Crossing Borders The Fairy Tale Rise of Boxing Star Abner Mares

Mexican boxer Abner Mares came to the United States as the son of illegal immigrants and eventually fell in with Latino gangs. As a world champion boxer, he stands the chance of becoming a legend. But he doesn't believe in the American dream.

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Growing up in Hawaiian Gardens, the smallest and, at the time, toughest city in sprawling Los Angeles County, few doors were open to an untended boy like Abner Mares. For a child like him, smuggled across the Mexican border together with his five siblings by his mother, all roads led to prison, the hospital or the grave. It was a time, and it is not over yet, when Latino and black gangs were at war with each other. It was clear from the beginning that Mares would have to fight for his life.

He drives his silver Jaguar XF through Hawaiian Gardens like a tired tour guide, driving a little aimlessly, wearing a heavy pair of Louis Vuitton sunglasses. It's unseasonably warm in the little city, which is really just a tiny district in southeastern Los Angeles. This is where Mares grew up, a child without a childhood -- that is, without happiness. While driving, he points out various spots, all of them scenes of crimes. "Over there, a friend of mine was shot to death," he says. "And here, another was stabbed."

As the eerie tour continues, Mares talks about a shootout here, a robbery there, a brawl and a murder. The crimes were committed years ago. And Mares isn't showing off. He tells his stories matter-of-factly, as if he were still trying to comprehend the miracle that he himself didn't get beaten to death or become a killer.

Abner Mares Martínez is 26. He is 1.65 meters (5'5") tall, has a reach of 1.73 meters and, when we meet, weighs 61 kilograms (134 lbs.). That's 12.5 pounds too much, which he'll have to lose quickly without losing strength. His next major fight is scheduled for Saturday, April 21, when he'll challenge Eric Morel for the World Boxing Council (WBC) super bantamweight title. The show will take place in El Paso, Texas, a city just across the border from Mexico, Mares' real home.

Mares is famous in Mexico, more so than in the US, and the audience that comes to see his fights clearly reflects that fact. Boxing aficionados believe he has what it takes to become a legend, that he could be a new Chávez, who won more professional fights in a row than any other boxer, or the next Rubén Olivares, who went down in boxing history as a tough, persistent champion.

A Boxer Who Could Rise to Top of League

He could rise to the top of this league, but Mares is either too modest or too smart to say it out loud. He talks about hope and hard work, and he says it would be nice, of course, to be an idol for Latinos in North America, for the Latinos who are no longer a minority in many places in California, Texas and Arizona, but are in fact the overwhelming majority there. In Hawaiian Gardens, 74 percent of the city's 16,000 residents have Hispanic roots. They came to the United States from Mexico or Guatemala, and whether they are legal or illegal immigrants doesn't make much of a difference in a place where Latinos make up three-quarters of the population. No one asks.

The road to Hawaiian Gardens was a long one for all families, and Mares' story is the story of many immigrants, a small novel about someone who made it, a song about the American dream and how it somehow survives and yet is somewhat broken. Mares lives like an American, but he feels like a Mexican. When he celebrates his victories, his fans wave the green, white and red flag of Mexico, not the Stars and Stripes.

For years, the United States wasn't very kind to him. He was seven when his mother took him north across the border from Guadalajara, to exchange their miserable existence south of the border for a better life north of it. At the time, his mother took her six children and made her way to the United States of America. The family scraped together the money to pay the smugglers, who took them across the border, which was more porous then, in 1992, in various cars. California's eternal spring was in the air, but the miserable life of the Mares family had only just begun.

'Undocumented'

Mares' mother, "undocumented," a Mexican woman without papers, or only the wrong ones, a woman who spoke nothing but Spanish, could only find the usual jobs for illegal immigrants -- menial work, cleaning and taking care of the gardens and flowers of strangers. Abner, the fourth-eldest, remembers that his mother was constantly working.

His father, who would join his family later, was hardly ever home. The children spent their time sitting, neglected, in front of the TV. There were eventually 11 altogether, seven boys and four girls. They lived in wooden houses, first on Elaine and later on Horst Avenue, that were so small and cramped that there wasn't enough room to set up beds for everyone.

For years, Abner Mares slept on the floor, if he could sleep at all, kept awake by hunger pangs -- in the middle of America. Once or twice a week, the family would get up at dawn for a "big shopping day," Mares says with a wry smile. They would go to the lots behind the supermarkets on Norwalk Boulevard and Carson Streets to search for food in the dumpsters, packages of expired meat, milk and bread that was no longer good enough to sell to paying customers.

Adopted by Crime

At first, says Mares, the excursions to the main streets felt like an adventure for the children. They would line up in front of McDonald's restaurants and the Food4Less supermarket, America's temples of consumption, and take pictures of each other. "It was our Disneyland," Mares says. Later on, though, the same streets, backyards and parking lots were transformed into the battlegrounds of his youth.

Until three years ago, the gang war raging in Hawaiian Gardens was so brutal that hundreds of local and federal law-enforcement officers eventually had to be brought in to hunt down 147 gang members. The district attorney at the time called it the biggest anti-gang raid in US history, and many of the gang members arrested were sentenced to prison terms of 15 to 20 years.

Mares knew most of the 63 people arrested on the day of the raid in May 2009. They included his friends, schoolmates and former "big brothers," who had told children like him that the blacks were worthless and had to be driven out, no matter what it took.

The police scooped up drug dealers, money launderers, car thieves and killers, people who used to scan the neighborhood for new talent. They were the ones who first discovered Mares' talent. He was short, but fast; skinny, but strong. Hardly more than a child, he was already making a name for himself as a dangerously good fighter. His chances of ending up in prison, the hospital or the grave kept going up.

A Concentrated, Serious Fighter

Anyone who observes Mares today during his daily training sessions at the boxing club on 56th Street in Maywood, a 25-minute drive south from downtown Los Angeles and a 30-minute drive north from Hawaiian Gardens, sees a concentrated, serious fighter. The club takes up a low, nondescript building in an area surrounded by warehouses and giant lots filled with stacked shipping containers transshipped at the Port of Long Beach, parts of which extend deep into the city. Maywood is also a place where muggings, burglaries, brawls and thefts occur on a daily basis. "The usual," says Mares. "This is LA."

Two boxing rings take up most of the floor space in the club. The ceiling is so low that someone jumping up from the ring floor could almost touch the ceiling beams. Hip-hop music is blaring from the loudspeakers while three dozen boxers train. They arrive around 10 a.m., rubbing shoulders in greeting, all of them Latinos except for two or three black boxers.

They include real characters like Daniel Hernandez, who survived a gunshot wound to his head on the streets of Los Angeles, or Robert Guzman, who until recently served with the Marines in Iraq. Boxing promoters and female admirers hang around the ring, periodically going outside to smoke cigarettes and send text messages. The language spoken her is Spanish.

The Heart of a Boxer

Mares' manager, Frank Espinoza, stops by. He drives up in a huge black Range Rover with his son Frankie, who has small diamond studs in both ears. Espinoza is wearing a black shirt, a black suit and light-brown shoes made of rattlesnake skin. He raves about his champion, saying that Abner is going to be "big," perhaps the first boxer in the bantamweight division to capture the world championship belts of all the boxing associations. Mares stands next to him, small and modest, a gym bag slung over his shoulder, almost like a schoolboy, and says: "Yeah, Frank, that would be great."

It's only Mares' second week of training, but he's already subjecting himself to a murderous routine. He jumps rope for what seems like an eternity, followed by shadow-boxing, some work with speed balls, practice at the punching bag and with Clemente Medina, his trainer. "Pam-pam," Medina shouts when he wants double punches, and "pam-pam-pam" when he wants to see a quick right-left-right combination.

Medina, an amiable Mexican who sings folk songs on online videos, says that Mares doesn't necessarily have the most powerful punching ability. "But Abner is fast," he says, "very fast. He has good legs and, most of all, he has the heart of a boxer. He gets through tough situations, no matter how tough."

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