Passport to Nowhere

Benjamin Flores wants to box in the Olympics. But he isn't a U.S. citizen, and he can't risk returning to Mexico.

In a gritty arena in southwest Houston, Aaron Navarro, a trainer with tattoos crawling up his neck, scoops out several hunks of petroleum jelly from a jar and slathers it across Benjamin Flores's taut 126-pound frame.

A coach, two trainers and a few friends shuffle in and out of Benjamin's dressing room, which is little more than a ratty couch and walls with unfinished paint streaks.

Nineteen-year-old Benjamin is short and thick, although the single light bulb hanging from the ceiling shows the tiny ridges of his rib cage. Benjamin takes a few swipes at the air and hops from foot to foot. Little is spoken, and every man in the room trains his gaze on the five-foot-six featherweight.

As Benjamin steps into the ring, he leaves behind the 
amateur ranks.
Daniel Perlacky
As Benjamin steps into the ring, he leaves behind the amateur ranks.
At 12, Benjamin poses with former champ Raul 
Courtesy of Benjamin Flores
At 12, Benjamin poses with former champ Raul Marquez.

"Body shots. Inside. Uppercuts. Uppercuts," says Terrell Triche, one of his trainers. The words come out as a half-whisper.

Walt Hailey, Benjamin's coach, takes out a glove and dances around him in a tight circle, Benjamin unloading cannon blows into Hailey's mitt. THWAP! THWAP!

Navarro steps back into the room.

"What'd they tell you?" Hailey asks.

"They're gonna start pretty soon," says Navarro. "I don't know what pretty soon means. Five minutes, five hours…" Ticket sellers are still herding people into the building. They're not here for Benjamin; his is the first fight on the card. The crowds have come to see the son of Julio Cesar Chavez in his U.S. debut. Chavez is still God within the Mexican boxing community, and they've come to find out if Hijo Jr. will be their Jesus.

Benjamin slips on his black and white gavan, a blanketlike cloak with the Virgin of Guadalupe stitched into it over his nickname, El Michoacano, or the one who comes from Michoacan, his home state in Mexico. His father used to be called El Michoacano when he ran a restaurant of the same name. In that, Benjamin has inherited both the nickname and his father's dream.

"Andale," Benjamin allows. It's one of the few things the stone-faced fighter has said all night. The crew eases out of the dressing room, into the darkness of the crowd below and toward the bright lights of the ring.

Benjamin wants to be a fighter. But not like this.

He's beaten the No. 1 amateur featherweight fighter in the United States and the No. 1 from Mexico. But that means nothing, because Benjamin Flores belongs neither here nor there. He can't fight for the United States because he's not a citizen. He could fight for Mexico, but there's no guarantee the U.S. would let him back in this country once he crossed the border.

He is a fighter without a country -- a pugilist caught in the gears of globalization.

Tonight, as he takes his first step into the professional ranks at the International Ballroom, he will also take home a modest cash prize. The money will seal him off from ever competing on an Olympic stage.

Benjamin Flores has good range, timing and endurance -- everything that he would need to get to Athens this year, except for the right passport.

The first time Benjamin Flores pulled himself out of the Rio Grande, his clothes sopping wet and the spring air biting into his skin, immigration police carted him back across the border.

The 11-year-old had traveled by bus with his older sister and uncle, 424 miles from their hometown. They regrouped at a motel along the border. The following day they plunged back into the river, but were again caught when they emerged on the American side.

On the third attempt, the trio slipped through the net of border guards and met up with Benjamin's father, Miguel Flores, who already had a U.S. work permit and lived in Houston with Benjamin's mother and younger brother. Miguel drove them straight to the Harlingen airport, hoping to skirt the road checkpoint outside town by flying them out.

"Try not to be scared, because once they notice you're scared, they'll ask for papers," Maribel Munoz, a close family friend, advised Miguel. It may have been the look in his eyes that gave them away. Inside the airport, immigration authorities stripped Miguel of his children and brother and escorted them back to Mexico.

A frantic Miguel called Munoz. "What am I going to do now?" he cried. "They took the kids away." Munoz, a Mexican-American born in California, decided to fly down. On the way out, she tried to soothe Benjamin's panicked mother: "One way or another, I'll bring back the kids."

Relatives and neighbors gathered at the family's northside home and hunched over rosaries, praying for the children's safe arrival. But the fourth, fifth and sixth attempts all ended in failure. On the seventh try, Miguel picked them up and dropped them off outside Harlingen. Benjamin, his 14-year-old sister and uncle wandered out into the woods, planning to meet at a rest area on the other side of the checkpoint.

Four hours passed and there was still no sign of them. Miguel couldn't wait any longer -- he had to go find them. He hopped out of the truck, but before he could tear off into the woods, Munoz stopped him and took his U.S. documents away.

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