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Culture Clash

Vargas continues pressing Mexican heritage issue with De La Hoya

September 10, 2002|VALERIE GUTIERREZ | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Fernando Vargas long has fancied himself a favorite of Mexican fight fans, the very same crowd that has been hesitant to fully embrace Oscar De La Hoya.

But Vargas recently pressed the issue, asserting that Mexicans are united in his corner for Saturday's super-welterweight title fight at the Mandalay Bay Events Center in Las Vegas.

The reason, Vargas says, is that fight fans recognize him as the "real Mexican" of the two fighters--which by his description is one who still has rough edges and rubs elbows with many of the same blue-collar, working-class friends he grew up with.

De La Hoya, Vargas claims, has drifted too far from his roots and has become disconnected with his heritage.

"I'm proud of being a Mexican," Vargas said. "I fight like a warrior like Mexicans do. People are attracted to me and dig me because of my pride."

Vargas enjoys portraying himself as a representative of the immigrant underdog while mocking De La Hoya's "Golden Boy" image, complete with model good looks, singing career and a stable full of celebrity friends.

De La Hoya has shot back, saying that Vargas' description of a Mexican sounds to him like that of a gang banger.

"What is 'being a Mexican?' " De La Hoya said. "I don't know what that means.... I want to progress and do better, contribute to the community. What's wrong with that?

"What he says is insulting to a lot of hard-working people. What? You've got to dress like a thug, surround yourself with bad people and talk like that? That is degrading. That is not what the Mexican people are about."

As for Mexican fight fans, many seem to be rolling their eyes and calling absurd the notion that either of the fighters--Vargas born in Oxnard; De La Hoya in East Los Angeles--is any more "Mexican" than the other. Both represented their home country--the U.S.--in the Olympics.

But to others, such as Richard T. Rodriguez, assistant professor of Chicano Studies at Cal State Los Angeles, the issue is a serious one. He said any talk of ethnic authenticity is destructive.

"It further divides our community, pits one against the other," Rodriguez said.

"Why do we need to authenticate people? Why even pose the question, 'Who is the real Mexican?' There's no such thing as a real Mexican. To answer that would just perpetuate a stereotype and alienates people who don't fit that criteria."

Rodriguez said De La Hoya has been victimized by his own efforts to blend U.S. and Mexican cultures. As a result, he is not fully accepted by either group.

Francisco Ceja, a Cal graduate who has been teaching history at Roosevelt High, his alma mater, for eight years, says his students often have a misguided view on what it means to be proud of their heritage, but will look to role models in sports.

"It's silly, but I hear that discussion come up with my students," Ceja said. "They say Vargas is more 'down'--in touch with his roots. Then I'll ask, 'What does it mean to be down? What does it mean to be Mexican? Can you be clean cut? Do you have to be one of the homies?' They can't give me a real answer."

This is not the first time a fight has divided members of the same ethnic or racial group.

Against the backdrop of the Vietnam War and heated race relations, Muhammad Ali characterized Joe Frazier as the "white man's champion" and repeatedly called him an Uncle Tom before their first fight, in 1971.

Many fight fans would prefer boxers talk less and concentrate more on what they do in the ring.

"They're both brown inside and the fight's got nothing to do with race," said Jaime Fernandez, 17, between workouts at the La Colonia Boxing Club in Oxnard, Vargas' hometown gym.

De La Hoya has criticized Vargas for trying to divide Mexican fans, but promoter Bob Arum has used De La Hoya's dual heritage to suit a marketing plan. Against an American or European foe, De La Hoya might enter the ring dressed in a sombrero or a traditional Mexican outfit. Against Mexican fighters such as Rafael Ruelas and Julio Cesar Chavez, he might enter adorned in red, white and blue.

Perhaps most accurate among Vargas' claims is that his boxing style is more traditionally Mexican than De La Hoya's. Vargas, though hardly a brawler in the likeness of Mexico-born slugger Chavez, is far more likely to willingly trade punches.

De La Hoya's critics recall Felix Trinidad, after defeating De La Hoya for the World Boxing Council and International Boxing Federation welterweight titles in 1999, yelling in Spanish to Chavez, the former world champion who was seated at ringside.

"I told Julio he is a real Mexican champion and De La Hoya is not," the Puerto Rico-born Trinidad said afterward. "De La Hoya is a chicken, not a Mexican--Chicken De La Hoya."

Vargas said many Mexicans were embarrassed by Trinidad's comments. "The way [De La Hoya] went out left a lot of Mexican people bitter and [mad] because he didn't try to finish the last few rounds," Vargas said.

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