Julio César Chávez, God, Satan, and Me

God is MexicanPublished in Rio Grande Review, Spring 2019

“I am going to tell you why I fight as well as I do,” Julio César Chávez once said. “Never before have I spoken of this, because people might say, ‘This man is crazy.’ A few years ago, back in Tijuana, God blessed me; I get goose pimples when I think of it. I saw Christ on the cross.”

Growing up, I often heard stories from people claiming they’d seen God or something holy. When I heard Chávez saw God in Tijuana, I wondered if I heard those stories because of where I was raised. My family is from Juárez, which like Tijuana, is on the border of Mexico and the United States.

Juárez is across from El Paso and for longer than they’ve been separate—the result of the U.S-Mexico war in the mid-1800s—the two cites were one. El Paso del Norte it was called, until the river that ran though it became what separated the United States from Mexico, Texas from Chihuahua, and what became El Paso from Juárez. As with most borderlands, there is a history of violence there. Countries don’t lose or gain territory without bloodshed. And yet, it’s exactly in these types of places where the belief in God flourishes, even if only to counter the perceived omnipresence of evil.

When my immediate family moved to the north side of that border, as far as Colorado—part of which also once belonged to Mexico—my mother and father would send me back to Juárez during the summers. As a family, we’d also return whenever we had a chance, sometimes a couple of times a month. But during summer, when I wasn’t in school and had no one to watch me, I returned to the south side of the border.

Back in Juárez, I’d split my days between both of my grandmother’s houses. They lived in the same neighborhood, a block away from each other. My paternal grandmother’s neighbor had a son, El Richie. He was one of the people who claimed to have witnessed a holy apparition.

El Richie’s real name was Ricardo. But his name became one of those things that get altered when living between two countries that were, in many ways, two worlds.

“Did you hear?” the talk around the neighborhood asked, in Spanish, of course. “El Richie saw La Virgen De Guadalupe.”

El Richie was about 10 years older than me. He hung out with my older cousins and after he spoke of what he saw, people began coming around his house. The first few days after El Richie said La Virgen appeared in front of him, the line coming out his front door was 30 deep, mostly grandmothers—abuelas—wearing their rebozos and clutching their rosaries.

I don’t remember if my grandmother was among these women though I suspect she was. She was devotedly Catholic. It was that Mexican brand of Catholicism that mixed indigenous beliefs. The type to think that, under certain circumstances, when prayers needed reinforcement, seeing a curandera—something like a witch doctor—wasn’t a bad idea.

Besides the heat that caused you to sleep almost naked on the tile floor, just so you could cool down, the worse parts of spending my summers in Juárez was looking for excuses that got me out of going to church, which my grandmother attended a few days each week. I’d pretend to be asleep. I’d pretend to fall asleep. I’d pretend my stomach hurt. I’d delay taking a shower and then, as the time came when we had to leave, I—still not dressed—would humbly suggest they go on without me. It never worked.

One Sunday, when one of my aunts flatly refused to go to church, my grandmother snapped. She yelled. She reached for a bottle of holy water she kept in the cabinets. She splashed it on her because, according to my grandmother, my aunt was possessed. After that day I never tried as hard to come up with excuses to stay home. I went to church, albeit begrudgingly. I didn’t want my grandmother to think El Diablo lived in my soul.

The fervor over El Richie having seen La Virgen de Guadalupe lasted about a week. Day after day, the crowds became shorter. Increasingly, El Richie could walk around the neighborhood without being asked, again, to explain what he saw. After a couple of weeks things returned to normal. Most people eventually forgot about what El Richie saw. We’d only remember when El Richie reminded us. “Oh shit, that’s right,” we’d respond on those day, “I forgot you once saw La Virgen de Guadalupe.”

Like many people there, I believed El Richie. And because I did, when I heard Julio César Chávez saw God, I believed him too. Growing up, you were almost conditioned to say “gracias a Dios”—thanks to God—or some variant of that phrase, after experiencing any good fortune.

Similarly, whenever you saw or lived through something that couldn’t be explained, like the time I flung a wet stuffed animal so high in the sky it never came down, you just assumed it was part of God’s mysteries.

When each summer ended, my mother and father would drive back to Juárez to pick me up. When my father was in town, his old neighborhood friends came around. They drank and reminisced. They listening to music blaring out of someone’s car trunk.

If you listen to Mexican men from the barrio talk long enough while they drink, you’ll eventually hear stories of street fights. This is how I learned my father and my uncle—my father’s youngest brother—were known around the neighborhoods for fighting.

I heard these stories retold through laughter. Tales of how people, from a few neighborhoods over, sought out my father to fight. Stories of how Los Sapos—a gang my uncle started—were feared across Juárez. I heard that my father fought with the ferocity of Julio César Chávez. Had those stories been about someone else, I wouldn’t have believed them.

Usually, on these nights, there’d come a point where my father would talk to me. “Look at all these people,” he’d say with his bloodshot eyes, his breath smelling of Carta Blanca beer. “You can walk up and down these streets and everyone will respect you because of me.” I’d nod, pridefully. I felt fortunate that I was my father’s son.

“But always be careful,” he continued. “Be careful when you’re away from these familiar streets.”

I’d nod again. “Gracias a Dios,” I’d think.

My grandmother walked everywhere. And because she walked so much, I did too. During my summers in Juárez, it felt like I walked for miles each day. To the grocery store, to pay bills, everywhere we needed to be, we walked. We’d even walk under the desert sun just to be able to go walk inside department stores whose air conditioning was so cold that you could feel it blasting 10 feet before you walked inside their open doors.

A few times during the summers we’d walk across the international bridge to El Paso. We’d cross, and not too far from the downtown bridge, there was a mural. “God is Mexican,” it read.

Abuela,” I once asked, “is God Mexican?”

“You know Porfirio Diaz?” she asked.

“The street?” I responded.

“No, the person that the street is named after.”

“Is he a luchador?”

“No, mijo,” she said while looking at me like I was dumb. “Porfirio Diaz was the president of Mexico. He used to powder his skin to try to look white. He was convinced Mexicans suffered being so close to the United States and so far from God. But Diaz was wrong. He always was.”

Abuela must have seen the confusion in my eyes. She was always smarter than everyone else. She stopped walking. And when I took a few extra steps to catch up, she softly grabbed me by the shoulders. “Hijo mio,” she said, “We may be close to the United States but that doesn’t mean we’re far from God. Because…,because…,” She paused as if contemplating whether to divulge a secret she’d sworn to keep.

“God is Mexican,” she finally said, “just like that mural says.”

“God is Mexican,” she continued, “but you know who else is Mexican?”

“Julio César Chávez,” I wanted to say. He was the first person who came to my mind. But I didn’t answer. I was smart enough to know I had stupid thoughts.

“No,” I said, “who else is Mexican?” I expected to hear more great news.

El Diablo,” she said.

“Fuck.” I thought, careful not to say it out loud. “Not him again.”

For as many stories as I heard about the divine, I also heard a lot of stories of Satan—called El Diablo or Satanas. The latter always sounded so formal. Like it was the name of some local businessman—Satanas Villalobos—who lived in those big houses we often walked by.

El Diablo once appeared to your grandfather,” my grandmother once told me. “Your grandfather thought it was a regular man so he spoke to him. It wasn’t until that mysterious man left that your abuelo, smelling the Sulphur, knew he’d just talked to El Diablo. That night, your abuelo came home drunk and crying. He apologized for everything he’d done and vowed to change his life.”

I never met my grandfather. He died months before I was born. He died of a broken liver. I once heard that during his final few hours, laying on his death bed, he again asked for forgiveness. “Perdoname Maria,” I imagine him saying between tears. “Si José,” I imagined her stoically responding.

“You see that bar there?” my grandmother would ask during one of our other walks. She pointed at one of those bars that look abandoned in the sunlight. One of those bars that under the moonlight, look alive and filled with lust.

“Yes,” I’d answer.

“One night, inside that bar, Satanas danced all night. When the lights turned on and someone finally saw that the handsome, dancing man had the legs of a chicken, someone screamed. Satanas suddenly disappeared.”

“Fuck,” I’d think, not daring to say it out loud because if I did, I’d get slapped.

Sometimes I heard these stories and it felt like some invisible hand dumped ice water down my spine. When other people heard these stories, I’d see them trace a cross with their hands, over their heads and down, across their chest. I did the same figuring I had nothing to lose and potentially, everything to gain.

I’d see people wearing amulets and sometimes I did too, just in case evil—in spirit or in any other form—lurked.

I was 7-years-old when Julio César Chávez fought Edwin Rosario. I was too young to remember for certain but I’m assuming we watched if for no other reason than we, as a family and neighborhood, always watched him fight. We’d crowd around a small television that some neighbor would put out of their porch.

Chingatelo Chávez!” someone would always yell, telling him to fuck up whoever he was fighting.

I’m almost certain we watched. There’s no way we would have missed the fight between Chávez, a Mexican national hero, and Rosario, the defending world champion from Puerto Rico.

Mexico vs. Puerto Rico is one of boxing fiercest rivalries. Being so young, that rivalry—to me— extended into everything. When we lived in Chicago and our neighbors told us not to cross a certain street because that was the Puerto Rican barrio and us Mexicans didn’t belong there, I didn’t even have to ask why.

Before their fight, Chávez heard a rumor, one of the many you hear when you hang around boxing gyms. But this one was different. This one said Rosario’s mother had put a spell on Chávez. It said that somewhere—in some corner of a grimy boxing gym, you imagined—there was a picture of Chávez inside a bucket of ice. Presumably, Rosario’s mother or her witch doctor, put that picture there. And because it was there, Chávez, before the fight, would be stricken by a cold. Weak and unable to fully breath, Chávez would then struggle in that fight.

Upon hearing of the spell, Chávez’s trainer suggested they visit a brujo of their own. They did. And that brujo told them that to counteract the spell, Chávez and everyone in his corner had to wear a red headband. And so, from that fight on, Chávez wore a red headband. And because he did—after I heard that story—whenever he fought, I wore one as well.

When I was young, stories like these scared the shit out of me. It wasn’t until I got older that I realized Mexicans, or at least the ones I grew up with, liked to tell these stories. It wasn’t until I got older that I realized they only half thought they were fake. That’s why Chávez wore that red headband. It’s why, years later, when Chávez said he saw El Diablo, there was a part of me that believed him.

I believed him because in the Juárez neighborhood where I spent many of my summers, on certain nights you’d hear someone—usually the old man who sat outside and when strangers came around, he’d arm himself with the small knife attached to nail clippers—say “El Diablo anda suelto”—the devil is on the loose. When you heard those words, even if you were in the middle of playing, it was time to go inside.

On those nights when El Diablo ran you off, I’d sit especially close to my abuela as she prayed her daily rosary. I couldn’t help but stare at her. I notice that because she closed her eyes tightly, she looked more wrinkled than usual. Her mouth moved rapidly as she mumbled her repetitive prayers. It sounded like she was whispering to God and La Virgen de Guadalupe.

She’d finish but not before asking them both to watch over her children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren. “Keep them from El Diablo’s reach and temptation,” she’d beg. She’d also apologize to them both, for that day when she visited my grandfather’s grave and left a bottle of liquor and a single rose.

“It was the 2 loves of his life,” she once told me. I knew what the bottle was all about but the rose didn’t make sense, so I asked. “Rosa was a neighborhood puta,” she answered. She was certain my grandfather loved her.

“I shouldn’t have done that, but I did. That’s why I left that goddamned rose.” Not knowing what to say, I sat there in silence. She didn’t save me from it. After what felt like an hour, she just stood up and not wanting to be alone, I followed.

“Who do you want to pray for?” she once asked me. “For Julio César Chávez,” I once bravely said, thinking that if God is Mexican, then there was no harm in asking that Chávez never lose. But as soon as I said it, abuela looked at me with eyes that made me feel like an invisible hand had dumped ice-water down my spine.

I quickly changed my prayers. “For my family and orphans, I mean.” After that, I never said it out-loud, but I always prayed for Chávez to win. Sometimes I prayed during each minute of his fights.

On the night Chávez beat Meldrick Taylor, it sounded like the entire neighborhood screamed. I heard many people call it a miracle. And that night, as the referee waved off the fight, my father hugged me so close that my red headband almost slid off my head.

Gracias a dios,” I thought.

Back then I still believed. Back then I still hadn’t decided that the wet stuffed animal I threw high into the sky, must have gotten stuck in the trees.

El Richie, who years later told me he was high as shit when he saw La Virgen de Guadalupe, ran out his house when Chávez won. He was in his underwear. For years I thought that on that night, he had glassy eyes because Chávez’s win had also made him cry.



El Paso team travels to shooter’s backyard for a game that brings unity, if not a Hollywood ending

Published in Los Angeles Times

PLANO, Texas —

After everyone has broken a sweat, that familiar locker room smell emerges. Dressed in their dark blue pants and white jerseys with blue and gold accents, some players from El Paso’s Eastwood High School walk around as if possessed.

Sweat rolls down their faces. With their shoulder pads on, wearing their cleats, they look much bigger. They scream and yell, often at no one in particular. “Let’s go!” someone screams. “Vamonos!” someone yells.

Others, while they wait to play Plano Senior High School, rap along with the thumping music that will fill the room until head coach Julio Lopez tells them to shut it off. Some players just sit there, on the floor with their backs against a wall, in silence.

Perhaps, as one coach demanded earlier, they’re visualizing everything that they will do. Or maybe, as they nibble on their mouthpieces, they’re thinking back on everything that’s happened in El Paso during the last month and everything that’s happened to the Eastwood community during the last week.

It’s impossible not to think about what this game symbolizes. For days before Thursday’s game, cameras have followed the team’s every move. From their arrival in Plano, after an 11-hour bus ride from El Paso, to their pregame meal. Nor could they miss the cameramen riding on their police-escorted team bus after that meal.

When they arrived at the Star in Frisco, Texas, Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones welcomed them to the team’s headquarters. Cameras were there as Jones talked to coach Lopez and shook every player’s hand.

“This is a different game.” Josh Bell, Eastwood’s defensive backs coach, said what everyone knew.

Because a month and a few days ago, a man drove from this part of the state to El Paso, a city so distant from other large Texas cities that it’s in a different time zone.

On a Saturday morning, he opened fire in a Walmart that’s only a few miles from Eastwood High School. Twenty-two people — with names like Garcia, Hernandez, Flores, Rodriguez — died because, according to the shooter’s presumed manifesto, he feared a “Hispanic invasion” of Texas.

That killer, who confessed to targeting Mexicans, graduated from Plano Senior High School.

A different game.

Because a few days ago, at around 3 in the afternoon on Labor Day, New Mexico police responded to the report of a drowning at a lake. Four hours later, they recovered the body of a former Eastwood High School player who had earned a scholarship to play football at Western New Mexico University.

That was Eddie Cruz. Before every game, Lil Wayne’s music would blast from his headphones. He was the favorite player of coach Lopez’s 5-year-old son. The same son who during the El Paso massacre was playing T-ball a few miles from the Cielo Vista area where it all occurred.

“We saw the helicopters flying over us,” coach Lopez remembers. “We didn’t know, at the time, how far out it had spread.” In the immediate panic, rumors said there was more than one killer. In the hours that followed, that horrifying question lingered: “What if they come back?”

A different game.

Because of that shooting, this almost didn’t happen. Three weeks ago, Plano Independent School District administrators canceled the game, citing “safety concerns for the participants and fans of both teams.” Both the El Paso and Plano communities loudly voiced their displeasure.

“If anybody’s going to cancel a game because they’re scared or worried about more bloodshed, it would be El Paso, certainly not us,” Jennifer Davis said.

Her son plays for Plano Senior. On her own, she began a fundraiser for the victims of the El Paso massacre. She planned to drive to El Paso and deliver the money on the day of the canceled game.

With pressure from both communities, including elected El Paso representatives and Plano Senior players who started an online petition, administrators reversed their decision.

The day after canceling the game, they put it back on the schedule and move it to an indoor stadium with increased security. The game became a symbol of more than what Texas high school football already is, those mythical Friday night lights that unite communities across the state. Those games that shouldn’t be so crucial, yet they are.

These games mean something.

And because this specific game matters more now than it did a month ago and even more than it did a few days ago, each Eastwood player has a decal on the front of his helmet, a few inches above the face mask. Quarter-sized with a blue background and in white letters, it reads, “EC 3.” It’s Eddie Cruz’s initials and the number he wore at Eastwood. Two other decals are on the back of their helmets, each a different logo of the city’s motto after the massacre: El Paso Strong.

Throughout the crowd, there are El Paso Strong T-shirts. There’s a bus full of Eastwood parents and newfound fans from El Paso who rode 11 hours to support the team. Groups of other El Pasoans, those who now live in north Texas and came here for better opportunities, also cheer for Eastwood.

“It’s our city,” Arissa Gaytan says of El Paso. She’s lived in north Texas since 2012. “Even though we left and are no longer living there, it’s still what I consider home. I’ll always consider it home.” Gaytan is attending the game with about 10 friends from El Paso who all live in north Texas. Some wear their black El Paso Strong T-shirts. Others wear T-shirts touting Chico’s Tacos, the iconic El Paso restaurant that’s one of the many things missed from back home.

Irasema Ramirez is also from El Paso. She moved to north Texas a year and a half ago. Her daughter, who remained in El Paso, attends Eastwood. On the day of the shooting, she watched as her hometown became worldwide news.

When the local evening news began, she watched as helicopters’ cameras showed a home where the killer had lived, near where Ramirez shops.

“It just didn’t sit well with me,” Ramirez says, recalling her emotions upon discovering the killer responsible for destroying part of her home came from here. “I don’t even know how to explain it.” Her voice cracks.

“I got this anger. Like an immediate anger. And I don’t want to say hate because hate is such a big word, but it made me feel uncomfortable and unsafe.”

This was a different game.

And because of all this match-up symbolizes, coach Lopez enters the room at about a quarter to 7 p.m. and, after the music is shut off, after the doors close, muffling the sounds of high school bands, and after everyone quiets, he admits his pregame speech is also different.

He talks about Eddie Cruz, often just calling him “3.” All watch as coach Lopez explains how the hardest part of dealing with this is knowing they’ll never see him again or his smile. Coach Lopez’s voice, full of the grief already apparent in his eyes, grows louder and more passionate as he walks back and forth, retreading the same 20 feet at the center of the room.

“You have an opportunity tonight,” coach Lopez says. “An opportunity not just to play for 3, not just to play for our town, and our city, and the victims, and all the people, and all the bad that’s happened in the last month, but you have an opportunity to live your life tonight.”

Coach Lopez, a young man in his late 20s with a young family, talks. And there are moments when it sounds as if he’s realized this is too much to handle without letting a few tears flow.

Parts of his speech apply to both this game and life. Because if nothing else, that’s ultimately the goal or, at least, the hope. The hope that at this level, this brutal and violent game gives more — something immeasurable — than what it takes from those who play.

“You’re gonna go through adversity at some point.” Lopez’s voice echoes throughout the cramped room. “We might be down, we might have a turnover. We might have something that we have to come back from. But we’ve been dealing with that for a month. We’ve been dealing with that at a larger scale for a month.” By the time he ends his four-minute speech, several of his players have bloodshot eyes. A few cry.

Sometimes after a tragedy, just when you feel as if you’ve moved on, you stumble on a small moment reminding you of what’s lost.

A song, a picture, a smell, a piece of clothing, something mundane reminding you that things will never be the same.

Sometimes, a moment like this, inside this locker room, inside this stadium, a half-day’s drive away from home, makes you realize that this game, despite what we want it to mean, may be little more than a cruel coincidence.

You realize that people must cheer, in part, to overcome pain here in this place that birthed the killer who changed everything for El Paso and Latinos in this country. As coincidences go, it’s one of the cruelest, turning what should have just been a game into another site to mourn for those we’ll never see again.

After the speech, some players dry their tears and return to their screams and yells. They exit the locker room and with coach Lopez and his 5-year-old son leading the way, they — with names like Garcia, Hernandez, Flores, Rodriguez — run out of a dark blue inflatable tunnel with Eastwood’s Trooper mascot on the front.

As the band plays and smoke fills that corner of the stadium, a player runs out holding an El Paso Strong flag. Another player hangs a jersey — No. 3 — on the back of the bench.

If this were a movie — playing against players noticeably bigger, from a school that’s won seven Texas state titles, with an enrollment more than twice their size, in a city wealthier than theirs by every metric — Eastwood would have defeated Plano Senior. The game would have accounted for more than a tough-fought loss. Perhaps it did.

On this night, Eastwood loses to Plano Senior, 43-28. They have an 11-hour drive back home. On Monday morning, the team will watch as their 18-year-old brother is laid to rest in El Paso.


As The Border Bled, Juárez Watched The Game It Waited Nine Years For

Published on Deadspin.com

JUAREZ, MEXICO — On a scorching hot Sunday afternoon, as you walk through the parking lot of Estadio Olimpico Benito Juárez, you can feel the excitement. Nine long years have passed since the last time Juárez had a team in Mexico’s top soccer league. And now, Los Bravos of FC Juárez, are about to play their first home game.

People dance and smile, drink and eat. Kids and adults kick soccer balls between them. A banda norteño plays a cover of Fuerza Regida’s “Sigo Chambeando”—a song in which the protagonist, after the tragic death of his daughter, begins moving drugs instead of working construction.

Walk among all of this, and it doesn’t seem to matter that Los Bravos have yet to win a game. Or that in their last match, Santos Laguna outplayed them so thoroughly that the 3-0 scoreline didn’t accurately capture the vast distance between the two teams. Coming into this first home game, Juárez had yet to score a goal, and sat dead last in Liga MX’s standings.

As game time approaches, the thumping music moves inside the stadium, where the concrete seats are so hot their touch bursts the novelty balloons that were handed out to fans. Some of those fans come from El Paso. You can see a steady stream of Bravo jerseys walking to the stadium over one of the international bridges that connect Juárez to El Paso. And despite what’s happened here over the past nine years, despite what happened here the day before, there’s hope and excitement in the air.

Juárez hasn’t felt this festive since February 2016, when Pope Francis visited a city rushing to transform itself. Workers scrambled to paint and clean the streets. The city government halted the sale of alcohol. Hardened prisoners rehearsed songs they’d sing for the Pope. In an open field next to the stadium, the Pope held mass. In front of hundreds of thousands, he called forced migration a “human tragedy.”

Walk around Juárez and you can still see signs commemorating that day. They’ve been there for years; on ruteras—city buses—on cars as bumper stickers, or posters on a storefront. They’re reminders of the day when people sang, prayed, cheered, and cried. A few carried crosses with the names of those lost to the violence.

“I think all people feel it is a blessing,” one person said of the Pope’s visit. “All of us think that the city is getting a new start because of his visit. Our family was affected by the violence. They killed four members of our family.”

That open field where the Pope spoke and people carried signs is now a parking lot for the soccer stadium. It’s the same place where, the night before Los Bravos’ first home game, Juárenses gathered to hold a candlelight vigil and mourn the 22 people who had just been murdered in their sister city, El Paso, Texas.

Tension has always defined the United States–Mexico border. The most apt description of that tension comes from Chicana author, poet, and activist Gloria Anzaldúa. An herida abierta, she called it. An open wound where the two countries rub against each other. They irritate one another, and that grating brings blood. “And before a scab forms,” Anzaldúa explains, “It hemorrhages again.”

There’s always something to make sure the grating never ceases: The proposal of a wall to further divide this place that shares a culture; a sudden shift in policy that demonizes a legal act and adds chaos to a place teetering on a delicate balance; a racist coming to power who legitimizes those with the same racist thoughts. Sometimes, and increasingly, those thoughts turn into violent acts.

El Paso is one of the safest large cities in the United States. Not coincidentally, you can see every branch of law enforcement here. There’s an Army base, first established as a way of controlling the border, and now you can’t drive out of the city without passing through a Border Patrol checkpoint. Across the border is Juárez, which is, as most know, one of the world’s most dangerous cities. But not long ago, things felt different here.

At its most violent, Juárez averaged about eight murders per day. A few years after reaching that peak of bloodshed, though, it started to feel like things were changing. In 2015, city officials even started pitching Juárez as a tourist destination. “Juárez is Waiting for You,” the slogan said.

“The purpose of this campaign is to vindicate the city’s image abroad and demonstrate the levels of security and peace that we have reached,” then-mayor Enrique Serrano said. At the core of this campaign was rebranding the city. Part of the plan was bringing tourists back.

During the darkest years of the violence Avenida Benito Juárez—or La Juárez as we call it—became a ghost town. That avenue is the artery connecting downtown Juárez to downtown El Paso; the two cities that were once one, and the place where I’m from.

On the south side of the divide, on La Juárez, bars, cabarets, casinos, and other types of tourist attractions once lined the street. In the 1930s, while the United States had a thirst for liquor, Juárez was the place to get a drink. The city became a Las Vegas deep in the Chihuahuan Desert, attracting the famous and infamous.

Jack Johnson fought here once as an old man. It was here that he took a punch to the gut and quit. Al Capone also came to Juárez once. He wore a silk, pinstriped suit and left a $50 tip back when cars cost $900. Frank Sinatra sang in one of the old downtown buildings. He divorced here, too, as did Elizabeth Taylor and Marilyn Monroe. Conversely, John Coltrane came here to marry. Jim Morrison and John Wayne drank in Club Kentucky, a bar that’s almost a century old. And Steve McQueen, dying of cancer, came here to find life. He died during a three-hour operation. Some say the once-strapping leading man had withered away to less than 100 pounds when his search for life ended.

At the height of the violence, La Juárez became a place you avoided once the sun set. A place where even during the day, you walked with your eyes straight ahead and stayed aware of everything around you. In that respect, it wasn’t much different from the rest of Juárez. Once darkness came, in a city where well over a million people lived, the streets felt empty.

During the most violent of years, you’d hear rumors of El Chapo arriving at restaurants. His guards would take everyone’s phones as he’d tell diners not to worry about their tabs. He’d tell them to eat and drink whatever they wanted. Relax, he’d suggest, because no one was leaving before him. These rumors persisted even when El Chapo awaited extradition to the United States while inside a Juárez prison.

But things got better. And as they did, so too did La Juárez. The city improved its infrastructure. It upgraded the street lights, widened sidewalks and roads. It covered the outsides of once mismatched, multi-colored buildings with a shared façade. Museums opened. Colorful murals brought a tinge of life to the drab desert landscape. Violence seemed to have passed.

One theory said the violence slowed because one cartel had established its hold on the city and with that came, if not peace, stability. A common joke said there was no one left to kill. By 2015, there were only 311 murders in the city. Several cities in the United States had more than that. Things felt different, like this wasn’t the same place where 10,000 people had once been murdered over the course of four years. And those were just the confirmed dead. Many others disappeared. Gone, like so many things the desert swallows.

Saturday morning, there was a massacre in El Paso. A white nationalist terrorist entered a store and killed 22 people for no reason other than they existed. One woman, Jordan Anchondo, died protecting her child. Another woman, Elsa Mendoza Márquez, a teacher from Juárez, went into the store while her husband and son waited in the car. The victims were shopping. For back-to-school clothes and supplies, for milk, bread, eggs, and whatever other mundane necessities they needed. None of it mattered to their killer, who was threatened by their mere existence.

Four minutes before noon, a text warned of danger. “Active shooter in Cielo Vista area,” it read. “All El Paso City/County residents are asked to shelter.” Everyone from here knows that place. Most have shopped there. They’ve fought for parking during hot summer days when it feels like you won’t make it across the asphalt lot without roasting alive.

Within a few hours, the highways were empty, as were restaurants and stores. Parking lots usually filled with life looked desolate. Like a ghost town. The absence of life made me dread the list of names that would eventually get released. I worried that I’d recognize at least one.

They say the killer drove upwards of 10 hours to reach his victims, and I assume he took the same path I’ve taken many times—from Dallas to Fort Worth to Abilene to Odessa and then on to El Paso. From I-20 to I-10, from water, grass, and trees into the desert. I know this route because north Texas, where the killer came from, is my other home.

I’ve made that drive so many times I’ve lost count. I know where to stop for gas and which bathrooms are clean. As you drive into that open west Texas land, hours pass between glimpses of even moderate sized cities. During that long, lonely drive it’s impossible not to contemplate your own life, your beliefs, your future. Ten hours alone, and that still wasn’t enough time for him to reconsider killing us.

The first time I took that drive back home, I returned a different person. After almost getting lost along the way, I figured out a few things with the help of some people. And every time I came home after that—taking that same drive—a little part of me had changed for the better. I eventually came back a father to a little girl who has my eyes.

On the day she was born, I began talking to her in Spanish. I told her things no one else knows. My deepest regrets. I told her I felt like a coward for saying these things to someone who can’t understand. I told her I loved her and that I would always protect her. I said all of it in Spanish.

She’s two years old now. She talks mostly in English, but I keep talking to her in Spanish. I sing to her in Spanish. I feel a sense of accomplishment when she sings along. I worry that without that language, she’ll lose something more than the ability to communicate with the side of the family that lives a long drive away from home. Recipes handed down, the stories that get told, the phrases with double meanings, the song lyrics so beautiful they make me glassy eyed—she’ll lose that.

Those are the things that make me who I am, a person from two places, with two cultures living inside him. They are what make me exactly like the people who were targeted in El Paso, those who fled and fell to gunfire because of who they are.

In Juárez, professional fútbol in Mexico’s highest league has only survived for a few years at a time. In the late 1980s and into the early ‘90s, there was Las Cobras. Towards the end, the team was so awful Juárenses called them Las Sobras—The Leftovers.

More recently, Los Indios rose to Mexico’s top division. They reached the playoffs when violence was at its worst. The owner, with some merit, said the team provided a social good. They were a “civic vitamin, the one thing that works in Juárez,” as Robert Andrew Powell wrote in his book about the city and team, This Love is not For Cowards.

The team’s improbable run breathed life into a city that was dying, but the city’s violence was eventually too much for Los Indios to overcome. Players refused to play here, and at one point the team went 29 games without a win. They became the worst team to play in Mexico’s top league. Eventually relegated, they played in an empty stadium where only the most loyal fans watched.

Among those who kept attending were members of the team’s barra—a word that doesn’t have an English equivalent capturing all that it means, but “fan group” comes the closest. Because of Juárez’s geographic isolation, that barranot only watched the team play at home, but routinely traveled no less than 10 hours to see their Indios play away games. At these games, they carried signs. Among them, a large one reading, “Juárez Nunca Juega Solo.” Juárez never plays alone.

Noting their image among the rest of Mexico and the world, they called themselves El Kartel. “It was kind of a reference to crime and cartels, but with a “K”—something different,” Angel Juarez explains. “Making fun of the name itself… making fun of the situation… we’re not the bad guys. We’re not those people killing.”

Angel was one of El Kartel’s early members. He took those long rides on rented buses that often sputtered early into a trip. He was among a group of friends that grew up together. They turned the various fan groups across Juárez and El Paso into something more. Angel was there when they first took up a collection so the group could buy their first bass drum to play at games. He remains one of three or four people who know the precise recipe for smoke bombs. The same recipe that, he thinks, a university professor gave them. Angel’s always been there, and after traveling throughout the country with El Kartel, he can tell you how the rest of Mexico perceives Juárez.

“They only see when you get to a stadium,” Angel says of the opposing fans. “But they don’t see that you’re a doctor. They don’t see that you’re a dentist. They don’t see that this guy works in el otro lado.” Here, el otro lado means El Paso, the other side of the border. Every day, people cross it to work or go to school.

“They see rapists,” Angel continues. “They see drug dealers.”

At some road games, the police stopped El Kartel’s bus. They barred them from staying within city limits. They told them to stay out until it was time for the game. El Kartel was only there a few hours, but long enough to know they were unwelcome.

People see you differently when you’re from Juárez. It wasn’t always that way, but it is now. And if you’re a member of El Kartel, you feel it as soon as you enter an opposing team’s stadium. Police in riot gear escort them as they tell you to stand close to each other. Don’t yell or incite the opposing team’s fans, they say. Wearing their colors, members of El Kartel stand out. Tens of thousands outnumber the few dozen that travel. And as police use their shields and nightsticks to push others out of the way, the hostility only increases. They feel nervous. Beer splashes on their heads and glass bottles break close to where they stand. Men and women of various ages, all members of El Kartel, begin talking. They sometimes yell because it’s the only way others, standing a few feet away, can hear.

“’Ey wey, aqui ya valio verga,’—we’re fucked,’” Angel yells. “Whatever happens, it’s all for one. No mas a defenderse wey.” Just defend yourself. Fighting has always been a part of this. And the illogical passions of sports only make things worse.

And because you are from Juárez, others will call you a rapist, a drug dealer, an addict, and a murderer. They will say you’re an embarrassment to the rest of Mexico. They will yell that you should have stayed in Juárez, in your edge of the world.

The statistics say the murder rate increased, again, soon after Juárez began pitching itself to tourists. The same year they commissioned an artist to paint a mural on a nine-story building on La Juárez to help show how much everything had changed. The mural is of Juan Gabriel, the legendary singer and Juárez’s favorite son. He began his career singing in cantinas along La Juárez. From an orphanage to feeling fame’s bright lights, he traveled far but never forgot his home. “Congratulations to the people who are proud of being who they are,” the mural reads, in Spanish.

2015 was also the year a new soccer team, FC Juárez, formed to replace the Indios, who folded and disappeared. To represent the spirit of the area, the team was named Los Bravos. Their crest includes a wild horse reminiscent of a statue that is one of the first things you see when you enter Juárez from one of the international bridges. It’s of three galloping horses. Monumento a los Indomables—the Monument to the Indomitable—it’s called.

Los Bravos were part of the city’s rebirth. “Juárez is celebrating,” former mayor Enrique Serrano said. “The passion for soccer returns and that revives Juárez.”

But a year after that supposed revival, the murder rate swelled. First, it increased by a couple hundred in one year. The following year, a couple hundred more. Last year, Juárez had around 1,250 murders, enough to get called the 20th most dangerous city in the world. And so, a few years after city officials proudly touted how much had changed, that Juárez no longer ranked among the world’s most dangerous cities, they were right back on that dreaded list.

Unlike years past—back when there was an implication that, outside of deadly bad luck, those who died were part of the problem—this time felt different. The United States Consulate in Juárez warned citizens against traveling downtown, the same place that used to symbolize just how much had changed. Murders were occurring there in broad daylight. The consulate also prohibited United States government employees from visiting downtown without permission. And if that permission came, travel had to include driving in armored vehicles.

Soon, news of murders again filled the front page of El Diario de Juárez, the local newspaper. The only reprieve came from soccer coverage. The day before Mexico defeated Germany in their first match of the 2018 World Cup, there were 14 homicides. On the day after Mexico’s historic victory, their win received more front-page attention than what the newspaper called, “the most violent day of the year.”

Experts say the increased violence in downtown Juárez comes from former cartel allies turning against each other. They want to control the area leading into the United States, whose citizens have an insatiable appetite for Mexico’s drugs. That area includes the bridge connecting Juárez to El Paso, and by extension, Mexico to the United States.

That’s the bridge where, more than a century ago, authorities from the United States deloused Mexicans. They used Zyklon B. In 1938, a scientific journal in Germany praised the United States’ method for dealing with their supposed infestation.

That’s the bridge where, right before you cross north to the United States, you see a large black cross nailed to a pink board. “Ni una mas,” a pink sign says in black letters. Not one more. It’s a reference to the women who have disappeared in Juárez over the past years. A fair number of them worked in maquilas, those foreign-owned industrial plants that rely on cheap labor. The hope was that they’d not only help industrialize northern Mexico but also brings jobs. Maquiladoras were supposed to bring forth progress.

That’s the bridge where, during the late summer of 2016, a hearse carried Juan Gabriel’s lifeless body back home. He passed on the day he was to perform in El Paso. Tens of thousands gathered to cry, dance, and sing. His song, “Amor Eterno”—eternal love—suddenly felt different. It punched you in the throat. People left flowers at Juan Gabriel’s house. They contributed to a collection so mariachis could serenade Juárez’s most beloved son. “Juan Gabriel promised that he was going to stay in Juárez,” one man said. “And he did, although I never thought in this way.”

That’s the bridge where, a few months ago, Border Patrol held migrant families in what a local professor described as a “human dog pound.”

It’s one of the bridges fans cross to see Los Bravos play at home. It’s the same bridge that, after the El Paso massacre, Juárenses, going to the United States feared crossing.

You can’t understand this place without understanding its past. This is where a man planned to assassinate both presidents of Mexico and the United States when the heads of state met in an attempt to settle a territorial dispute. This is the place that inspired Mariano Azuela to write one of the great novels of the Mexican Revolution, which ousted that same Mexican president, Porfirio Diaz, and became a seismic event in which both El Paso and Juárez played a pivotal role. Los de Abajo, or The Underdogs, tells the story of a revolution—once full of promise—that ultimately failed to resurrect Mexico.

You don’t quite realize what this place is until you have distance between yourself and it. Once gone, you understand that living in the shadow of a border wall isn’t normal. You also see how often this place is misunderstood by people who’ve hardly stepped foot here. Those who don’t understand that “fútbol” and “soccer” can be used within the same conversation on either side of the border. Those who loudly worry over what that means. Those who live in fear of what is on the other side of the wall.

Humanity is the first thing that’s lost. Read the statistics, headlines, and name—Juárez—and you have an immediate reaction. You may think there’s nothing but despair here. And while there’s certainly that, there’s also life. People raise loving families that laugh and love. They cheer here. They have hope for this place that is home.

Juárez often gets used as a symbol, of what Mexico is and what the United States isn’t. But if you’re from here, Juárez is like a family member or friend, the one you love despite their problems. You love them because before those problems—some, but not all self-inflicted—you knew who they were.

Sometimes I feel guilty that I, by fluke occurrence, got out. I feel guilty that I left, and in doing so might have abandoned something existential about who I am. Something I can never recover.

Other times I worry that I’m just a tourist now. I go back to search for and find those with whom I lived. I worry because I’ve seen how it ends for most on that path. It’s almost impossible to live here without an intimate understanding that not every story ends well. And yet, other times I talk to them and hear of their small but meaningful changes. They ask for pictures of my daughter. I watch them eat a full meal while they joke. They don’t ask for money.

This is it, I think. Nothing ever comes easy in the desert. But, finally, this is them getting better.

Estadio Olimpico Benito Juárez—home of Los Bravos and Los Indios before them—is just off the banks of the concrete riverbed that is the Rio Grande. That river betrays the Mexican name, Rio Bravo, implying raging waters that fill the physical border. But with rising temperatures the melting snow from Northern New Mexico and Southern Colorado—a large part of the river’s source—evaporates before it even gets here.

As Juárez plays Toluca in the third game of the season, members of El Kartelcheer and wave their flags like they did for Los Indios and before that, Las Cobras. Sitting in the southern part of the stadium behind the goal, they’re together like they always have been, even when Juárez’s past teams disappeared and left them to create their own events to attend.

The realistic expectations for this season are to maintain. “Next year,” Angel says, “everything is going to start flowing how it’s supposed to.” It’s that same hope that gives birth to talk of a new stadium. Something that will further attract tourism and transform this region.

Mexican culture has always been fatalistic. “Cuando te toca, te toca,” you often hear. It’s a self-affirmation that no matter what you do, whatever’s meant to come awaits. And thus, at this moment and in this place, it’s possible to forget there were 22 murders in Juárez the previous weekend. Or that a few days before that, in El Paso, a rumor on social media caught fire. It said a serial killer was to blame for the recent death and disappearances of several women on the north side of the border. The police department released a statementsaying no such serial killer exists.

Here and now, you can forget, or ignore, that one publication now ranks Juárez, the perpetual underdog who fights mightily to live, as the world’s fifth most dangerous city. But here and now I also realize some wounds are too fresh to even attempt to forget, let alone ignore. It’s why today, on a hot Sunday afternoon, the food tastes a bit bland and the beer feels a few degrees warmer. It’s why the sun feels that much hotter.

Death surrounds, again. But as always, the borderlands’ duality means there’s another side to that senseless death. It means there are long lines around buildings in El Paso, filled with people ready to give their blood. It means there are instances of people risking their lives to protect others. It means people in Juárez are fighting back tears, or letting them flow, alongside El Paso.

As the summer ends and the season remains young, families and friends laugh and dance together while in matching Bravos shirts and hats. On both sides of the border, fathers and mothers hold the hands of their small children. People laugh and smile, even if those expressions aren’t as innocent for some as they once were. Strangers bond over their love for a team representing their city and home. They unite over what it means to be from here, a place where you can have two homes.

With Los Bravos’ team flag resting at half-mast, there’s a moment of silence before the game begins. “Talavera!” one fan screams at Toluca’s goalkeeper, Alfredo Talavera, the second after that moment of silence ends. “Talavera! Chingas a tu madre!” That same fan who told the goalkeeper to go fuck his mother also held up a shirt that said, “Pray for El Paso.”

On a day like this one, it’s easy to imagine things that feel impossible. I imagine that Juárez and El Paso will be at peace soon. That Los Bravos will be champions of Liga MX. I imagine how this place would be different without the long history of racist violence brought on by those who aren’t from here. From delousings to concentration camps, from Operation Wetback to Operation Fast and Furious. Without all of that, maybe I, and thousands upon thousands of others, wouldn’t have left. Maybe the chain of trauma and hate that’s looped its way across the border year after year, the same one that coiled itself around that store in El Paso on Saturday morning, wouldn’t have become so hard to break.

For now, though, all there is to do is go on hoping. I’ll hope for the day I can come back and not have to leave again, of they day when the border will bleed a little less than it always has. That’s always been the way of this place.

Juárez won 2-0. Compared to last week, Los Bravos looked reborn.


Jose Ramirez TKOs Maurice Hooker to unify WBC, WBO super lightweight titles

Published on Yahoo Sports

Jose Ramirez came into Arlington, Texas and ruined Maurice Hooker’s homecoming.

In what will surely be a candidate for fight of the year, after a bout filled with back-and-forth action, Ramirez ended Hooker in the 7th round. He walked away as the unified super lightweight champion of the WBO and WBC titles and with his undefeated record intact.

The entire fight was a contrast of styles. Whoever imposed their style, largely through distance, controlled the fight. When Hooker used his long jab and fought in the middle of the ring, he looked calm while Ramirez bounced on his feet, as if bidding his time to attack. When Ramirez did attack and forced his way into Hooker’s body, he pushed him back into the ropes and negated his opponent’s natural advantages. There, against the ropes and smothered, Hooker looked helpless.

Throughout each round, just as it appeared either Hooker or Ramirez were beginning to gain control of the fight and establish their style, the other would answer. After the second round, Vince Parra, Hooker’s trainer, implored his fighter to remain calm. “Back to the jab,” he told him. At the end of the third round, it was Robert Garcia, Ramirez’s trainer, who told his fighter to not relent. “Don’t respect him!” Garcia screamed.

After several rounds that were difficult to score, the ending came suddenly. In the sixth round, Ramirez—not long after he looked momentarily stunned by one of Hooker’s shots—connected with a left hook that forced Hooker to stumble back into the ropes. Not giving Hooker any time to recover, Ramirez pounced. About nine unanswered punched from Ramirez snapped back Hooker’s head. It was sudden. And Hooker appeared to be only held up by the ropes at his back and Ramirez’s punches not allowing him to fall forward.

When the referee stepped in to hug Hooker against the ropes and wave off the fight, Ramirez celebrated by climbing his red corner. Ramirez’s cornermen hugged at his feet while not even ten feet away, Hooker struggled to keep his.

Ramirez won. At the time of the stoppage, he was leading on two scorecards while the other saw it even. Hooker lost. In front of friends and family, while Ramirez celebrated Hooker was left holding back tears and bleeding from his mouth and nose.

Maurice Hooker Has Traveled a Long Way to Come Back Home

Published on Yahoo Sports

On Saturday night, Maurice Hooker, for the first time as a world champion, returns home to fight. He’ll face the undefeated Jose Ramirez to unify the WBO and WBC super lightweight titles. For the first time as a world champion, he’ll fight in front of friends and family at the University of Texas in Arlington, not far from Dallas’ South Oak Cliff neighborhood where Hooker grew up.

This is, in many ways, his homecoming. But for Hooker, that road back home has been anything but easy.

Even at its best, boxing is a hard and lonely sport. It taxes all who fight for a living. But relatively speaking, some have it easier than others. A few begin their careers fighting for powerful promoters. They earn enough money to focus solely on boxing. Because they’re carefully matched, their development is slow and meticulously crafted. They have seemingly every advantage a boxer could have.

Then there are others.

These are the boxers who are often considered simply opponents. They are sparring partners. They fight in untelevised matches far away from home with only a few weeks’ notice. They risk their lives for short money. Hooker was one of these boxers.

“[Boxing] is a tough, dangerous sport,” Arnie Verbeek explained. “You make a little bit of money. You’re better off selling cars or doing something else.” Verbeek is Hooker’s manager, but talk to him for even a little while and you soon realize their relationship is more than that. “He became like my son,” Verbeek said of Hooker.

And so, when Hooker walked into Verbeek’s Dallas gym — Maple Avenue Boxing Gym — and said he wanted to box professionally, his eventual manager matched him tough.

“I said, we’re going to find it out early and if it doesn’t work, we’re going to do something else,” Verbeek recalled. “And that’s because I love the kid and I don’t want to fool him. So, we went through hell … I didn’t care. We’d take any fight.”

And as Hooker fought in nightclubs and hotel ballrooms, he kept winning. He seemingly always liked to fight. From his days in South Oak Cliff, which remains a tough neighborhood — “a lot of drug dealing, fighting, stealing” is how he describes it — Hooker fought. He did it so often, in fact, that’s how he began boxing.

“I was getting in a lot of trouble in the streets, a lot of fighting,” Hooker remembered. “So, my [step]dad took me to the gym to actually get beat up.”

Perhaps, Hooker’s anger stemmed from the time he and his family got robbed inside their home a couple of years before he went into that boxing gym. He had a gun put to his head. He saw his siblings also get guns put to theirs. His stepfather was made to kneel before getting kicked in the head.

“I had to go to counseling for that stuff,” Hooker says. “Kind of messed me up a little bit as a kid.”

But on the day Hooker went to the gym the first time, with his stepfather hoping he’d get beat, the opposite happened. “I beat a couple of guys up,” Hooker said in a matter-of-fact tone, “and I fell in love with it.”

And so Hooker fought. He fought as an amateur even though his style wasn’t entirely suited for the non-professional ranks. He fought and sparred countless rounds inside Verbeek’s gym against boxers like Errol Spence Jr., Alex Saucedo, and Rob Brant. He fought anywhere and anybody and for each of his first few fights he received $500. A few days after those fights, Verbeek would give Hooker another $500 just to keep him afloat.

“It never was about the money,” Hooker said, “it was about my dream. To believe in myself.”

Watch Hooker fight and one of the first things you notice are his natural attributes. He is 5-foot-11 with a heavyweight’s reach. But during his early years Hooker’s style negated his natural advantages. “He was an inside fighter when I got him,” Hooker’s trainer, Vince Parra explained. “He’s got an 80-inch reach, so I taught him how to fight long. Taught him that he was born with the power.”

Eager to maximize Hooker’s talents and natural advantages, Verbeek sought Parra as a trainer. Parra’s passion and intelligence impressed him. The three of them began working together in 2013 — they’ve since added a fourth member to their small group, Eddie Loco. They all have the same philosophy: The only way one learns how to fight is by fighting. And as Parra attempted to reconfigure Hooker’s style of fighting, he knew the only way to know if he could adapt was to put him in peril.

“I immediately took him to spar with elite fighters,” Parra said. “I took him to the Wild Card Gym [in Los Angeles] and I had him spar Ray Beltran. And then from there, he went with Miguel Cotto. And then from there he went with Ruslan Provodnikov. And he had bad days. … And you put him through deep water. You can see if he can swim and then you know if you have something to work with. … From that, we kept going.”

And as they kept progressing, fighting to make their name known, a few boxers that had hired Hooker as a sparring partner told him they’d rather not train with him anymore.

“I don’t drop names,” Parra said, “we’ve been with a lot of famous guys. But I can tell you at least two of the world champions he’s almost taken out. And we were asked to leave camp. I’ll just leave it at that.”

Hooker has fought his way from boxing obscurity to become a world champion. He’s fought his way from the tough streets of South Oak Cliff to training in idyllic San Diego. When he’s away from home, months at a time, he misses his kids.

“It gets harder,” Hooker, father of eight children, explains, “because my kids are growing up now. Now they know that daddy gone. I’m missing birthdays, graduations, field trips, father-and-daughter dance and all that. … It’s getting harder. But they know I’m doing it for a good reason, to make them have a better life.”

It’s this motivation that makes being away, more bearable. With that distance, he can focus on fighting. And it’s that fighting that’s now brought him back home.

Home. Where nothing has ever been easy for Hooker. Where nothing was ever handed to him. And where today, about halfway between the neighborhood he grew up in and Verbeek’s gym, there is a mural of Hooker. “Maurice Mighty Mo Hooker,” it reads, next to his picture.

“It’s amazing,” Hooker said of the mural. “It means everything.”

Home. Where Dallas is suffering through the highest homicide rates the city has had in decades. Where Hooker speaks to children at elementary schools and community centers. And in between the children asking how much money he makes and them swearing their father can beat him up, Hooker gives them advice.

He tells them jail and prison are real. That money comes and goes. He tells them they don’t have to throw their life away for little or nothing. Hooker tells them about his life, about his home, and where he came from. He tells them that they too can fight — if not literally then figuratively — to make something of themselves.

“I try to explain to all the young kids, just stay focused,” Hooker said. “Believe in yourself no matter what. Whatever you’re going through, believe in yourself.”

Home. Maurice Hooker returns home as a champion.


How Bingo Nearly Ruined My Life

Published on D Magazine

I don’t remember the last time I prayed. but inside this place, surrounded by a thick cloud of smoke that penetrates everything and everybody, I feel a sudden urge to do just that. Not a formal prayer but more of a plea that the bald man—the one who chain-smokes cigarettes and washes down that burn with coffee so dark the liquid shines as black as crows’ eyes—gives me what I need.

His calm, matter-of-fact tone is soothing. He says, “Thank you,” after someone gives him his cut. A tip, for speaking softly into the microphone amplifying his voice across this large room. Speakers beneath once-white ceiling tiles that have turned different shades of beige. The carpet, if it wasn’t already a dark hue, would be equally stained from all the smoke. Everything in here looks ruined.

The first time I saw this bingo hall was on a Saturday morning two years ago, from across the street, while getting my state inspection sticker. My wife and I had just moved from the Village, in Dallas, where we felt too old, to Arlington, which is more like my hometown of Juárez, Mexico. There aren’t as many squirrels here. It feels familiar. That morning, while waiting, I saw the large building on Pioneer Parkway. Despite the sign suggesting “Come Join the Fun,” it looked abandoned, like it was once a large department store that could have been the centerpiece of a proud neighborhood. But decades later, the building looked so decrepit that I couldn’t imagine it had once been new. Buildings aren’t constructed to house bingo halls. They get built for something else. When that something else fails, bingo moves in.

There’s a 99 Cents Only store next to the bingo hall. Next to that is a check cashing place. A bit farther and there’s a Jack in the Box that never closes even though nothing good ever happens there after sundown. This is where bingo halls exist. Anywhere else and they’d be as unseemly as fast food restaurants or military recruitment stations in an affluent part of the city.

My mother used to play bingo. We lived in Colorado, where, during the winter, the sun set at such an early hour that it felt ungodly. The Army stationed my father there, about a nine-hour drive from our home and family. A couple of times each year, the Army would take him on monthlong training exercises. When my father left, it was just my mother, little brother, and me. As a child, I spent many evenings inside bingo halls with Mom. That’s why, as soon as I saw the bingo hall in Arlington—with its large BINGO! sign in faded red and yellow—I thought of her. I thought about how, in the parts of American cities where you hear more Spanish than English, she had confidence. She spoke for herself. Outside of those enclaves, though, she was lost.

Dile, Roberto, dile que”—tell them, Roberto, tell them that—she’d begin each of her frustrated sentences. Because she didn’t speak English and her young son had to translate for her, she felt we were being judged. Or worse. When you don’t know what’s said, every conversation around you sounds conspiratorial. Every half-smile accompanying a dumbed-down explanation of why certain items aren’t eligible for layaway looks like a mixture of pity and disgust. And yet, partly through playing bingo, she learned to pronounce words and letters. I remember the joy in her voice on the few nights we drove home after she’d won. “Gracias a Dios,” she’d say, thanking God for answering her prayers.

Play bingo once for money that offers weeks of financial relief, and you understand why its popularity rose during the Great Depression. And because it doesn’t require skill so much as sheer luck, you also understand why some play with a talisman within arm’s reach.

So, after driving past the bingo hall for two years, I came to play. In here, I can hear the soft mumblings that sound like prayers. The same prayers I, having made peace with my hypocrisy, also silently recite. “Please, God,” I think. I still can’t remember the last time I earnestly said those two words. “Please, God, B9.”

The B9 ball would mean I’d be able to mark the bottom left-hand corner of my bingo card with my blue dauber. With that ball, I’d not only fill the entire B column but also the bottom row. That, along with the N column already filled would mean I’d have a triple bingo and win the highest prize, $750. Theoretically, one can win $10,000 a day here. But to ask for that much feels greedy. Praying to win $750 sounds measured.

The closer one gets to winning, the more one makes plans for spending the money. One feels a hope. I would pay some bills, buy something nice for my wife and daughter, send some money to my mother. Or maybe I won’t tell anyone. I can spend it all on myself.

“I need this money,” I think with each ball sucked out of that low-humming vacuum contraption. The bingo balls make a soft thumping sound when they land at their resting place. The bingo caller then rotates the ball toward the camera so all can see on the television screens hanging in the corners and middle sections of the room. No B9 ball again, but I need it. To lose it—something that was never mine, something that everyone in here also wants—would be a disappointment.

B9. Say it, you son of a bitch. Whisper it softly into the microphone so I can yell out, “Bingo!” and hear others curse me the way I’ve cursed those who’ve won. I want to feel that envy. I want to feel what it’s like to hold back a cackle of greed or a devilish smile as I watch the cash getting paid on the spot. Those $20 and $50 bills rapidly peeled off a stack and placed on the picnic table in front of me. I want to win despite what may come.

I wonder: what if winning does more harm than good? Win once and maybe I’ll spend the rest of my life chasing that high. First, I’ll play a few nights each week. Then every night. When that’s not enough, I’ll play a few days each week at noon. Then every day. I’ll mark my birthday by taking advantage of the opportunity to play for a penny on that special day. I’ll eventually come here for the New Year’s Eve special. Then Valentine’s Day. Then every holiday after that until Christmas. I’ll play so much that no matter how hard I scrub my hands, the blue ink from the dauber will never wash off my fingers. Nor will I be able to rid the smell of cigarette smoke from my hands since, already here and surrounded by it, I’ll also start chain-smoking—the way my mother did when she played and prayed inside a place like this.

I overthink many things. I can feel when it’s happening. Perhaps everyone in here is happy while my dark thoughts force me to smile at the absurdity that I might lose everything I’ve gained because of a game. Bingo, of all things, which doesn’t even require speaking English to play. Bingo, of all things, makes me miss my mother. I think that if I miss her that much, I could just call or even drive those nine hours to visit more often.

But at this point, those thoughts aren’t as important as winning. I can’t remember wanting anything more than this. “God, let B9 be the next bingo ball and I’ll never ask for—”


After you hear that yell, you see a wave of disappointment roll across the entire room. Many look up to find the face that goes with the voice. Sometimes you hear curses from the same mouths that mumbled prayers just a moment before. A few throw their hands up and declare, to no one in particular, which ball they needed. They, too, had hope. They likely made plans for that money.

Hear that yell—“Bingo!”—and you feel betrayed. By your talisman, by those daydreams that happen at night, by the old security guard staring at you after you finally look away from the person counting their cash. Betrayed and forsaken by those unanswered prayers that turn bingo, that simplest of games, into something dark and cruel.


Meet the Singers Who Recorded Corridos After Andy Ruiz Jr.’s Historic Boxing Win

Published on Remezcla.com

Since defeating the presumed next face of boxing Anthony Joshua, Andy Ruiz Jr.’s sudden fame has been startling. It’s since felt like a different era, back when most people knew the name of boxing’s heavyweight champion. One night in June, at Madison Square Garden, Ruiz became the first heavyweight champion of Mexican descent. The win brought with it drastic changes.

Ruiz went from a relative unknown but talented boxer to someone who appeared on late night shows. He met the Mexican president. The most respected news outlets spoke of his win. His hometown of Imperial, Calif., near the United States-Mexico border, planned a downtown parade. Ruiz’s life changed. And with that sudden change of fortune, fans — especially Mexican and Mexican Americans — saw something in Ruiz. They saw someone who had achieved an improbable dream. Someone who, like some of them, started with little. In Ruiz, they saw hope.

Ruiz’s win — among the biggest upsets in sports within the past several decades — became one of those moments that people will remember. They will remember where they were on the night Ruiz stood over Joshua like a conquering hero. They’ll remember that night when, even if they weren’t watching, they heard the news and felt inspired by it all. A few of those inspired wrote corridos for Andy Ruiz Jr.

Corridos are “the product of a subordinate society whose only means of fighting the dominant Anglo powers were symbolic,” explains Guadalupe San Miguel Jr., a University of Houston history professor.

Born from Mexico’s tumultuous times, traditionally, corridos functioned to spread news among the uneducated and, at times, illiterate. It is working class music where the corrido’s protagonist fights against the impossible.

And because of the historic tension between neighboring countries, some corridos depict Mexicans fighting against someone or something that symbolizes the United States. That tension never gets completely resolved. It may lay dormant for years, but almost inevitably, something will irritate that wound. Thus, some corridos are more than a century old. People still sing them because the lyrics feel relevant.

You can’t escape the political context of corridos, just as you can’t get away from those same politics that make certain boxers more important than others. For every great boxer, the kind that even those who don’t follow the sport know of, there is something political magnifying their importance. Those few boxers connect with a certain group of people the way others can’t.

On the night of June 1, Andy Ruiz Jr. became one of those boxers.

Before the fight began, Ángel Eduardo Luna placed his phone on a microphone stand beside him. Though he was born in Veracruz, Mexico, Luna now lives in Phoenix, Ariz. He’s lived on the north side of the United States-Mexico border for the past 13 years, moving there a few years after his father died. Luna is 29 now. Tuesday through Sunday, he works as a cook. On the weekend, Luna chases his dream.

“One day, I’d like to have the opportunity to travel to Mexico,” Luna says in Spanish. “I can’t do that now … but I want to sing in Mexico.”

Luna’s dream is to sing and have his music heard throughout the world. He wants to sing back home in Mexico; where for now, he can’t return. Until that day comes, Luna sings where and when he can: while he showers, while he cooks, while he works and on the weekends at weddings, parties and quinceañeras. Any place he can, Luna sings.

When Ruiz’s fight began, Luna gave passing glances toward his phone as he performed at a quinceañera. “I was practically singing and through side eye, watching Andy fight,” he says. It wasn’t until he and his band took a break after 45 minutes of performing, that Luna paid full attention to the fight.

Luna, surrounded by three or four others, watched as Joshua knocked down Ruiz in the third round. The Mexican stood up, and Joshua soon landed a few more punches that made Ruiz’s head rock back. It felt like Ruiz was a punch away from losing. And then, something remarkable happened. Ruiz knocked down Joshua. He stood back up but when he did, Joshua, all 6’6” and 250 pounds of muscle, had lost that menacing look he once had. Ruiz kept attacking while Joshua, built like a comic book superhero, looked increasingly fragile. “I kept saying, ‘Look! Look! Look! This vato is hitting him with everything,’” Luna remembers saying of Ruiz. “And we started noticing [Joshua’s] legs weren’t stable.”

Everyone who watched the fight saw the same thing. They saw Ruiz get knocked down. They saw him stand back up. They saw Ruiz knock down Joshua. They saw that unlike Ruiz, who fought with a renewed sense of life after being knocked down, Joshua never recovered. The referee finally waved off the fight in the seventh round.

“This fucker never quit even after they knocked him down,” José Jaime García says, also in Spanish, of Ruiz. “He got up and said, ‘You know what? I’m going to fuck him up.’ He gave him a beating because that’s what it was — a beating.”

García is a singer and plays the accordion. Born in Jalisco, Mexico, he’s lived in Sacramento, Calif. since he was a 2-year-old. He is 30 now, and has grand goals and dreams that revolve around music. “I want to have hits,” he explains. “I want to leave a legacy and a musical history.”

García is fortunate and talented enough to make his living solely from music. On the night Ruiz won, García was at a gig. “We went on break,” he remembers, “Don Juan, who plays the electric bass, says, ‘We won! We won!’ All la raza was happy.”

Ruiz’s victory symbolized something more than just boxing’s heavyweight championship. It meant something to people who will likely never even meet Ruiz. It meant something because who Ruiz is and where he comes from is relatable to Mexicans and Mexican Americans of a certain class.

“That kid started from the bottom, no one gave him anything,” García responds when asked why Ruiz has inspired so many. “He said something beautiful after the fight,” García continues. “He told his mom that they were no longer going to struggle. That hit me deep, because we all have those dreams when we come here to this country.”

News of Ruiz’s accomplishment quickly spread through social media, and through word-of-mouth. Even days later, people spoke of Ruiz’s win. A few made songs to immortalize that night.

“Every time I write a corrido I don’t waste a single line,” Tito Escamilla explains, in Spanish, his process when writing. “A lot of others focus on rhyming. But me, in every line, I want to express an emotion.”

Escamilla, like Luna and García, was born in Mexico. He’s from Chihuahua but came to the United States around 2004. The 32-year-old lives in Los Angeles where he too chases his dreams of having a musical career on par with past Mexican greats. Escamilla discovered his talent for writing corridos while still a student in the Mexican equivalent of high school. He’d attend horse races, and minutes after they ended, he’d have one written for the horses’ owners.

“I don’t like writing fantasies,” Escamilla, who also watched Ruiz’s fight while on break from a gig, says. “Whether it’s a corrido for a narco or an athlete, I speak the truth because that’s the news. I don’t like to alter it. Corridos are the news.”

Within days, several corridos written and dedicated to Ruiz appeared across social media. Luna, García, and Escamilla were just three of many who’ve written some. They recorded their songs in a professional studio. Others wrote corridos and then recorded themselves singing their tributes to Ruiz even if they weren’t of the highest quality.

Presumably, especially if he keeps winning, more songwriters will dedicate corridos to Ruiz. Those who write them — mainly Mexicans who come to the United States or Mexican Americans born of parents who came here in search of something greater — can only hope their corridos will outlive them. Decades from now, perhaps people will continue to sing them. They’ll sing and think back to the night Ruiz — the humble Mexican kid who started from nothing — won an unlikely battle.

Remarkably, Ruiz became one of boxing’s heavyweight champions. When he won the coveted title, he made people’s dreams — even the most improbable — feel more realistic. It is why Ángel Eduardo Luna, José Jaime García, Tito Escamilla and others, sing corridos for Andy Ruiz Jr.