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Red, White, and Blue…and Brown

(Originally Published @

Not too long ago, I almost spit out a mouthful of carbonated orange juice (it’s delicious, really) when I read an article referring to Oscar De La Hoya as a “beloved Mexican icon.”

The Golden Boy was anything but beloved by Mexican fight fans and his efforts to ingratiate himself to that all-important boxing fan base with Mariachi ring escorts and re-written “Mexicanized” bio info (His favorite food used to be the McDonald’s Big Mac and, then, at some point, it became “authentic Mexican food”) were met with nothing but disdain.

To Mexican fight fans, Oscar was a draw in the same way Floyd Mayweather was a draw—most were tuning in to watch him get beat up.

Actually, to many Mexicans, De La Hoya wasn’t Mexican at all—he was an American of Mexican descent. And that’s a huge distinction. Despite being draped in the red, white, and green of Mexico, Oscar was as American as apple pie, drunken Spring Break co-eds, and gun-running.

Anyway, that little “Mexican icon” line came to mind when I was reading some of Andy Ruiz’s Instagram posts and the angry trolling contained within.

“Lol are you Mexican or American,” one particularly nasty troll added on a Ruiz ‘Viva Mexico’ post. “Decide already. You’re Mexican when it suits you and then your [sic] turn American when it suits you. I heard you’re born, raised, train, and fight in America, THERE’S NOTHING MEXICAN ABOUT YOU ?? just because your parents are Mexican DOES NOT make you Mexican.”

Well, being born of Mexican parents actually does make you Mexican. The Mexican government recognizes any direct descendant of a Mexican national as a Mexican, regardless of his/her citizenship status anywhere else in the world.

So, yeah, you can be both Mexican and American. And if you view “Mexican” as a racial designation, then there shouldn’t be much confusion about this at all.

But there is confusion…and I know it firsthand.

Growing up half-Mexican in a Latino-heavy barrio in Chicago and being shipped off to “rich kids” private school on an academic scholarship, I lived in the between-world of Mexican and American.

I talked too “white” to be Mexican. I read “libros extraños” (strange books) and listened to “white people” music. In the gym and on the street, I was “El Güero,” even though I was from the neighborhood and more dark-haired and dark-skinned than many. Perceived “whiteness” kept me from feeling “at home” at home.

On the other side of the fence, I was designated the “Mexican kid.” At school and away from my home base, I was the brown outsider—and treated as such. I got pulled over by security, followed around in stores, and dragged into the principal’s office for questioning whenever graffiti was found on campus. Despite being in Advanced Placement classes and on the honor roll, more well-versed in “their” culture than they were, I was the “street kid” to the bleeding heart liberals and the “charity case” to the angry/scared conservatives.

That kind of stuff robs you of your identity and makes you create your own.

In a worst case scenario, there’s gang or “cholo” culture that helps define who you are when you don’t seem to really know who you are. Those who don’t fall to that self-destructive nonsense, move towards dogged individualism—of both, of neither, grabbing bits and pieces of what makes sense to who you want to be.

Boxing holds the last vestiges of race vs. race warfare in polite society and, in the fight-important Latino community, one’s level of Latino “authenticity” is exceedingly important. Brandon Rios could never be Israel Vazquez because he was only Mexican by parentage. Canelo Alvarez is not “Mexican enough,” despite being born and bred in Mexico, because he looks like an Irishman and fights like a gabacho [foreigner].

“Mexicanism” has been weaponized in boxing, just as it has been in actual Mexican culture.

A conquered people taught to idealize their conquerors and diminish their own worth, Mexico is just now crawling out from underneath European and American boots and debating internally about who they really are and what being Mexican really means. “Who are you” is not an easy question to answer when “who you are” has been belittled, diminished, or flat-out erased.

Boxing is representative of that inner battle and the nastiness that often comes along with the “Who am I/Who are you” fight for identity.

In the meantime, as the growing pains extend outward, guys like De La Hoya and Ruiz will be “too Mexican” for some, “not Mexican enough” for others. And, like so many more out there in the real world, they’ll just have to keep finding a way to succeed at life, comfortable in their own skin as the debate over who they “really” are rages on around them.

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