow. The rest stayed behind and rested, trying to stay cool under the shade of the surrounding trees. The house they would meet in was inside the hacienda gates. He and his ten men rode inside. They approached the house, and as they did Guajardo’s soldier saluted Zapata – a man who until that moment, he’d considered his enemy. It’s quite possible it was the first time most of these men had seen Zapata in the flesh.

There he was: Emiliano Zapata. The man who’d long been the enemy of the federal government. The man who Mexico City newspapers called a bandit, a terrorist, a barbarian whose savagery inspired comparisons to Attila. Emiliano Zapata, who had not just inspired fear but also a devotion so intense his followers would rather die than turn against him. Emiliano Zapata. They wrote songs about him. They praised him. If you’d seen him then, you might even think he was immortal. Emiliano Zapata. This is who they saluted.

They raised their rifles in the air and shot at the sky. And as Zapata and his men rode closer, the entire thing looked something like preparations for a parade. Zapata dismounted. The show of respect continued with a bugle sounding three times.

Once. Twice. The third bugle’s note still hung in the air when those who had just paid their respects lowered their rifles, aimed and shot Zapata. And though not all of them hit their target, nearly a thousand men inside that hacienda fired their guns.

The local hero died, betrayed on his own land, never fully knowing some of his notes to Guajardo got intercepted. The correspondence ended up in the hands of the same general that had caught Guajardo in the cantina. And during a supper, a few weeks before the day of Zapata died, that general—González—showed the notes to Guajardo. He accused him of being not just a drunk but worse: a traitor. Stunned and eventually in tears, Guajardo understood how treasonous acts end. He knew he’d get executed. But Gonzalez said he could spare his life. And so, Guajardo, with no options, agreed to ambush Zapata. If successful, he’d live – so long as Zapata was either captured or killed. Morelos’ favorite son died.

“Our general Zapata fell, never to rise again,” said a Zapata aide of one of the Mexican Revolution’s ultimate betrayals. In that gunfire and chaos, Zapata’s horse suffered a wound and rode away, scared and alone. Guajardo’s men kept Zapata’s lifeless body. They loaded it on a mule and traveled some twenty-five kilometers north to Cuautla. Inside a police station, authorities identified Zapata’s remains. They took photographs and the following day, newspapers across the country wrote of Zapata’s death.

Locally, in Cuautla, before his burial, thousands came to view the body. Some saw it and knew—despite the swelling—that it was Zapata. They cried like babies, even the grown men hardened by war. “The wings of our hearts fell,” one Zapatista said after seeing the body.

Others saw the same body and refused to believe it was him. As he lay there, lifeless, looking so vulnerable, they refused to believe it. And so, Zapata lived on in the types of stories and songs told to Mexican children, that then get passed on for generations. Tales originally told by people who swore they were true.

They say Zapata never died that April 10th. That he lived and fled to the Arabian Peninsula and would return when most needed. They said something about his dead body wasn’t right. That a scar was different, that a mole was missing, that the body had all ten fingers, when the real Zapata was missing a finger.

“We all laughed when we saw the cadaver,” one of Zapata’s soldiers said decades later. “We elbowed each other because the jefe was smarter than the government.” They say Zapata knew about Guajardo’s impending trick and that Jesús Delgado — a spitting image of Zapata, who traveled with the general as a body double —was the man killed. Others say it was another man, Agustín Cortés, or Joaquín Cortés, or Jesús Capistrán, or, as Zapata’s son put it, “some pendejo…from Tepoztlán.” Whoever it was, the name didn’t even matter. The important thing was that, according to these stories, Zapata lived and would eventually return.

And some say he did return. They claimed he’d visit only when protected under the cover of night. Others swore that, just like on the dawn of April 10, 1919, they’d see him atop his horse. He’d ride up in the mountains and always keep watch. Others said they saw that same horse, alone, galloping in the hills. They said it was an impossible white color.

Several decades after his murder, the daughter of a man appointed by Zapata to protect the land documents that proved their ownership, spoke of Zapata’s return. She said Zapata was an old man by then, and too aged to continue his struggle.

Zapata, whether you see his picture as a young man or were among those who claimed to have seen him in old age, has come to symbolize whatever noble cause the Mexican Revolution stood for. It was that same cause that for years brought together veteran Zapatistas. Increasingly, they too became old. And each year, on a day like today—April 10th—they gathered and expected Zapata’s return. A resurrection. He’d arrive and together they’d continue fighting for justice.

Today, a century after Zapata’s death, across Mexico and other parts of the world, the living—and perhaps even the dead—continue their fight inspired by Emiliano Zapata.

 

Old man Dirk

Published at SBNation.com


On a cold, late-winter night in Dallas, the Mavericks are playing the 61st game of another season in which they’ll lose more than they’ll win. With a little under 8:30 left in the fourth quarter, Dirk Nowitzki — in only his third start of the season and his first at home — shoots a three-pointer. As soon as the ball leaves his hands, you can hear the crowd noise increase. If he misses, a collective groan will rumble across the arena. If he makes it, fans will cheer wildly.

He makes it. Fans cheer. Mavericks go up by five over the Indiana Pacers.

Less than 50 seconds of game time later, Nowitzki walks to the bench. He follows his usual routine. After high-fiving any hand teammates offer, he works his way toward the end of the bench. He takes out his mouthpiece and tucks it into the top of his right sock. A ball boy hands him a long-sleeve shirt and Nowitzki puts it on, then another. The ball boy gives him his tear-away pants. Nowitzki steps over the pant’s inseam, secures the top-right hip button, then the left. A few more buttons on each side. The game is close, but Nowitzki, the best player the Mavericks have ever had, won’t play the rest of the night. He sits in the middle of the bench, and watches.

You watch him. Gone is the long hair — once described as “blond locks [resembling] some teenage idol from another decade” — that complimented his youthful appearance. His face isn’t as young as it once was. Also gone is that effortless stride with which he ran up and down the court. When he runs backwards, transitioning between offense and defense, his movement appears even more labored. His shoulders look almost-shrugged as his arms swing about as fast as his legs move. By the standards of professional athletes, Nowitzki is an old man. But even at this stage of his career, his impact and importance endures, not just on a young Mavericks team but in the city where he plays.

Before the game began, a 28-year-old father, Jahir Martinez, held his 5-month-old son, Judah, as they waited in the hallway outside the Mavs’ locker room. The father wore a white Nowitzki jersey. The son wore a blue Mavericks onesie.

As players ran out of the locker room to get to the court, they slapped the hands of fans standing along the walls shouting encouragement. Nowitzki was the last player out. Instead of running, he walked. Martinez held out his son and as Nowitzki went past, he delicately engulfed baby Judah’s entire forearm with his hand.

“I’ve met him in person,” Martinez says of Nowitzki, his favorite player, “and the reason why I took my son — everybody was asking, ‘Why you take your son? What’s the motivation behind it?’ — because when my son grows up, I want him to see what type of athlete he got to meet.”

Dallas loves Nowitzki. On the court, no other player is as responsible for the success the Mavericks have had in the last two decades. Before Nowitzki, the team was dreadful. Throughout the 1990s the Mavericks were among the worst teams in professional sports. Thanks to a back-to-back wins to close the 1993-1994 season, they narrowly escaped becoming the first NBA franchise to lose 70 games in consecutive seasons, but they never won more than 36 games in any season.

As they struggled, a teenaged and then-unknown Nowitzki played on a club team in obscurity in villages and small amphitheaters around his hometown of Würzburg, Germany. In 1998, Nowitzki arrived in Dallas without much fanfare despite being described as someone who could revolutionize basketball. “The Mavericks, in the ’90s, had a tough decade,” Nowitzki remembered. “[I’d] go somewhere all the time, and people were like, ‘Oh, you’re tall,’ but they had no idea who I was.”

Thousands of miles and about a 10-hour flight away from home, Nowitzki experienced complete culture shock. He couldn’t get through many conversations in English without having to ask, “what?”, multiple times. Fans booed him during his rookie year, in which he averaged eight points per game. He played so few minutes that a Dallas journalist wrote, “Dirk sweats so little during games, he doesn’t even need to shower.” Frustrated, Nowitzki knew that once he’d fulfilled his contract with the Mavericks, he could always go back to play in a European league. He stayed in Dallas for one day after the season ended before returning home.

But Nowitzki and the Mavericks would quickly improve. Steve Nash, acquired during Nowitzki’s rookie year, helped him acclimate to the league and the United States. The two played together six seasons, improving to 60 wins in 2002-2003, before Nash signed as a free agent with the Phoenix Suns in 2004.

Nowitzki could be the last great player to play the entirety of his career in one city anywhere.

Mark Cuban, who bought the team during the 1999-2000 season, called not re-signing Nash among his biggest regretsas an owner. Nowitzki was heartbroken.

“There will be some decisions you don’t like,” Nowitzki said in 2009 of his close friend leaving, “and there will be some decisions that you like, but you can only control yourself.” Yet Nowitzki stayed loyal, and racked up individual accomplishments, beginning more than a decade of consecutive all-star and All-NBA team selections. In that time, the Mavericks were consistently among the better teams in the league. But disappointment tempered much of the Nowitzki era.

There was the 2006 Finals when the Mavericks took a two games-to-none lead over the Miami Heat, only to lose the next four games. The following season, Nowitzki was named the league’s MVP and the team won a franchise-best 67 games. But they also suffered a shocking upset in the first round of the playoffs to the Golden State Warriors.

The loss was so devastating it drove Nowitzki into the Australian outback for five weeks. He spent time with his mentor, grew a beard, and searched for the “meaning of life.”

That was the first of three consecutive seasons in which the team lost in the opening round. With the early exits, Nowitzki was criticized by national media members, who said that he wasn’t an elite player or a leader — or worse, claimed he was soft.

But while Nowitzki — and by extension, the team — went through difficulties, coaches and teammates continued to support him. So too did Dallas.

“From my first year when I was really struggling … when I did get subbed in I used to get a standing ovation in year one,” Nowitzki said early into this season. “That made me think; this community here, these people, these fans really want me to succeed here. And I want to make everything possible to pay them back and make this work, to pay their loyalty back.”

Nowitzki and the Mavericks eventually broke through on the court, winning the 2010-11 NBA championship over LeBron James and the Heat. Off the court, he began a foundation that works with children who’ve suffered through illness, poverty, and abuse. When asked why Dallas loves Nowitzki, Cuban says, “His loyalty.”

In the five years after their championship season, the Mavericks lost in the first round of the playoffs four times. They missed the playoffs the other of those five years. Counting this season, the Mavericks have struggled three years straight. During these lean times, other teams inquired about Nowitzki’s availability. Yet when his contract expired in 2016, he re-signed with the team, again. Now, as a player clearly past his prime, who years ago could have perhaps contributed on a contender, Dallas cheers each dwindling minute of his career.

As the game against the Pacers winds down, with the Mavericks holding a four-point lead, Nowitzki, with a white towel draped around his neck and over his shoulder, sits on the bench and watches. With about two minutes left, Luka Doncic shoots a three-pointer from 30 feet away. The ball hardly touches the rim as it goes through the net. The crowd cheers and Nowitzki stands up, raising both his arms.

Doncic is this season’s revelation. He has sped up the Mavericks’ rebuilding process. When Doncic brings the ball up, Nowitzki will talk to him if they’re on the court together. Doncic nods back, implying he understands what Nowitzki, old enough to be his father, is telling him. There’s 40 years of basketball and life wisdom in Nowitzki’s words.

Unlike during Nowitzki’s early years, Dallas now has an entire infrastructure in place to help players like Doncic acclimate quickly to the NBA. And while it took Nowitzki some time to believe he belonged in the NBA, Doncic, signed to Real Madrid at 13 — the same age Nowitzki first picked up a basketball — knows he was born for the play the game.

Doncic plays with an arrogance that comes from prodigious talent. He passes the ball in a way that shows he sees things others can’t. Naturally charismatic, fans can’t pry their eyes off him when he’s on the floor. And on this late-February night, Doncic, in his last game as a teenager, seemingly controls everything the Mavericks do. It is what earned him the nickname “Wonder Boy” in his home country of Slovenia. In Dallas, it’s called Luka Magic.

Nowitzki is the best-case scenario for how an aging athlete should end their career … his best current contribution is knowing how to gracefully let go.

With Mavericks up by six, Doncic has the ball again. He dribbles, feints a drive, then steps back to hit another 30-footer. The game ends with Doncic scoring seven of the Mavericks’ last 10 points. He assisted on the other three-pointer, too. The Mavericks win while Nowitzki watches from the bench. This is how athletes age when they play long enough. Eventually, they come to witness their own obsoletion.

And yet, Nowitzki is the best-case scenario for how an aging athlete should end their career. Unlike many before him, there’s no sense that he’s here for the proverbial wrong reasons. He’d certainly love to win another, but he’s not chasing rings. He doesn’t seem to have monetary motivations, either. He enjoys being around his young teammates — joking, laughing, and playing — even if his best current contribution is knowing how to gracefully let go.

This transition from the past to the future could have gone horribly wrong. Nowitzki could have ended his career in the jersey of a team he has no connection to. Teams have paid players younger than Nowitzki and told them to stay away. Instead, as soon as the game’s final buzzer sounds, Nowitzki is the first player off the bench and on to the court to congratulate Doncic and the rest of his young teammates.

The Mavericks will, again, miss the playoffs this year. But with Doncic’s emergence, their fans have a renewed sense of hope. Next year, with Kristaps Porzingis, acquired in a January trade, presumably healthy and playing, Dallas’ prospect could change quickly, but Nowitzki will almost assuredly not be around when the Mavericks are serious championship contenders again.

That Doncic will be great seems ordained. A few hours after the game, Doncic turns 20 years old, and he has already accomplished feats that no other NBA player have, accounting for four of the five triple-doubles ever recorded in the league by a teen.

That Doncic will always be there for Dallas, the way that Nowitzki was, is unknown. Doncic is urbane and speaks three languages. He represents the future, not just for Dallas but for the NBA as a global brand. And one could understand if he let that cloud him into thinking that even a city like Dallas isn’t big enough to reach his ambitions.

Nowitzki could be the last great player to play the entirety of his career in one city anywhere. Long past being a teenager, he may even may play another season. He grew old in Dallas. He has a key to the city so he calls Dallas home. And Dallas loves him because, among other things, through the struggles, he never left.

Thus, during the winter months of his career, fans continue to cheer for him the loudest. Entire families will wear their matching Nowitzki jerseys and shout for a player averaging a small fraction of his career marks. At every home game, faceless voices among the crowd yelling, “Let’s go, Dirk!”

“I will choke up,” Jahir Martinez says of that inevitable moment when Nowitzki walks away. He says he will tell his son, who will likely grow up cheering for Doncic and, at best, only faintly remember the cold night when Nowitzki shook his hand, of what the big German meant to him and many others. “I will get something choked up,” Martinez continues, “because [Dirk] delivered something that I can remember for the rest of my life.”

 

Jack Johnson and Texas

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Photo from Galveston’s Rosenberg Library.

If you are in Texas, Sunday is officially Jack Johnson Day.

Johnson was born in Galveston which, as a port city, had the largest slave market west of New Orleans. Johnson’s parents were former slaves. At 13, Johnson worked on the Galveston docks. This is where he learned to fight. He then moved to Dallas and worked as a carriage painter. This is where he learned to box.

Galveston was one of Texas’ major cities until 1900 when a hurricane destroyed the city and killed upwards of 12,000 people—it remains the deadliest natural disaster in U.S. history. According to Johnson, in the days after the disaster, when people stood atop their rooftops to escape drowning, “avaricious men” used their boats to rescue people but not before charging them a few dollars.

“When I encountered them,” Johnson said, “I either compelled them to go to the rescue of the victims, or brought my boxing proclivities into play and took possession of their rescue conveyances myself and piloted the threatened to safety.” Johnson also says during the Galveston Hurricane, he helped feed the hungry, care for the sick, and bury the dead.

Almost six months later, in Galveston, Texas Rangers arrested Jack Johnson for prize fighting. They also arrested his opponent, Joe Choynski. Released after 3 weeks, Johnson left Galveston.

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Joe Choynski and Jack Johnson in jail. Photo from Galveston’s Rosenberg Library.

In 1908 Johnson became first black heavyweight champion. Galveston officials planned a parade that they ultimately canceled after learning Johnson would attend with his white wife. Johnson’s multiple marriages to white women led to him being sentenced to prison for violating the Mann Act. During the trial a group in Midland, Texas, sent a letter to the prosecuting attorney. They told him that if he killed Johnson, they’d contribute $100,000 for his defense.

After his conviction he lived in Europe and across Latin America. In 1920, while living in Mexico—during their revolution—Johnson turned himself over to U.S. authorities in San Diego county, across from Tijuana.

When Johnson discovered authorities planned to drive him to Chicago, through Texas, he pleaded that they drive around the state. He feared “being attacked by citizens of the State of Texas at some point through which they might travel.”

This year, on Sunday, marks the 25th anniversary of then-Texas governor, Ann Richards, proclaiming March 31st as Jack Johnson Day. “It is important,” the governor wrote, “for all Texans to recognize and celebrate the special place Jack A. Johnson held in the sport of boxing and in the history of our state.”

Jack Johnson Official Memorandum State of Texas 2 - B46 F30
Photo from SMU’s DeGolyer Library.

 

In the Shadows of Big-Time Boxing

Published on HannibalBoxing.com


Inside a dimly lit room, Rafael “Listo” Gaitan sits backward on a chair. His forearms rest on its top rail while his father, Rafael Sr.—or “Knuckles”—wraps his hands. Listo’s other cornermen, each in matching shirts, look on. They joke and smile.

Five other boxers and their cornermen stand around. Each has laid claim to an area in the room effectively serving as the red corner’s locker room. Inside, boxers are in various stages of their prefight routines that are determined by where their names appear on a hand-written list taped to the wall. It’s the order of fights.

And so some are just getting dressed; others, like Listo, are getting their hands wrapped. The boxer who will fight first has his gloves on. He hits the mitts and that unmistakable sound of boxing gloves pounding leather-covered palms echoes through the room. Words of encouragement follow each loud-sounding combination. “There you go! There you go!” A brief silence before the thumping sounds continue. “There you go! There you go!”

At 7:41 p.m., as the sun sets and the lower edges of the westward sky turn orange, a man in a black suit enters. As he opens the door, the slightly muddled sounds of music—a mixture of hip-hop and Mexican banda—becomes clear. “First fight, let’s go,” he says. The boxer who was hitting the mitts leaves, along with his people. They shout encouraging words to their man as they walk out. Once they’re gone, a relative peace comes with a little more room.

Without the commotion, you see a boxer wearing red gloves, sitting in the corner. In silence, he stares at the floor, as if wondering how and why its uneven stains appeared. It’s the pointless questions that help distract the mind. Listo, sitting in his green trunks that bear the patch of a local drywall company that sponsors him, and t-shirt a shade darker, continues getting his hands wrapped. He and his team have been in this cramped room for close to an hour. His time to fight is almost here.

He, and everyone inside this Old-West-themed nightclub in Irving, Texas, will fight on the Ides of March. They will fight in front of a few hundred people, many of them friends and family of each boxer, on the night before one of this year’s most anticipated fights: Errol Spence Jr. versus Mikey Garcia.

The distance between here and there—AT&T Stadium, host of that fight—is about a twenty-minute drive. But in terms of national importance, it’s a world apart. These are fights that happen every weekend across various parts of the country. Besides local boxing media, these fights are largely ignored and only become visible retroactively.

A larger audience will go back to these fights only if one of these boxers makes it out of here and to a bigger stage. Only then will national media look back and see where it all began. These boxers fight largely in anonymity, with the hope of one day making it to the height of Spence and Garcia. That’s where the Gaitan family wants to reach.

***

“We had him at a young age,” Knuckles says of Listo, his first-born son. “That’s what ended my boxing career.” He was seventeen when he found out he would be a father. Listo’s mother was fifteen. “I was happy because my life was a little different,” the father remembers, “You know, growing up in trouble and in the streets, it actually motivated me to become a man faster.” Still, coming from a boxing family, back in Durango, Mexico, and being around the sport his entire life, Knuckles hung a heavy bag in his garage that, on certain days, he would go out there and punch.

Listo, at five years old, saw that bag and emulated his father. “I remember seeing that heavy bag in the garage, hanging up,” says Listo. “I’d see my dad hit it and I was like, ‘I’m gonna hit it too.’  That’s what I saw, and I decided to go for it.”

Too young to train in a gym, Knuckles converted the family garage into a boxing gym. Out of that garage Knuckles trained Listo and other family members. Brothers and cousins—male and female—learned to fight there. And with the eldest son, the father noticed that everything he taught his namesake quickly learned. “Este cabrón es listo,” Knuckles thought. “This fucker is smart.” He called him Listo. The name stuck.

As an amateur, Listo won a gold medal in the 2015 national championships. A few years later, he won Texas’s Golden Gloves tournament. Each of these victories, along with the many others, gave the Gaitans a sense of validation. “It’s like, man, we actually did something,” Knuckles remembers feeling. And now, as a twenty-year-old at the start of his professional boxing career, Listo continues fighting with goals of accomplishing something great.

Boxing is a poor man’s sport. But that phrase also applies to what these boxers earn. At this level—the untelevised club shows—none of these boxers are making money. They get paid, but once you were to calculate the months of training and the costs associated with it, there’s no money. For every Spence and Garcia who eventually fight their way to earn millions, there are thousands of boxers who get paid as little as a few hundred dollars—perhaps less.

Listo, like most boxers, works full-time. Each morning, before his job at a car dealership’s parts department, he wakes up hours before the sun rises. He runs. He finishes with enough time to shower and get ready for work, which starts at seven in the morning. He returns home around 5:20 p.m., rests for about thirty minutes before he and his father—also after a long day’s work as a diesel mechanic—drive from their North Texas home in Grand Prairie to a gym in Irving.

They get there at around 6:20 p.m., sometimes later, depending on traffic. They train for a couple of hours, usually finishing by 8:30 p.m. They return home, shower, go to bed, and wake up to do the same the next day. So long as they are chasing their dream, they’ll do the same every day after that. And potentially, fighting on this card—promoted by Garcia Promotions—can help them and everyone here reach that goal.

“My first fight was at a small ballroom show,” says Mikey Garcia who, along with others, helps run his family’s promotional company. Somewhere, someone must have at least a snippet of Garcia’s first fight in front of a few hundred people. It’s those type of fights that Garcia Promotions, along with the help of others—Dallas’s Montoya Boxing Gym, in this case—organize.

“Some of these kids didn’t have a stellar amateur career to be able to sign to a big promoter, to sign to a big manager where the networks are behind them,” Garcia explains of the boxers on the card. “They just don’t have that. But that doesn’t mean they can’t fight. That doesn’t mean that they don’t have what it takes to make it.”

The road to making it in boxing, however one defines that, is full of potholes. Even those who don’t follow boxing know the potential problems. They’re such a part of boxing they’ve become cliché.

“You hear a lot of stories when you in this business,” Knuckles explains. Stories of managers and promoters putting their boxers in fights with little notice, acting as late-replacement opponents. Others take their young boxers, fifteen- and sixteen-year-olds, to Mexico for short money—even shorter once the promoters and manager’s cut comes—where they fight against grown men with much more experience. When that young boxer realizes his team doesn’t have his best interest in mind, he tries to fight under someone else, only to find out he has a contractual obligation.

“They [can’t] fight with no one else,” Knuckles says of these boxers. “So they’re just like, ‘Fuck boxing.’ Now they’re fathers, they got a regular job. You think about it and you’re like, ‘Damn. This dude, if he wouldn’t have gotten screwed by that person he could have been . . . a champion.’”

The Gaitans almost found themselves in that situation before Listo’s pro debut. Ready to fight for a local promoter, they even considered signing a multi-year contract with him. “I got a message from an unknown fighter.” Knuckles remembers. “He said, ‘Watch out for this dude, he’s a fucking snake. He don’t pay.’ Thank God that we didn’t [sign a contract].’”

Listo’s and his father’s goals remain grand. Like many young boxers before him, Listo aims for greatness that’ll be remembered long past the days he’s done fighting. “That [is] my long-term goal,” says Listo. “To be able to leave my mark on the sport. To be able to be in the history books with the greats.”

***

Back in the locker room, at 7:56 p.m., the first boxer who left returns. He and everyone around him are smiling. Unless you pull back the trash bags and dark linen covering the room’s doors and windows, you can’t see the ring from the room. But you assume he won. “Next,” a person on his team says, with a tone mimicking a butcher looking for the next person to serve. The boxer talks and, as he does, it becomes clear that he won. It’s always easier to critique your deficiencies after a win. Everyone around him looks happy.

With his hands wrapped completely, Listo stands and moves around. Everyone in the room gets a little closer to each other. They give him space to break a sweat; it’s the courtesy every boxer gets. All stay out of his way as he punches through the air, imagining an opponent not yet there.

A few minutes later, the door suddenly opens. Mikey Garcia walks in clapping, followed by about a dozen people. Many more would have entered the room if not for the door being forcibly closed to keep them out. Garcia talks with the boxers, takes pictures, and gives words of encouragement. Before Garcia exits, Listo and his team pose for a photo.

Soon after Garcia leaves, Listo puts on his Mexican-flag-colored ten-ounce gloves. He hits the mitts with his co-trainer Hector Vazquez, called “El Diamante” during his fighting days.  A rumor going around the boxing gym says that, as an amateur, Vazquez fought Errol Spence Jr. five times; it says the man now holding the mitts for Listo won each of those fights. After every flurry of punches, Vazquez gives soft-spoken, almost whispered advice. Listo nods.

“How you feel?” Knuckles asks. “I feel good,” Listo responds. There’s a tension in that area of the room that wasn’t there before. There are no more jokes among themselves, saying the color of their shirts makes them looks like a landscaping crew. They now wait.

And it’s that wait that feels especially taxing. They know they’re ready. Listo has sparred against David Benavidez and learned from it. They’ve made their 175-pound weight limit. They’ve sold their t-shirts and their allotment of tickets. They’ve made arrangements with the teenage mariachi singer who will lead them singing into the ring. Listo has shaken hands, smiled for pictures and even held babies. And now, he’s ready to fight.

“Listo!” a man wearing a suit and a lanyard, finally opens the door and yells into the room. Wearing a mariachi hat, Listo and his team walk the back halls of the club. One last quiet moment before they enter the room, and then ring, to a loud ovation and people chanting his name.

“Lis-to! Lis-to! Lis-to!”

He has lots of friends and family that buy tickets to his fights. “Nuestra gente”—our people—the Gaitans call them, feeling it disrespectful to call them fans.

Inside the ring, in the corner, his father says a few words that only they know. The bell rings and less than six minutes of fight time later, the father walks behind the son with a proud smile on his face.

They walk back to that temporary locker room where—for the first time all night—they feel a sense of relief. They go back to joking and smiling. It feels natural.

There are more handshakes among the team and Listo gives interviews to local boxing media. He wipes the sweat from his face while answering questions. He gets dressed then goes out to take more pictures and shake more hands. “Thanks for your support,” he says while smiling. “Thanks for coming out.”

You Can Never Leave the Border Behind

Published in Texas Monthly


When I think of la frontera—the El Paso–Juárez borderlands—the first thing that comes to mind is the oppressive heat and dust, and our attempts to defy them. When I was growing up, those suffocating summers during which months pass without a single raindrop made me fantasize about winter and fall and even worry that they’d never arrive again. I feared we’d live the rest of our days waiting for the faint smell of wet dirt.

Since few things grow without water, the default landscape on this stretch of the border is patches of dirt separating islands of weeds or poured slabs of concrete bounded by small fields of river rock with the occasional outcropping of yucca. Where one might expect idyllic white picket fences, there are only rough rock walls. A lush, green yard is a privilege in the blow-dryer weather. To grow and maintain one requires a sizable investment in a monthly water bill—and if there are water restrictions, a willingness to break the law as well.

Even more extravagant than the occasional lush lawn are the fountains. On many blocks you can spot a few houses displaying them as the front yard’s centerpiece. When new, the fountains are run by their proud owners as they were meant to be run. The sound of water pouring into basins is almost loud enough to drown out the hum of the motorized pump, working hard in the desert to make it seem as if the water will never stop flowing.

Making something appear natural where it’s not meant to be requires discipline. Faking it, month in and month out, must be exhausting for a fountain’s owner. And so, eventually, the water does stop flowing. When it does, the sun and the dust storms start eating away at the fountain’s paint—and then, in time, the material beneath the paint too. The once beautiful fountain, a testament to a homeowner’s moderate affluence, turns into a crumbling monument to the abiding harshness of desert life.

My parents were born in this place, on the south side of the El Paso–Juárez borderland. My mother, Norma, finished the Mexican equivalent of high school, and my father, Roberto, ended his formal education in fifth grade. For a while, he sold lemons on street corners. My mother was seventeen when she married him. He was four years older, lived a block away from her, and, because my maternal grandparents disapproved of him—with his long hair and penchant for getting into street fights—she essentially had to run away to live with him, his mother, and his six siblings.

In 1980 my father’s search for employment eventually took him to Chicago. He found a job working for the census and a place to live, with a cousin who had also moved there from Juárez. A month after he arrived, he sent for my mother. Undocumented and three months pregnant, she crossed at the international bridge without incident. “Things were different back then,” she tells me in Spanish. “All I did was say ‘American,’ and I crossed.” She boarded an airplane to Chicago.

My parents quickly learned that it’s difficult to live far from family. You miss the holidays, birthdays, and even simple visits to homes filled with cousins, aunts, and uncles. That distance is magnified when you live in a place with different customs, a different culture, and a different language, doubly so when there’s a baby in the house. And so, a little more than a year after my mother crossed over the border, the three of us returned to Juárez. We lived in a small apartment atop a tortillería and carnicería. My father worked as a mechanic in El Paso’s Segundo Barrio; every day he’d cross the border to get to his job, and every evening he’d cross back. I could always tell when he arrived home by the loud, screeching sound of our wrought-iron gate sliding open and the roar of his motorcycle growing louder as it crept closer and then shut down.

We had great times during those years. Both sides of the family lived within a couple blocks of each other in a neighborhood where seemingly everyone knew each other, and because Juárez had yet to become dangerous, we lived a comfortable life. It was home. But as my immediate family grew, that apartment didn’t get any bigger. When it became clear that our situation wasn’t going to improve, my father did what so many working-class men before him have done: he enlisted in the U.S. Army.

For the next eight years we lived in places like Colorado and Germany, places vastly different from la frontera. Arriving at Fort Carson, near Colorado Springs, our first stop, we first noticed how green and cool it was. We felt like outsiders in just about every way. But those feelings were alleviated when we heard others speaking Spanish. Even if it was spoken in a different accent than our Spanish—many of our fellow military families were from Puerto Rico or other parts of Mexico—it reminded us of home. Those were people we missed when it was time to say goodbye.

In the mid-nineties, with the military downsizing, my father got out of the Army just in time for me to enter high school. We returned to the desert, but this time to El Paso. Our first few years back on the border, my father worked as a janitor at an indoor swap meet. My mother worked at a Tonka toy factory; the company had moved its facilities from Minnesota years earlier in part to save money on labor costs.

Both of them constantly stressed the importance of getting an education. One evening when my mother and I were driving from Juárez back to El Paso, the mood turned serious when I asked her what she would think of me dropping out of high school. “You’d be ruining your life,” she sternly answered. I never mentioned it again.

Most Mexican working-class families speak of education with reverence, as if it’s a magical force that will enable its possessor to break free from the physical and emotional toll of low-paid manual labor. The work my parents did was honest work and important work; civilization couldn’t keep going without people with the strength and skills to lift and hammer and fit things together. But it’s hard work that can break your body and offers little in the way of financial reward. Most people who do that sort of work hope that their children will do something less punishing, something that will secure other opportunities for future generations. To my parents, getting an education meant that their sacrifices would count for something. And I, one of the first of my family born on the northern side of the Rio Grande, was expected to turn education from a dream into something real.

Perhaps the most difficult conversation I’ve ever had took place after I graduated from high school, when I told my family that I was leaving town—not to attend college but to work construction. Though my mother held strong long enough to not do so in front of me, that night, through the thin wall that separated our bedrooms, I heard her crying. When I told my grandmother of my plan, she seemed confused and gave me $60. I took that money, a basketball, two pairs of dress pants my father gave me—“for when you go to interviews”—and left la frontera.

I’ve often thought about that decision. Why did I, seventeen at the time, do something so self-destructive? Though I certainly didn’t think of it in those terms then, I do remember feeling afraid that I’d get to college and—unlike my high school classmates, who seemingly had it all figured out—fail miserably. I figured that, like most of the men in my family, I’d eventually end up in construction anyway, so why not cut out the few years of academic floundering and get to work instead?

Before I walked out the door, my mother, with her right hand, made a cross over my forehead and repeated a phrase she must have told me thousands of times each morning before I left for school: “Abusadillo desde chiquillo” (“Stay vigilant despite being young”), advice rooted in the belief that street smarts were as valuable, and at times more valuable, than the knowledge gained from books. It was an odd sentiment to express to someone who had just let his family down by forsaking college. But perhaps it was such ambiguities—the belief that education is important but machismo may be even more valuable—that had ultimately undermined my confidence.

Searching for work, I spent the next three years in various parts of Arizona—Phoenix, Tucson, little towns named Thatcher and Camp Verde—before returning to El Paso, where I kept doing the same sort of labor. I worked at almost everything construction-related—electrical installation, highway guardrail repair, laying pavers. In between my steady gigs, I worked as a day laborer, which meant that I had to sign up for work so early that the traffic lights were still blinking red. That time of the morning, when nothing but infomercials played on the television in the labor office’s waiting room, I’d sit there, in clothes that were stained no matter how many times I cleaned them, hearing once again about a magical knife that cut cans, leather, and tomatoes, and I’d wonder about the choices I had made.

And all the time, I read. Books offered me a retreat from the work’s physical demands—a few moments when I could slow down, give my body a rest, and enter another world. Because my grandparents would often tell me stories about Pancho Villa and the Mexican Revolution, I read Frank McLynn’s Villa and Zapata. I read The Autobiography of Malcolm X and learned that mistakes can often be fixed, a lesson I needed all too desperately to learn. Victor Villaseñor’s memoir Burro Genius was especially revelatory. He came from a family not that different from mine, and yet he became a writer. I realized that if Villaseñor could do it, then it was possible that I—an ESL kid who once struggled to enunciate the differences between “three” and “tree” or, even more embarrassingly, “booger” and “burger”—could be something other than a construction worker. These daydreams were particularly vivid during the hottest parts of the summer, days so hot that I envied the people who worked for minimum wage at Walmart. “At least they have air-conditioning,” I’d think.

That was my life. It wasn’t a life I particularly liked, and I struggled to ignore the voice in my head telling me that I’d wasted all the advantages that my parents had worked so hard to give me.

Then, one day, while I was laying a concrete slab with fellow workers, my mother drove past. I only knew about it because later that day, in front of my siblings, she told me she’d seen me and felt lástima—pity—that I’d squandered opportunities that few in my family had been offered. She noted that I spoke English and was a high school graduate—both rarities in my family then—and yet I worked construction, which required neither. Then, in a measured tone that made hearing the words much more painful, she told my younger brother and sister to use me as an example of what not to be.

Realizing you’ve broken your mother’s heart isn’t an easy thing to experience, especially when she says so in front of two people who should look up to you. It was all I could do to breathe, swallow, blink, and stop myself from crying. Even today, when I think of that conversation, I have to take a moment, catch my breath, and steady myself.

Still, change doesn’t come easily. A routine, even one you dislike, feels safer than the unknown. It was years before I finally summoned the courage to make a change.

On my first day of class at El Paso Community College, I arrived early so I could sit close to the door—in case I wanted to flee. I was 28, and I worried that I was too old, that it had been too long since I’d last sat in a classroom, that I no longer knew how to be a student.

But I fought those urges and stayed. And with the help of a few professors, I thrived. Years of working outdoors had given me a perspective that others lacked. Compared to laboring under the brutal southwestern sun, reading a book and writing about it felt easy. It didn’t hurt that a woman I’d recently met, who a few years later became my wife, was a high school teacher and encouraged my enthusiasm.

After a year, I transferred to the University of Texas at El Paso. It was there that a professor suggested that I apply to a PhD program. I’d never considered such a thing. Frankly, I didn’t even know what a PhD program was. Still, with his encouragement, after graduation I applied for and received a fellowship to Southern Methodist University’s doctoral history program. It was time to leave la frontera once more.

My first month at SMU, I once again had to fight the urge to run away. “I shouldn’t be here,” I thought, as I looked at the Mercedes and Maseratis in the student parking lot in this upscale Dallas neighborhood. I often walked past the university’s service workers and felt I had more in common with them than with my fellow students. When I heard them speak Spanish, I thought of home and was tempted to say something—something more than “¿Qué onda?”—to let them, or myself, know I was one of them. But I worried they’d see me as no different than the students I felt so alienated from. So I said nothing.

But I knew that that sort of self-pity was pointless. I couldn’t help but hear my father’s voice: “Ponte a trabajar, cabrón.” (Loose translation: “Get to work, dumbass.”)

During those first few weeks at SMU, I struggled. I imagined the absurdity of returning home a failure and facing loved ones who not even a month before, during a going-away party, had told me how proud they were of what I’d accomplished. I came to understand the loneliness my parents must have felt when they first settled in the U.S., a country where they didn’t speak the language, didn’t understand the ways of the people who sat above them on the social ladder, and had only the faintest idea of how to help their children climb that ladder.

In October of my first year at SMU, my parents came to visit me. They were struck by how green everything was, but what caught their eye—and mine, when I first arrived—were the fountains. SMU has four large fountains that are grand with water that gushes so loudly that if you close your eyes, you can imagine yourself beside a raging river.

My parents stood and stared at one of the fountains, seemingly entranced by the spectacle of this aquatic wonder. But, perhaps because I had spent so much of my life building things and fixing things, I couldn’t help but wonder how many thousands of dollars and man-hours are expended every year on the fountains’ upkeep. Contemplating those gorgeous cascades, I saw something else too: the distance between the aridity of the desert and the excesses of a lush university campus, the gap between where I came from and where I am now and the uneasiness that comes with the transition from one to the other.

As much as they pushed me to create a life for myself that was different than the one they lived, my parents don’t really understand what I do at SMU. “I read, and I write about what I read,” I explain in Spanish, with a sense of embarrassment and even guilt. “I’m trying to be a doctor but not a real one.” This seems to satisfy them.

Looking at that water soar up into the air and cascade to the ground, they surely understood that their son had found his way to a place very different from our desert home. A home I miss and still fight the urge to run back to.