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Which came to an end abruptly in 1936, when the banana workers struck against the Company and the soldiers opened fire on them. "I saw 30 dead men when the army killed the people," Don Fermin recalled. "The first of them was my friend Erasmus Coroñel, the leader of the strike." Herrera fled home, back to the fastness of Palenque, and prospered. Three hundred head of cattle he has now, and 500 acres of land. He, too, is a believer in getting the fights into the gym. Herrera might even open one himself. "There is fine material here," he said, "fine boys for manaña, for the future. I was the first of them, I think, and in my old age I am proud."
Oddly, you may think, Herrera owes his preeminence in the village not to his boxing prowess but to his cattle, which, in the African tradition, serve as work animals rather than a source of meat, except in extreme need. Each year in Palenque, a traveling bullfight troupe arrives for the feast of Saint Basil. A temporary plaza de toros is set up, and the fights are well attended by the neighboring white landowners. The Palenqueros enjoy the rum and the fiesta atmosphere, but they hate to see the bulls bothered and they regard the out-of-town fans as barbarians. Cattle are family. It is legitimate, though, for the kids who herd them to use them as punching bags, to try out jabs and combinations on the animals' unprotesting flanks as they are herded home in the evenings.
Back at Celia's corral, Alesandro and the big boys with the headgear and the gloves yielded the ring to the little ones. The bouts were short and ferocious, and the limits of the ring meant nothing. Swiftly, half a dozen informal battles broke out. Some of the girls who had been squealing encouragement now began squaring off with one another.
Alesandro wasn't amused by this, nor could he understand why the visitors could be bothered to watch the unstructured display. "Come, come," he said impatiently, "and I will show you the Coliseum."
A few streets away stood a building under construction, a simple cinder-block structure. "Here," said Alesandro grandly, "will be the showers. Here the room of the trainer. Here the heavy bag, the ring, the exercise equipment. The Coliseum will open in January." Goodby cattle corral. Goodby $2 promotions.' Alesandro, the nephew of Don Fermin, had many plans. One had the impression he was apologizing for the here-and-now Palenque, that he couldn't wait for the Palenque to come.
Now at Celia's corral it was time for the girls to get their chance, and if betting was possible—something notably absent from Palenque—you would certainly have a little something on Rita Cimarra, the southpaw in the off-the-shoulder white. Rita certainly was having the better of the action as Celia commanded the visitors to look at some colored snapshots of her son, 18-year-old Heriberto Torres. He is Palenque's newest hope, 32-3-0 as an amateur super flyweight and now training in Cartagena.
Joining the visitors, Pambelé looked at the photos. "Heriberto came to me when he was 12," he said. "He knelt down and he said, 'Pambelé, I beg you, give me some boxing gloves.' When he learned to read, I told him."
And indeed Heriberto did learn. One day not long ago he was on his way to train at a gym in Cartagena, carrying his book bag from the Liceo de Bolivar, a high school. A modest-mannered, good-looking lad, he had been "discovered" by a Cartagena promoter, Orlando Piñeda, who now pays his expenses to live away from home. There seems little chance of Heriberto ever denying his heritage in the manner of Valdes.
He misses the comradeship he enjoyed in his cuadro, the Windstorm. "Did Nina tell you that the Windstorm made itself her personal bodyguard when she first came to Palenque five years ago, so she wouldn't be insulted or bothered?" he asked. He had to concede, however, that the cuadro tradition was failing. "There will always be good fighters in Palenque, though," he said.
And picked over more thoroughly than ever, no doubt, by scouts when Alesandro opens his gym and Pambelé gets his road. They will be better prepared than in the past, however, and in any case, for the Palenqueros there is really no other choice. "We have been voting for years," one woman said, "but it was a boxer who brought us our electric light and our water."