November 12, 1999

Boxing and the Formation of Ethnic Mexican Identities in 20th-Century Southern California

by Gregory S. Rodriguez

(Editor's Note: Gregory S. Rodríguez, received his Ph.D in United States History from the University of California, San Diego, earlier this year, and was a University of California Presidents dissertation Fellow in 1998 and 1999. He has joined the faculty at the Mexican American Studies and Research Center, The University of Arizona.

The following is an introduction and synposis of his dissertation, " `Palaces of Pain' - Arenas of Mexican American Dreams: Boxing and the Formation of Ethnic Mexican Identities in 20th-Century Southern California" by Rodríguez.)

During the twentieth century, professional boxing in southern California provided people of Mexican descent with a means of negotiating grievances within and beyond their own group boundaries. The sport has served as a mechanism of solidarity, promoting a sense of identity, unity, status, and esteem; as an instrument of confrontation between national and ethnic groups, stimulating aggression, stereotyping, and images of inferiority and superiority; and as a cultural bond linking ethnic and national groups across boundaries, providing common enthusiasm, opportunities for association, and goodwill.

This study made use of the techniques and insights garnered from recent advances in sports history and Chicano studies to analyze the history of Mexican American boxing in southern California.

Sources for this study include original material from boxing clubs and organizations, newspapers, census records, government documents, court records, interviews, personal papers, academic investigations, filmic representations, and boxing ephemera. I seek to explain how a complex conjuncture of structural forces sparked ethnic Mexican boxing, and how boxing contributed to the restructuring or reproduction of ethnic, gender, and national identities over the course of the twentieth century. Boxing arenas became metaphors for the struggles over the meaning of race, gender, and citizenship that has preoccupied United States society in the twentieth century.

Oscar De La Hoya is a modern day example of a Mexican American boxer creating an ethnic identity.

An examination of Mexican American participation in boxing illustrates another way in which ethnicity emerges as a means of building a network of mutual reciprocity and obligation to mobilize political and material resources. Like scholarly explanations of Mexican American contributions in fashion, music, film, and dance, an examination of Mexican American boxing industries highlights the ways ethnic, familial, linguistic, and class dynamics influenced Mexican Americans and Mexican immigrants in negotiating new urban identities through popular culture.

This study offers a glimpse of the tensions evident in boxing rivalries between social homogeneity and heterogeneity, ethnic unity and diversity, and national integration and fragmentation. From the perspective of boxing history, Mexican American identity formation in the evolution of United States culture is less recognizable in terms of a single causal explanation —such as capitalism, racism, or Americanization— but emerges as a multi-causal, interconnected set of processes.


Aurelio Herrera, Southern California's First "Mexican" Boxing Legend

by Gregory S. Rodriguez

In March of 1927, 51-year-old Aurelio Herrera was arrested for vagrancy and sentenced to three months in the San Francisco County Jail. As Herrera stood before the judge, a sports writer rose in the courtroom and asked to be heard. "This man is the amazing Mexican pugilist, Aurelio Herrera, whose name is inscribed in the annals of boxing history," he exclaimed. After a closer inspection the judge also recognized Herrera and decided to reverse his sentence. "An individual such as you," the judge admonished, "who reached the maximum heights of your career, is punished enough just living with the knowledge that you alone are to blame for your destitute condition. Go with God and reform yourself, for you have already created your own prison." Less than three weeks after his release from jail, Herrera died with sports reporters by his side but "neither family nor friend."

"His end was very sad," noted a correspondent for La Opinión on the scene. Herrera, who had "thousands of friends and admirers who once sang his praises," the newspaper reported, "today died alone". His obituary commemorated him as a "famous Mexican boxer and premier lightweight who inflicted true terror in the boxers of his division." A United States citizen by nationality, Herrera was nevertheless deemed "Mexican" by the English- and Spanish-languages press. As the San Francisco Chronicle pointed out, "Herrera, a Mexican, was born in San Jose, CA, June 17, 1876."

Herrera's boxing career, from 1898 to 1909, coincided with both the rise of modern prizefighting in southern California and the rise of the "Mexican" hero in the sport. His career marked the first of a long list of Mexican-descent prizefighters, who gained fame in southern California in the twentieth century and whose careers are explored in this study. Herrera, and the succession of raza fighters who followed him, were turned into commodities that often marked the conditions of their own production...

As the first great "Mexican" boxer in California history, Aurelio Herrera provides the point of departure for an exploration of the evolution of the key relationships that have made ethnic Mexican boxing history meaningful. By "key relationships," I mean the relationships of individual boxers to their community audiences, of business interests to individual boxers, and of culturally and linguistically distinct communities to each other. I argue that encounters in boxing history offer us a window into the memory and historical consciousness of ethnic Mexicans. Boxing was much more than merely a form of "sport"— it was a complex set of relationships that were themselves part of a larger process of social self-definition for individuals and communities.

As with many of the boxers I examine in this work, Aurelio Herrera was a transitional figure in Mexican history. Herrera lives at a time when changes in the regional and local economy, political institutions, and the social matrix of southern California were transforming MexicanAmerican life. As tens of thousands of white migrants fueled the growth of metropolitan southern California between 1900 and 1920, they brought with them a wide variety of leisure activities and sporting traditions—including amateur and professional boxing— that soon became attractive to Mexican American youth. MexicanAmeri-cans, whose own leisure and sporting practice were being displaced as part of the larger processes of social dislocation caused by massive white American immigration, tried to preserve many of their former practices, but over time they began to adopt many of the habits imported by their Anglo neighbors. Thus, although prizefighting as a spectator sport in California was dominated by working-class whites from the 1870s until 1914, after that time the sport gradually drew more interest in the ethnic Mexican and Filipino communities. By the early 1920s, prizefighting had been transformed to the extent that the majority of participants and fans came from these ethnic communities.

Beginning with Herrera we can also read boxing as a sport that promoted a strong class identification. Herrera countered much of the racist labeling prominent in his boxing world by spreading a legend that his boxing success was due to a lifetime of shearing sheep. Indeed, as his career progressed, he would announce that he had sheared sheep for several days in preparation for a fight. Prominent boxers in the future—like 1930s champion Caferino Garcia, who developed his bolo punch by cutting sugar cane, or 1950s champ Art Aragon, who attributed his left hook to chopping wood—pursued a "worker" image similar to Herrera's that more contemporary fighters, like Sugar Ray Leonard (ca. 1970s-1980) and Oscar De La Hoya (ca. 1990s) would not.

Following Herrera, every ethnic Mexican boxer that achieved fame in Los Angeles did so in a complex racial order that proscribed or prescribed modes of ethnic Mexican social integration. In Herrera's case, the racial order was registered in the changing attitudes of his fans, who were primarily white ethnics. Every one of Her-rera's fights generated stories myths, and stereotypes that focused on his racial identity, ranging in description from "Iberian" to "Indian." Journalists and promoters built up and reacted to his fights with stories that bespoke their own sense of white racial superiority. As in most of his fights, in his bout with Kid Herman in February of 1906, the Los Angeles Times represented Herrera as the "Mexican villain" in order to appeal to predominantly white fans.

Herrera's career provides a glimpse into the ways white read "Mexican" boxers according to the dominant racial referents of the day. By the time of his death in 1927, a new generation of Mexican immigrants made Herrera into a boxing legend. Although by 1910 Herrera had disappeared from southern California boxing, his reputation was kept alive in the Spanish-language press and among the swelling ranks of ethnic Mexican contenders. Ethnic Mexicans invoked the memory of "The Great Aurelio Herrera" every time one of their boxers displayed the "overhand right" attack that Herrera had reputedly made famous. Memories of Herrera for many ethnic Mexicans in the 1920s —boxers and fans alike— evoked memories of conquest and a much longer and larger struggle between Anglos and Mexicans for national sovereignty in the region. As tens of thousands of ethnic Mexican boxing fans made Los Angeles into a mecca of international boxing in the 1920s, their domination in the sport must have served as a metaphor of a symbolic "Mexican reconquest" of United States territory. In the years following Herrera's retirement from the ring in 1909 much changed in the lives of ethnic Mexicans in Los Angeles. Los Angeles became the largest Spanish-speaking community in the United States, and the massive influx of Mexican immigrants who fueled this demographic transformation turned to boxing, and drew on the memories of previous heroes like Herrera as a way of performing and imagining their own ethnic and gender identities. Memories in boxing were visualized, embodied, and practiced —as in Herrera's overhand blow— in a manner that valorized Mexican courage resourcefulness, skill, masculinity, and generally reinforced pride in being "Mexican." Expressions of Mexican ethnicity and masculinity in boxing exemplified the way these identities themselves had to be assembled from often non-Mexican elements in a region comprised of diverse social groups engaged in complex cultural interactions. As part of this process, the ancestral claim to "Mexican" greatness in prizefighting established attachments to place and constituted a counternarrative that subverted dominant stereotypes ethnic Mexicans confronted in their everyday lives.

Famous ethnic Mexican boxing careers such as Aurelio Herrera's did not simply grow out of relationships in which stark group boundaries were clearly drawn between Anglos and Mexicans or among subjects that were either "assimilated," "Assimilable," and "Unassimilable." The careers of ethnic Mexican boxers stretching in a long line from Herrera to Oscar De La Hoya at the end of the twentieth century, reflected in part the complex social and cultural negotiations that diverse racial and ethnic groups undertook as they learned to work together, even if at times they met in symbolic and actual opposition. Ethnic Mexicans cultivated a culture of boxing as part of a much larger counter-hegemonic strategy that involved the constant testing of new identities, senses of community, and political contestation as they struggle to control their "assimilation" into United States society...

Before World War II, people of Mexican descent made boxing into a perform-ative expression of ethnic and masculine identity in the context of a constrained public sphere that offered delimited opportunities for expressions of "Mexicanness" and cultural nationalism. After 1945, however, boxing became an important arena where the wider social struggles that emerged between Mexican Americans and Mexican immigrants came to be enacted. Boxers now cleverly based lucrative careers on the emergent divisions among ethnic Mexicans over issues of nationality, ethnicity, and class. The biggest-drawing fighter of his day —Art Aragon, "The Golden Boy of Hollywood"— proved this point. He was a transitional figure who of his apparent "assimilation.".

Aragon's career foreshadowed the problem of ethnic Mexican community stratification that would partly undermine the solidarities of 1960s and 1970s social movements.

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