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Boxing seen as path to a better life for many Latinos

This is an excerpt from Latinos in U.S Sport by Jorge Iber,Samuel Regalado,Jose Alamillo & Arnoldo De Leon.

Boxing and Community

Boxing hit rough times during the Great Depression when major fights were canceled and boxers were forced to quit or accept smaller prize money. The feature film Cinderella Man dramatizes the life of Jim Braddock, who used boxing to lift his family out of poverty during the era. Latino immigrants struggling to survive in hard times also viewed boxing as a path toward economic advancement. One immigrant told anthropologist Manuel Gamio that he turned to boxing in order to send money to his parents in Michoacán. “I expect to make a small fortune as a boxer and also get my name in the Mexican and American newspapers.”95 Some Mexican American boxers were more interested in helping their community than gaining prize money and media publicity. Bert Colima, for example, assisted the Los Angeles Coordinating Councils to create clubs to reduce juvenile delinquency.96 In St. Paul, Minnesota, George Galvin began boxing at the age of 12 and soon turned professional, becoming a celebrity in Midwestern Mexican communities. At the lowest point of the Depression, he began organizing meat-packing plants and later became a leader in Minnesota's labor movement.97

One boxer, Alberto “Baby” Arizmendi, born in Torreon, Mexico (though he learned to fight in San Antonio and began boxing professionally by the age of 13), was so popular among southern California fans that he was honored with his own corrido (folk song) titled “Corrido Del Famoso Campeon Mexicano Baby Arizmendi” (the Ballad of the Famous Mexican Champion Baby Arizmendi).98 This corrido, written by T.F. Franco, describes the pugilist as Mexico's national hero who embodied important masculine qualities such as bravery and raw aggression:

There's a lion in California

And he wants to be champion.

And he's covering with glory the Mexican flag . . .

He's the famous champion

of my dearly beloved land;

he knows no fear,

he'll fight with anyone . . .

In 1931 Arizmendi won the Mexican bantamweight title and continued his career in the ring until 1942. He ended his time as a professional with an overall record of 70 victories, 26 defeats, and 13 draws.

Boxing (both amateur and professional) also was quite popular among Mexicans in the city of El Paso. Bowie High School offered its students a chance to test their mettle in the ring during the 1930s. In addition, the local YMCA organized a club. Not surprisingly, one of the principal goals of both programs was to provide young men with an outlet to prove their masculinity in a socially approved manner. Within a few years, the area became a hotbed for boxing, and some locals even achieved recognition among fighters in Mexico. A highlight is native El Pasoan Chato Laredo claiming the Mexican flyweight title in 1933. As noted with other sports in this chapter, pugilism also helped mold and strengthen ethnic identity, and that sometimes led to an exaggeration of ethnic differences, thus reinforcing deep-seated stereotypes. Local sports reporter Jim Brann noted in 1922 that success in the ring by a fighter of Mexican background would substantially bolster the confidence of his fellow south-siders, particularly if that victory came against an Anglo.99

Puerto Rico also produced top professional boxers in the 1930s, including Pedro Montañez, Johnny Cabello, Primo Flores, and Sixto Escobar.100 Known as “El Gallito,” Escobar became the first Puerto Rican world champion in 1934, winning the world bantamweight belt against Mexico's Rodolfo “Baby” Casanova by knockout in the ninth round. The Escobar-Casanova match was the first of many classic brawls between Puerto Ricans and Mexicans. Born in 1913 in Barceloneta, Puerto Rico, at a time when boxing was banned on the island, Escobar trained in clandestine gyms until boxing was legalized in 1927. After several years, Escobar moved to New York City's Spanish Harlem to train for the championship fight against Casanova. Spanish Harlem honored Escobar for his achievements and display of “patriotism and enduring love for Puerto Rico.”101 Upon returning to San Juan, he received a hero's welcome with a parade and festivities and adoring fans calling him the “pride of Puerto Rico.” His boxing career was interrupted by World War II when he was drafted by the U.S. Army. After military service, Escobar retired from boxing and became a liquor salesperson in New York City. Two decades after his death, he was inducted in the International Boxing Hall of Fame.102

In the cigar industry town of Ybor City, near Tampa, Florida, Italian and Cuban émigrés created a vibrant social scene that included social clubs, music groups, and sport clubs.103 In 1924 the Cuban Club opened its first boxing gym featuring weekly matches and attracting wide-eyed Cuban American youngsters to catch a glimpse of their favorite fighter. A boxer turned trainer recalled how Monday night bouts attracted a sold-out crowd especially if it was “a Latin against a Cracker.”104 Latino-white matches produced insults from both sides but generated substantial profits.

One of the most popular Latino boxers, who drew huge crowds during this era, was “Kid Chocolate,” a pugilist with scintillating speed, flair, and rhythm. Born in Cuba as Eligio Sardinias and named Kid Chocolate for his Afro-Cuban roots, he learned to fight as a newspaper boy in Havana's streets and quickly moved up the rankings with knockouts in all of his first 21 bouts. By the time he arrived in New York, he was ranked the top featherweight contender plying his trade at Madison Square Garden. Kid Chocolate won the junior lightweight title in 1931 and a year later won the featherweight title, beating Lew Feldman in a 12th-round knockout. A former Cuban journalist claimed that “no other man, no other Cuban, did in the ring what Chocolate did. For style, he was the best. Fancy, fancy, fancy!”105 Similarly, the New York Times touted the “flashy Cuban boxer” as a talented fighter with “wizard-like boxing ability.”106 After Kid Chocolate retired in 1938 with an impressive record of 136 wins and 10 losses, he returned to Havana where he opened a gym and remained in his homeland after the 1959 Revolution. In 1991 he was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame.107

Before Muhammad Ali there was a Cuban boxer who was also a superior showman in the ring, entertaining audiences with his flashy boxing style. Kid Gavilán was the name that Gerardo González adopted in recognition of a grocery store named El Gavilán (Spanish for sparrow hawk) from his home town of Camaguey.108 Gavilán began boxing at the age of 10 when he was not working in the sugar cane fields. From cutting sugar cane with a machete, he developed a unique windup uppercut punch called the “bolo punch,” which was quite lethal and made his rabid fans cheer for more.109 After making his professional debut in Havana in 1943, he traveled to New York City where he fought in 46 nationally televised bouts. With the rise of televised boxing in the mid-1940s, Kid Gavilán captivated audiences with his showmanship as he “moved with the grace and speed of the hawk, relentless in pursuit of his prey, sudden and deadly on the attack.”110 Not since Kid Chocolate had so many hundreds of fans turned out at the Havana airport to welcome a national hero. They cheered and shouted, “Viva Gavilán,” as he drove through the capital city.111

In 1951 Gavilán become only the second Cuban to win a world title when he beat Johnny Bratton in Madison Square Garden, claiming the welterweight crown. A year later, he made history in Miami when he fought in the state's first racially integrated fight, in which he demanded equal seating for blacks. Gavilán defended his title six times and finally retired in 1958. When he returned to Cuba, the revolutionary government confiscated his belongings and he was arrested and sentenced for preaching in the streets as a Jehovah's Witness.112 Gavilán returned to the United States on a 1968 Freedom Flight but struggled with poor health and low-paying jobs for many years. He was destitute when he died in 2003 and was buried in an unmarked grave. After learning of this travesty, a group of veteran boxers came together to pay for a proper burial and a headstone because “he deserves to be remembered for the great, great champion he was.”113

More Excerpts From Latinos in U.S Sport