YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Looking Up to Vargas

Despite any problems the boxer might have had, he can do no wrong to kids at La Colonia in Oxnard


The floor is a hive of activity.

The air in the La Colonia Youth Boxing Center in Oxnard is filled with the familiar smell of sweat, yet it is a more innocent aroma that wafts throughout as a roomful of pint-sized pugilists go through their workouts.

Rapid-fire Spanglish bounces off the walls--"Mijo, move and then throw la izquerda. A left, throw a left. Que bueno, good."--as a pair of preteens in oversized headgear throw punches at each other in an animated sparring session.

The gym's clock continues its countdown and the older boys shadow-box in front of the mirror-covered walls or pummel the various hanging bags with powerful hooks in the cramped yet homey gym.

The unmistakable sound of jump ropes cutting through the air and slapping the wood floor adds to the commotion in which some boys, whose families can't afford workout attire, train in their school clothes.

All the while, a sneering mug stares down at them from up on high. Fernando Vargas, La Colonia's prodigal son who has had a few missteps on his return home, has his head tilted to the side, his lips pursed and his hands on his hips, as if asking, "Y que? Now what are you going to do?"

The life-size cardboard cutout of Vargas is tacked to a wall about 15 feet off the ground, giving Vargas' visage a perfect view to the 27 youngsters, the youngest of whom is 8, who have assembled here on a midweek afternoon. His image also provides inspiration to the children who pass through the doors of the building they refer to as Casa de Campeones, House of Champions.

"That's why we come here every day," Carlos Zizumbo, 14, says of Vargas. "To us, he's like an idol because he came from here. So hopefully, one day, we can be like him."

Some may think that the adoration of Vargas in these parts would be at a fever pitch these days, what with the Oxnard native's much-anticipated title fight with Oscar De La Hoya on Saturday at the Mandalay Bay Events Center in Las Vegas. But the truth is, Vargas is revered by the children of La Colonia on a daily basis.

"Oh yeah, he's a cool guy and inspiring," said Peter Turcios, 13. "Because if he makes it, I could probably make it too."

Jaime Fernandez, 17, signed up at La Colonia after watching Vargas' game effort in a knockout loss to Felix Trinidad in December 2000.

"He tells us, 'Don't do drugs, don't do alcohol, don't get caught up in any of that stuff. Just follow your goals,' " Fernandez said.

Fernandez, though, grins when asked if Vargas ever tells the kids at La Colonia to learn from his mistakes.

"Nah, he never says anything about that," Fernandez said with a laugh.

Vargas, who had a troubled childhood and whose recent legal troubles stemmed from the beating of a man and resulted in his wearing an ankle monitor, was at the center of a controversy with Oxnard city officials nearly two years ago.

Vargas and fellow La Colonia product Robert Garcia, a former junior-lightweight champion, held a news conference at the center to announce they were each donating $1,000 to La Colonia.

But Vargas also blasted the city, saying that it did next-to-nothing to help the center and the kids of his barrio.

Critics blasted back, intimating that for a professional fighter making millions, a $1,000 donation was akin to an insult.

Besides, they pointed out, public money built the club in 1977, $270,000 in a community-development block grant paid for renovation of the facilities and almost $30,000 annually in public funding keeps the club open.

Back and forth they went--Vargas and his people saying that he pumps tens of thousands of dollars into the community that he doesn't broadcast to the media every time he helps out.

Oxnard City Councilman Bedford Pinkard, meanwhile, wondered aloud that if that were indeed the case, why would Vargas feel the need to hold a news conference over $1,000 and then come out swinging against the city.

"I think I came out looking like the bad guy in the community over that one," said Pinkard, who helped found La Colonia. "He's highly respected here and a lot of people have run-ins. Nobody's perfect."

The storm has subsided, although Vargas' critics revel in the fact that he recently moved out of Oxnard, a change he once vowed never to make, to the posh Spanish Hills area of Camarillo.

Oxnard Mayor Manuel Lopez thinks that Vargas has been unfairly criticized at times.

"He certainly has matured a lot, but I guess that all depends upon a matter of perspective," Lopez said. "If you're in the limelight, there's always somebody watching you."

Though some would say he started the war of words, Vargas was deeply hurt and affected by it. He has since maintained a low profile, public relations-wise, in regards to La Colonia.

"It's not the best neighborhood in the world," said Vargas, who wears 'La Colonia' stitched into his trunks. "But it's a beautiful community.

Los Angeles Times Articles