Back in middle school, a few days before the Thanksgiving holiday, word got around that there was to be a fight between the Mexicans and the Black boys. No one said why they were fighting to begin with, but it seemed perfectly natural to everyone, including me. The northwest suburb of Chicago I lived in was shockingly diverse. The “Mexicans” — a category which included all Latinos — mostly lived in two parts of town, one a bit more dangerous and less hopeless than the other. There they lived near where the Black people lived in an apartment complex absurdly named Willow Heights. The whites lived everywhere, of course, but the more well-to-do areas were whiter than the TV shows we watched. For the most part, the at-risk students (of what, we did not yet know) were either Black or Latino (or both). Any troubled white kid was either from the trailer park or Eastern Europe.
Being poor isn’t so bad if everyone around you is struggling just the same. But when you’re forced to live with daily reminders of your lack — the kids whose parents dropped them off in brand new Benzes, whose clothes came from expensive stores and never wore the same item twice in one week, who never had to ask for a pencil or piece of paper — it tends to fuel resentment. That resentment soon flashes into anger, which leads to violent outbursts. Poor Black and Latino kids have few ways of distinguishing themselves among their peers outside of violence. They don’t have fancy clothes, they don’t live in nice houses, and their families don’t go somewhere cool every summer and winter. So they, the boys and girls alike, look to outdo each other physically, either in sports, in the hallways, or under the bleachers.
The day of the fight, I was approached during passing period by a group of Mexicans I had known since Mom moved us to the suburbs in third grade. They asked me if I’d heard of the fight and wanted to know which side I’d be fighting on. I had always been comfortable floating between the Black and Latino circles (though, at the time, I didn’t know I was something called Afro-Latino). Some days I hung out with the Black kids after school, other times I ran around in the equally poor Mexican neighborhood, never feeling fully accepted in either group. Still, when the Mexican boys asked me which side I was on, I told them I was on their side, since it seemed unfathomable to me that I would root for Black people in a fight against Mexicans, with whom I identified much more as a Honduran-Puerto Rican.
I’ve heard it said that people don’t really change much from when they were kids; layers simply get added to their personalities. No wonder then that I felt that old tribalism bubble up inside of me when I heard Mexico’s Saúl “Canelo” Álvarez would face off against Puerto Rico’s Miguel Cotto for the lineal, The Ring, and WBC middleweight titles. By now the world knows what happened in Las Vegas this past Saturday — at least the Spanish-speaking world — so a spoiler alert need not be given before saying that Canelo won by unanimous decision. I didn’t watch the fight, but I found I had some vested interest its result. As the son of a Puerto Rican father, I wanted Cotto to deface Canelo, just as my wife, born in Ciudad Juárez, wanted Canelo to do the same to Cotto.
Canelo Alvarez defeats Miguel Cotto by unanimous decision. He is now the WBC and Lineal Middleweight Champion. pic.twitter.com/x0NUBezWCB
— Bleacher Report (@BleacherReport) November 22, 2015
When the news came over Twitter that Canelo had won, I was sad, despite myself. Admittedly I haven’t followed Cotto’s career, only knowing him to be arguably the best fighter to come out of Puerto Rico this century. And I know as little about Canelo: he’s the Mexican fighter who beat “Sugar” Shane Mosley, before losing to the bigmouthed “Money” Mayweather. (Mayweather also beat Cotto.) However, I wasn’t sad because I thought Cotto was a better fighter than Canelo. I merely thought, given everything Puerto Ricans have been through and are going through, a Cotto victory would be just what the doctor ordered. Puerto Rico has been a colony of either Spanish monarchy or American democracy for the past 500 years, and the island is currently spiraling deeper into debt and economic collapse, with Puerto Ricans fleeing like rats from a sinking ship. Cotto’s win would’ve given them at least one reason to keep their chins up.
Then again, Mexicans needed a Canelo victory just as badly. Drug cartels are painting the town blood red, the powers that be north of the Rio Grande are treating Mexican immigrants as if they were a zombie horde, and the Mexican government is more flea-ridden than one of the country’s ubiquitous street dogs. The North American Free Trade Agreement has intensified Mexico’s neocolonial relationship with the United States: Mexicans provide the estadounidenses with cheap products and cheap labor, plus all the cocaine they can snort up their sculpted little noses, and in exchange, the North Americans promise not to conquer the remaining half of Mexico (not officially, anyway). It’s a great deal for one of the two.
I thought of this when I saw the photos of a triumphant Canelo with his fist aloft and glistening belts draped around him. I thought of the 41 students from Ayotzinapa still missing since September 2014, and the journalists killed for reporting the truth. I thought of the Zapatistas hunkered down somewhere in the chiapaneco highlands, still fighting the long hard fight. I thought of the torrent of desperate mothers who have crossed the desert with their children and will continue to do so, only to be separated from their everythings and manhandled by so-called officers of freedom. I thought of Donald Trump’s stupid mouth and hair. Yes, Mexicans needed this win, too, and so I’m happy for them.
As for the Puerto Ricans, they’ll have to wait a bit longer for something to celebrate.
Hector Luis Alamo is a Chicago-based writer and the deputy editor at Latino Rebels. You can connect with him @HectorLuisAlamo.