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.

At first they tried soccer. That lasted about a week.

"I do like soccer, but not in the way of playing," says Benjamin. Out on the field, he chased after the ball, never quite sure why he couldn't catch up to the play and not quite grasping the concept of "position." Annoyed and uncoordinated, he gave it up. Miguel had a second plan. He took his son to Heights Gym.

In practice, Benjamin unloads punches on Hailey.
Daniel Kramer
In practice, Benjamin unloads punches on Hailey.
Navarro helps Hailey with Benjamin's training.
Daniel Kramer
Navarro helps Hailey with Benjamin's training.

"Before I came to here, I'd not even see a gym, a boxing ring. When I first started boxing over here, it was my first time. Never seen no fights, nothing," says Benjamin. "Basically everything was because my dad told me to be something, to be somebody in my life."

The first day at the gym Benjamin just watched; the second day he learned to throw the jab. And very soon after that he crawled inside the ropes. Slipping on the gloves for the first time, he found himself laughing out loud -- giddy at the strangeness of it all -- but then something clicked.

"I was nervous that he would step outside because of the first punch -- that he would be afraid of it," says Miguel.

His father had sent him into the ring, but something genetic, almost primal, kept him there. It was the hit.

"I like it! I like it," he says, flashing a devilish grin, fumbling for the right words. "I always like to get the hit, because my blood, it starts getting hot."

In Mexico, Benjamin came home from school and went straight into the fields. In the States, Miguel made him go straight to the gym every day -- he treated it like his son's job, since Benjamin didn't have one. There were days in high school when he would call his father for a ride and Miguel would make him run home as part of the training. He began lifting weights, running and sparring. Sometimes Miguel has him chop wood to stay in shape. The point, Miguel says, is to keep Benjamin busy and prepared. He says he pushes his kids hard because his father raised him the same way: with the belief that nothing comes easy in this life.

"One of the things that my dad, he don't like, is that I like to talk to…girls," says Benjamin. He calls Dalia, the girl he's dated since middle school, "a gift from God," but says she's never been allowed to come over to the house. "He don't let me have a girlfriend, but I'm a boy."

He shrugs as if to chalk it up to natural law. Dalia has never attended one of his fights.

"In boxing, if somebody ask me if I have a girlfriend, I'm going to say no, because I don't have girlfriend in boxing. Whenever I come to the gym, I don't have no more girlfriend," he says. "After the fight, after I do my job, all right. You can come with me. But before that -- stay away from me." His father's grit has rubbed off on him. It shows up when he relates to Miguel Jr., his 11-year-old little brother who also became an amateur fighter with more than two dozen bouts under his belt.

"I don't like to spar with him, because I don't like to hit him, because I feel like sad. He's not that Mexican," Benjamin says. "He don't like to work that hard and I do like to work hard…I get, like, impatient."

As a young man, Miguel never found himself in a fight with rules. Benjamin, on the other hand, has never fought without them. It's something he says his father doesn't entirely understand. "I'm really scared to fight outside the rings," Benjamin says. "Some people, they look for trouble…but I say, 'I don't like to be fighting outside the ring.' "

According to Munoz, Miguel Flores was never afraid of anything. But in the late '90s, he had an accident. Miguel was working for a lumberyard at the time. He had already lost some of his vision from a previous injury when he cut open a metal band wrapped around a pile of logs and it snapped back into his right eye. This made it difficult to gauge distance. At 7:30 in the morning one day, he fell nine feet to the ground from a stack of wood. When he woke up in the hospital nine hours later, he had a cracked skull, a broken wrist and severe injuries to his back and knee.

"Before, he could climb 12 feet up on a ladder, 14 feet, it wouldn't bother him," says Munoz. "He's traumatized." The former street fighter has been unable to work since then. He now helps out at the family's taco stand near their house. He takes between ten and 12 medications a day. He's had two cornea transplants, three wrist surgeries, one knee surgery, and there is talk of back surgery as well. Perhaps worst of all, because of the head trauma, he has difficulty memorizing things.

He has taken the U.S. citizenship test three times. Each time he has failed.

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