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Bearing The Burden
Gary Smith
February 22, 1993
Living in violence-plagued Culiac�n, boxing champ Julio C�sar Ch�vez fights to keep his extended family secure
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February 22, 1993

Bearing The Burden

Living in violence-plagued Culiac�n, boxing champ Julio C�sar Ch�vez fights to keep his extended family secure

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He drives past the gym he had built to train in a few years ago—with the big fiesta room for family reunions attached to it, of course. He drives past shops with music pouring from their open doors, past people walking with their arms tight around each others' necks in the heat. "But I love my city too," he says. "Most of the people are kind and simple. The shrimp are delicious. The weather is so hot it makes the beer taste so good."

He parks in front of his mother's house, the house where he grew up. Right here the family was sitting that evening when he was 13, just chatting on a bench, when suddenly they heard the squeal of wheels, the rat-tat-tat. It wasn't the news vendor. They dived behind the bench as the machine-gun bullets began biting into the stucco just over their heads. The pock-marks are covered now. Everything's changed. Back then the house was a two-bedroom box that the 12 of them were crushed into—seven boys sleeping in one bedroom, three girls in the other, mother and father in the living room. With his first meaty paycheck, Ch�vez expanded and renovated everything. But somewhere right out here there used to be a garden, and he was weeding it alone one day, just a few months after the shoot-out, when he heard the burst of gunfire again. This time two men carrying guns leaped over the wall and into his garden, and he froze, too stiff to cry, holding his breath as the men ran in the front door, through the living room and kitchen...and finally out the back.

He enters the house. It's so hard to tell, everything has changed. Somewhere near here, he stood that night when his father, Rodolfo, came home drunk and threatened his mother. Somewhere near here, Julio, 16 years old, with a bat in his hands, said, "If you touch her...." Rodolfo, who no longer lives with the family, was a 40-year man in the railroad company, brave enough to leap into the cab of a train that had burst into flames as it unloaded petroleum in front of a refinery in 1970, brave enough to grab the controls after the engineer and his three aides had fled and to drive the train into the countryside before the tanks blew and people died—but not brave enough to come home at night sober.

Julio knew it by then. He was the fourth oldest, but he would be the one who took care of this family. Some people know these things before they have any notion of how; but, god, he would need something much bigger than his childhood jobs—selling gum on the streets, shining shoes, washing cars, running six miles through the city every morning at 4 a.m. to beat the other newspaper boys, even slicing cows and pigs up the midsection, gutting them, filling them with salt and skinning their hides for the shoemaker.

Two of his older brothers, Rodolfo and Rafael, boxed. As a child, Julio used to fight a 14-year-old girl who could beat most of the boys in town. Their last bout took place when Julio was 11. "She was my sister," says former featherweight Juan Antonio L�pez. "I was the referee. He threw punches at her body, the way he does now. She was just growing breasts then, and he hurt them so much that she quit boxing. I could see then how great he would be." That was what Julio needed to hear: There was his how. It gave him a goal each day when he awoke, an imperative. It put his life on a set of rails. It made some sense out of Culiac�n.

He quit school at 16 and began training every day, driving out to ranches on weekends to fight amid the dogs and the dust for $5 or $6 a bout. He went wild with the paycheck from his first pro fight, against the cross-eyed boxer. He bought his mom a washing machine.

From the very beginning he was so willful in the ring, so self-assured. "The important thing is to want," he says, "because to want is to be able. That is what has always separated me from other fighters, much more than talent. I know what I want, and I want it more. I am fighting for a whole family. I am a sponge for their problems. It has given me many worries, this role, but it has matured me. It has stabilized me. It has made me who I am."

Now Ch�vez is pointing to the converted railroad car in the backyard, rusting and rimmed with weeds, which Ch�vez used as a retreat from his crowded house. A kid in rags walks past. If a wealthy man who once was poor is strong enough to remain near the poverty, if the squalor docs not drive him to a Miami suburb with a security guard at the gate, then that poverty could impel him. It could keep the fire in his gut stoked, the breath on his neck hot. Now Ch�vez is walking back through the house and pointing to where his bedroom was. He can't stand or sit in one place—it's as if the floor or the chair beneath him is hot, as if his inner calm in the ring somehow escapes him when he exits the arena. As soon as there is empty time to fill, he wants a beer and a salt shaker and a plateful of lemons, something that will relax the wound spring inside, that will let him sit a little bit still. It tells on a man, to make sense out of Culiac�n, to take on so much weight.

He remembers his mother clearing all the boys out of that bedroom when he was seven and bringing in Aunt Angelina. She was dying slowly—another car accident. For three months the boys all slept in the living room with their parents, and then one day Julio looked in his bedroom window. It was frightening, mysterious—he had never seen anyone have a room alone. He watched his aunt's head roll back and forth and then drop to one side, still. He let out a cry. His mother came running. Aunt Angelina was dead, he had seen her die. The memory still chills him. From then on, all his mother had to do to make him obey was threaten to send him into that room alone.

Now he's walking out the front door. Right here, on the road in front of the house, is where Perla felt the wind of the car driven by the drunk that evening. The wind and the separation of hands, that's all she recalls, then finding Omar way up the road. A few hours later Julio came home from a party. He rushed to the hospital, crazy with grief, to see Omar before he died. Omar had his own room, just as Aunt Angelina had. That's when death comes—when you are in a room, alone.

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