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Traveling in Style : PLACES OF THE HEART : Mexico City : The Arena Coliseo Has the Sights, Smells and Feel of the Mexico of Memory

March 17, 1991|PETE HAMILL | Hamill, a novelist and a journalist, writes a column for Esquire.

For some of us, there is a Mexico of fact and a Mexico of memory. With an effort, we can produce for you the gross national product or the average mean temperature in Acapulco, or the number of barrels of oil pumped from the fields of Tampico in 1987: the Mexico of fact. But the Mexico of memory is more elusive, more personal, impervious to counting or measuring and almost always infused with the invincible Mexican surrealism.

Often, for those of us who have lived in Mexico or go back often, the Mexico of fact has been transformed against our wishes into the Mexico of memory. We remember the long years when there were 12.5 pesos to the dollar, when beer was 8 cents a bottle and cigarettes 4 cents a pack, and when for a peso a night you could sleep in a hammock on the empty beaches of Acapulco. That Mexico is gone, along with the building in Mexico City where I lived with a woman with midnight eyes, the vast scary prison called " el palacio negro " -- the Lecumberri--where I spent a little time when I was 21, the British Bookstore on Calle Sullivan and the bar across the narrow highway from Mexico City College where I was a student on the GI Bill in the mid-'50s. These were all part of a city inhabited by 3 million human beings; the present city contains 18 million, and we will never see the old Mexico City again.

But there are a few places in which the city of fact and the city of memory actually merge. One of the most fabulous is a great antique of a boxing arena called the Arena Coliseo. When friends call to tell me they are going to Mexico City and that their trip will include a Saturday night, I always send them there.

The Arena Coliseo was already old when I arrived in Mexico City in 1956; there were men who remembered seeing fights there in the 1930s. In the winter of '56, a new sports arena opened, the Arena Mexico, and in the sporting papers, Esto and Ovaciones, they were saying that the Coliseo was doomed. I went to both. The Arena Mexico was built around a conventional rectangle, like the Forum or Madison Square Garden or a hundred other auditoriums in North America. You walk in and want to eat hot dogs.

But the Arena Coliseo is built like a bullring. You come in at street level and half the arena is below you. From every seat, you are staring down at the ring. I've been told that the most expensive hunk of advertising space is the canvas ring apron, and I believe it. You simply cannot avoid looking at it (the space is almost always purchased by a beer company), even when two of the better prizefighters on this planet are engaged in a hard night's work. Down there in that ring I twice saw the great Toluco Lopez, a brilliant featherweight who could box and punch but never won a championship because he was a lush. Down there in the 1950s, I watched fighters named Memo Diaz, Joe Medel, Joe Becerra and Pajarito Moreno, most of them bantamweights, well-taught fighters who were true to the valiant Mexican tradition of accepting pain as part of life's portion. Years later, I watched the great Ruben Olivares demolish a green kid here in a couple of rounds. Today, far away, I still watch the Saturday-night fights from the Coliseo through the milagrito of the satellite dish.

What astonishes me when I go to the Coliseo now is to see how little has changed. There is still a pale-blue nicotine haze hanging in the air. The walls have a scabbed, bumpy texture from generations of layers of paint. In the corridors under the stands, there's an ineradicable aroma, made up of sweat, arnica, frying foods, cigars and cigarettes, and the passage of men. There are still policemen frisking the customers at the door, often turning up weapons that (I'm told) are returned to their owners at the end of the evening.

And there are the fans. There is a guy in a white hat who has been there, I am convinced, since the beginning of time. He has a perfectly trimmed mustache and perfect teeth and perfectly trimmed razor-sharp sideburns and looks as if he modeled his style on that of the Mexican actor Pedro Infante. He always arrives with a different woman, draped on his arm like an ornament. I have seen him with blondes and redheads, with women who are obviously Indian and others who might be Chinese. I get old, the women get old, the fighters get old and retire and are replaced by new brigades of the valorous young. The guy in the white hat never gets old. I sometimes think: Maybe he is like the Phantom in the old comic strip, the Ghost Who Walks, replaced by a son in every generation. Perhaps he is the Mexican Dorian Gray. I don't know. But I cherish the man. As long as he lives, I live, too.

And there is a man I first saw in the 1960s, his face thin and saturnine, his eyes shaded with sunglasses. He always comes alone, using a cane to find his way to his seat. He's blind. I asked him once why he comes to the fights. "I love the sounds," he said. "I love the excitement. I love the way people shout."

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