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.

It was a calculated reduction of risk; if he got caught with the others without papers, they would probably just boot them all back across the border. If he had his documents on him, he risked being pegged as a coyote and he could lose everything.

As Munoz circled, Miguel searched desperately for his family. When the children finally popped out of the brush, accompanied by their uncle, they wore terrified expressions and muddy shoes. Munoz took them to a hotel to get cleaned up. The drive back to Houston was virtually silent. No one felt like saying much. They were exhausted, overwhelmed and, for the first time in a long time, back together again.

His coach says one of Benjamin's greatest assets is 
his judgment of range.
Troy Fields
His coach says one of Benjamin's greatest assets is his judgment of range.
Plus, Hailey says, the kid has great timing.
Troy Fields
Plus, Hailey says, the kid has great timing.

Benjamin peels off the aluminum foil tab from an apple juice can, revealing a long scar that curls around the pinky knuckle of his right hand. The scar has a story, but not a boxing story.

"This is one of the marks that I know that is never going to disappear for me," Benjamin says. His black hair is shiny and slicked back and he has broad cheekbones, bronzed skin and a surprisingly complete set of white teeth. He cocks his head thoughtfully to the side as he recalls the accident, chiseling his words out in workable English.

He got the scar as a boy while helping out with the family's agricultural work in Michoacan. Every day after school at noon, he would wade out into the crops with his grandfather, where they would harvest lettuce, tomatoes and corn.

"Sometimes when the work was too hard, we didn't have time to go to school," he says. And when summer temperatures soared, the green fields would trap humidity like a suffocating blanket. One day as Benjamin was hacking away at grass stalks with a scythe, he slipped and split his hand open.

"I think that's one of the things that is making me push in boxing; I remember when I used to work over there, and that's one of the things that comes to mind," he says.

While Benjamin Flores toiled in the fields of southwest Mexico, his father was doing much of the same north of the border. The elder Miguel, now 40, first came to the United States at age 13 and drifted up and down the Pacific coast looking for seasonal work. He met Maribel Munoz in Lodi, California, where she ran a labor contracting business. Munoz stayed close to her workers; she would travel with them from farmland to farmland, sometimes sleeping out of her car, too, if there was nowhere to put up. When she moved to Houston, Miguel and his wife followed.

"In California, Miguel used to be a person that if somebody would pick a fight, he'd fight. And he was a good fighter! But he was like a street fighter," says Munoz. "And I always tell Ben, I says, 'Your dad, when he used to get in fights, he never lost. He never lost a fight.' "

In his younger days, Miguel had been a fearless back-alley bruiser -- he fought in bars, in fields, everywhere, in fact, but inside the ring. He says, through an interpreter, that he would fight about three times a week, battling until someone couldn't get up anymore. "It was a guy thing," he says, laughing at the memory.

Benjamin finally made it to the United States in April 1996 and began living with his parents for the first time at their "humble house" on the north side of town. That part of the transition went okay, he says. His mom and dad had all of the same strict rules that he had followed when he was living with his grandparents. School was another matter.

He went home weeping after the first day -- not being able to read or speak a word of English, everything felt so foreign he was dizzy. It finally settled in that he had lost all of his friends from back home. And joining a class with just two months left in the school year didn't help him to blend in. When Benjamin got back to his house that spring afternoon, he begged his mother not to make him go back.

Miguel grew fearful that Benjamin would want to return to Mexico -- that their exasperating efforts to bring him into the United States would add up to nothing, that where border patrol had failed, language would beat them. He tried to stress to Benjamin the opportunity he had in America.

Things got better. Benjamin realized that everyone else in class had the same problem he did -- the fifth grade group was, after all, being taught English as a second language. He made a few friends, and slowly the English words began emerging from the fog.

His father, meanwhile, had plans for his after-school hours. Miguel felt that he had to get his son into a sport right away -- teenagers in America, he deduced from TV, find trouble too easily.

"I didn't want him to have friends that would invite him to go drink beer and do drugs," Miguel says through an interpreter. (Even today Benjamin is kept on a tight leash. He's not allowed to go out at night and party and has a strict bedtime.)

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