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Right at home

Roger Huerta has found solace as rising star in UFC

Posted: Monday October 8, 2007 12:11PM; Updated: Monday October 8, 2007 12:11PM
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Roger Huerta visits with his mother, Jo Ramirez, in Texas.  Ramirez legally adopted him in 2002.
Roger Huerta visits with his mother, Jo Ramirez, in Texas. Ramirez legally adopted him in 2002.
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The bridge had been dangling in the river for less than a week, but it had already become a macabre civic landmark, the Twin Cities' answer to Manhattan's Ground Zero. On a scorching day last August, Roger Huerta was piloting his Jeep Commander from downtown Minneapolis to the St. Paul YMCA, where he trains in mixed martial arts. He drove slowly as he crossed the Mississippi River, pointing out the remnants of the I-35W bridge, whose collapse had caused the deaths of 13 Minnesotans six days earlier.

When Huerta saw a slab of folded highway bobbing in the water, his eyes widened, and he rested a hand on his beard. "Unbelievable," he said, his voice dropping to a whisper. "One second you're driving home from work, wondering what you're going to eat for dinner. Then wham! In the snap of a finger you're underwater."

One would think that by now Huerta would have lost his awe for dramatic and unexpected spasms of fate. A decade ago he was a homeless teenager, living in dust-choked Texas towns and sleeping on rooftops when he couldn't find a bed for the night. Today he is a rising star in the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC), the controversial mixed martial arts league that showcases America's fastest-growing spectator sport.

As a teenager Huerta made money --"Not spending money," he says, "survival money" -- working at Blockbuster, Taco Bell and a Johnny Rockets diner. Today he fights full-time as a 155-pound lightweight and is successful enough to be buying a spacious home in St. Paul.

As a teenager Huerta considered himself an orphan, having spoken to neither of his biological parents since he was a boy. Today he considers himself the son of his adoptive mother and a brother to her seven children. "I tell people my story," says Huerta, 24, "and I barely get to the middle when they wonder when the book is coming out."

Huerta figures that he was five years old when, as he puts it, "things got interesting." His family was living in Dallas when Lydia Huerta allegedly caught her husband, Rogelio, having an affair and left him. "It drove her crazy," Roger says, and she became physically abusive. When Roger went to school with bruises mottling his body, child protective services intervened and placed him in a foster home.

Within a year Rogelio was given full custody of Roger. Shortly after the ruling, however, Lydia took Roger to her childhood home in El Salvador. "By this point my mom was mentally unstable and couldn't care for me," Roger recalls. "My grandparents didn't know what to do with me, and there was a civil war going on in the country. So I was in the house all day."

After several months Lydia and her son returned to Texas. She dropped him at Rogelio's house. That, Roger says, was the last time he saw his mother. He says that by then Rogelio had taken up with another woman.

Eventually Rogelio unloaded Roger on his parents in Mexico. They lived in poverty and sent Roger, then nine, out into the streets to make money. "You know those sad-looking kids who stand outside churches and sell picture frames and rosaries to tourists?" Huerta asks. "That was me."

After a year Rogelio retrieved his son and took him home to Texas's Rio Grande Valley, where he enrolled in school in the middle of the third grade. Rogelio, though, was in no position to raise a son, having by then become a drug addict. The woman Roger called his stepmom "was totally resentful of me being around," says Roger. "My dad was out getting high, and she would hit me with coat hangers and abuse me emotionally -- lock me in the bathroom and tell me to scrub the floor with Clorox."

Nonetheless Roger lived with them until he was 12, when his dad left and, soon after, the woman threw Roger out of the house. (SI Latino was unable to reach Huerta's mother, father or stepmother for comment.)

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