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.