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.
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."
The Road to World Champion
Mares became a world champion for the first time last summer, in a wild match against Joseph "King Kong" Agbeko. But his luck didn't make it through the evening. The International Boxing Federal (IBF) immediately demanded a second match because Mares had delivered several low blows, which the referee consistently overlooked. It was only after the rematch in December, at the Honda Center in Anaheim, that Mares captured the belt in 12 regular rounds, even though he had already suffered a serious tear above his right eye in the second round.
Mares kept going, bleeding, furious and constantly threatened by a technical knockout. In the end, he added the 23rd victory to his professional resume, which includes no defeats and 13 knockouts. He was the world champion, which -- despite the fact that there are so many world champions in boxing -- is a big title for someone condemned to failure as a child.
Being a world champion meant being worth $200,000 (€150,000) to $300,000 in prize money in future fights, driving a Jaguar and being able to afford a plasma TV set, designer clothes and his own house in a decent American suburb.
Mares found his in Lakewood, another neighborhood in the labyrinth of LA, next to Hawaiian Gardens and only a few blocks from where he spent his childhood. And yet he has moved into a different world. Whites are still slightly in the majority in Lakewood, which also has a large Asian population and a significant African-American population. Muggings and robberies, car break-ins and burglaries are part of everyday life as well, but life feels different -- better -- in Lakewood.
Now Mares has a white neighbor and an Asian neighbor, and he has black friends. The hatred of African-Americans once drummed into him and that still prevails in LA's Latino neighborhoods has disappeared now that he encounters black people everyday. "We're all just people," says Mares. "We all want respect, and we all have the same dignity."
His wife Nathalie, née Moreno, sits next to him, quiet and pretty, a Mexican like him. She only speaks Spanish, even though she's lived in the US for years. Her husband doesn't want her to work. "I can take care of us," says Mares. Coming from a man who started life at the very bottom, this is a big statement.
The couple had their first daughter six years ago, and the second is only four months old. Looking at the boxer playing with his child and his baby, he appears to be a man who has achieved the American dream. The Mares family home is reminiscent of the set of a soap opera, with an open kitchen that could have been ordered from a catalog, TV sets in every room, the Jaguar and a GM Tahoe the size of a tank parked outside.
In the back, there is a large, shady patio with a brick barbecue and a lavish bar; toys are lying around. Everything says: Abner Mares has made it. Nevertheless, he hasn't turned into a beaming, proud American. Unlike so many immigrants in the past, he attributes his success to himself, not the country. He somehow believes he has succeeded despite, and not because, he ended up in the United States.
Embraced By Mexico
He can never feel as if he truly belongs. Whenever he's stopped by the police, which happens a lot, the officers don't ask him for his license and registration first, but want to know who the car really belongs to. If he's lucky, they don't immediately pull him out of his seat and search him for drugs or weapons. "I have to explain myself every time," Mares says. "They don't expect someone like me to be driving a big car. That's not right in a free country."
Despite his many setbacks, he has also been lucky in roundabout ways throughout his life. When he was expelled from school at 15 in Hawaiian Gardens for getting into too many fights and was about to be sent to a special school, his parents decided to send him back to Mexico instead. Already a youth boxer, when they put him on a plane out of California and out of the United States again, it was in the wild hope that he could be good enough to qualify for the Mexican Olympic team.
Mares perceived it as a punishment. He believed that his parents had cast him out because he hadn't been a good son to them. He was only 15 and was already being left to his own devices as a small, somehow mixed person, half-American, half-Mexican, who had come to a country that was supposed to be his native country, and yet remained completely unfamiliar to him. But it became his salvation. Mexico was a land that didn't reject him and or want to get rid of him. It was his country and it welcomed him.
In 2000, he did complete a trial training program with the Mexican national team, and he was kept on as a sparring boxer who would soon box his way up to team membership. His ascent sounds like a fairytale. Mares must have realized how lucky he was at the time, but he doesn't mention anything about luck and fairytales today. But he did feel that he had arrived, and that, for the first time, his path in life did not lead directly to prison or the hospital.
Instead, with his cool and precise aggression, he boxed his way to an impressive amateur record: 112 wins and only 8 defeats, although one of them, the last one, happened in the first round of the Olympic tournament in Athens in 2004. Mares was 18, and he had been assigned to fight the Hungarian Zsolt Bedák, a classic left-hander. It was a close fight that Mares lost on the basis of points. "I had prepared for the games for years," he says. "I was devastated. I wanted to win a medal. I was sure that I was going to win."
Mares was so depressed that his voice broke in the interview after the fight, and tears came to his eyes on live camera. His misfortune would turn out to be a stroke of luck, though, because the scene touched the wife of Oscar De La Hoya, one of the greatest boxers of all time and later a boxing promoter.
She told her husband that he had to take a look at this Mares guy. And that was exactly what De La Hoya, whose bronze statue stands in front of the Staples Center in downtown LA, did. De La Hoya, with his 10 world champion titles and a gold medal for the US, had videos of Mares' fights and the interview after his Athens defeat sent to him.
He liked the boy. He was tenacious and fast, and De La Hoya decided he could use him. When Mares talks about the call he received from De La Hoya, it's as though he were talking about a miracle. The great boxer invited the newcomer and his father to come to his office, where they signed a contract on the spot. Suddenly Abner Mares, once a child from Mexico with no future, was a professional boxer in the US.
He was good. He looked good. He defeated whoever he went up against. He, a Mexican, won and defended the North American championship title in the bantamweight class twice. But in October 2008, a week before a fight against Luis Melendez in Atlantic City, something went wrong with one of his eyes.
Steven Steinschriber, an ophthalmologist at the Milauskas Eye Institute, a man boxers trust, diagnosed a partially detached retina. Mares, whose career had only just begun, was on the verge of failure, and not just as a boxer. Boxing was the only way he knew how to make a living. He had no other plan for a life in America. And America, he felt, didn't forgive failure easily.
People turned away from him at the boxing club. Those who had once pretended to be his friends now shunned him. His promoters stood by him as best they could, but what were they to do with someone who was finished? Mares was devastated, crying on his wife's shoulder like a child. But he never stopped believing that he would someday recover. He went to the doctor over and over. Each time he was told he couldn't fight anymore, and that doing so would cost him his eyesight.
Fearing for His Sanity
When Mares talks about that period, there is a bitterness to his words and facial expressions that seem incongruous for someone who is only 26 years old. He says that boxing had been his passion before the eye injury. Since then, he states, he has viewed it as the job he does to feed his family.
He dropped out of the boxing world for almost a year. And because he had to earn money, he returned to his American beginnings. Just as his mother had once done, he became a disposable menial worker, one of the people who tend strangers' gardens, and he found a job as a night watchman at a school. His shifts lasted 14 hours and sometimes, while patrolling the empty hallways at night, the man who had dreamed of Olympic victories feared for his sanity.
But the wound healed, and things became a little more fairytale-like once again. After months of bad news, his doctor gave him permission to start training again. It was the happiest moment of his life, a new turning point in his rollercoaster life story. Finally, he had been given permission to fight for his life.
After his forced hiatus, to show everyone that he was back and tougher than ever, Mares had towels printed with skulls on them, which he now ties around his face whenever he marches toward the ring, surrounded by his team to the sound of pounding music. The new Mares is even better than the old one.
Things have been going very well for him since 2009, as is evident in Hawaiian Gardens, where people recognize him on the street as if he were a world-famous star. Strangers wave to him, and old acquaintances round up their families and shout back into their houses: "Abner's here! Say hello to the champion!"
A Piece of the American Dream
Passersby come up to him and meekly ask for permission to be photographed together. Near his old school, a woman is approaching with tears in her eyes, rubbing some documents together between her hands, and asks him in Spanish to do something for her son who is in prison.
Mares listens calmly, gazing at her with his big, childlike eyes that betray so much sadness. One of his many brothers has just been in prison, he says, adding: "If they hadn't sent me to Mexico, I'd be there instead."
He drives to city hall in Hawaiian Gardens, which has improved since a casino was built there. The streetlights are now kept on all night long, and Mayor Michael Gomez has done the right thing and transformed his city hall into a large youth center.
There are still gangs out in the streets. And there are still killers who continue to wage their miniature ethnic cleansing war. But here, at city hall, girls and young men find ways to have fun taking dance lessons or lifting weights. There's also a boxing ring, not to mention courses in crafts and English -- all the things that didn't exist for Mares when he was growing up in America.
When he walks through the hallways, giggling girls stumble up to Mares to ask him to autograph their sneakers. Teenage boys are drawn to the boxer, who is a hero to them. A Mexican who has made it, and who has remained a Mexican while becoming a little bit more of an American. So maybe he is a man who, in his own way, has found his share of the great old American dream after all.