by Stephen D. Allen (University of Mexico Press, 296 pp., $60)
Mexico spent most of the 20th century under one-party rule by the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which, throughout its ascendance, undertook extensive social engineering projects. One such project was the centrally-planned popularization of boxing in Mexico, whose successes and failures are explored in Stephen D. Allen’s A History of Boxing in Mexico: Masculinity, Modernity, and Nationalism.
When boxing first reached Mexico in the late 1910s, as the Mexican Revolution neared its conclusion, the response from the Mexican public was overwhelmingly negative. The sport’s violence was seen as tacky—like the boxers themselves, known for drinking and womanizing. By the late 1920s, however, PRI leaders had identified boxing as useful for a project of nationalism and modernization: Boxing would unite a divided Mexican society, calm traditionalist qualms about PRI reformism, and promote a positive image of Mexico abroad.
The Mexican Revolution had been a regional conflict: The north and south of the country aligned themselves with proto-socialists Pancho Villa and Emiliano Zapata. During the 1926-29 Cristero Rebellion, Catholics in central Mexico rebelled against the anti-clerical federal government. All these revolts were eventually suppressed, but opposition to the Mexican government remained widespread. Although for different reasons, by the late 1920s the whole country had fresh memories of rebellion against Mexico City.
The PRI’s unexpected plan for national unity through boxing took form around 1930. Boxing gyms and arenas were opened, but only in Mexico City. Boxers throughout the country were encouraged to participate—but they had to do so in Mexico City, training with boxers from other regions. Mexicans from every region tuned in to watch local boxers compete in matches adorned with Mexican flags and praise for the central government. Every world championship won by a Mexican boxer was dedicated to the concurrent PRI president of Mexico, up until the one-party state in Mexico ended. This veneration of the central government increased identification with Mexico as a whole.
Boxing was also used as a form of bread and circuses. The PRI carried an anti-clerical, pro-industrialization, and pro-urbanization platform. The Cristero Rebellion was just one hostile reaction from rural, traditional Mexicans. In 1924, there were riots in Mexico City against short-haired women. Fearing the unpopularity of its progressivism, the PRI chose one aspect of Mexican traditionalism, machismo, and signaled its support for it.
Mexican traditionalists extolled the Latin conception of masculinity, machismo. Thus Mexican media began to describe boxing as disciplined violence, and as the epitome of machismo. While the PRI never adopted formal censorship, it exercised media control by nationalizing all paper production in Mexico and setting high tariffs on paper imports. Mexican sports publications were ordered to run pieces glorifying boxing as the embodiment of Mexican masculinity. This controlled narrative convinced traditionalists that boxing and its patron, the PRI, were their friends.
Alongside suppressing regionalism and calming traditionalists, boxing was meant to enhance Mexico’s image abroad. To maximize Mexico’s chances at winning boxing championships internationally, the PRI suppressed other domestic sports so that Mexicans would focus on being the best boxers. Lucha libre, (Mexican professional wrestling), was banned from federal television. Yet even after decades of triumphs and championships, the PRI failed in its goal of winning international respect for Mexico.
After Welsh boxer Johnny Own died in a match with Mexican Lupe Pintor in 1980, British media portrayed Mexico as a “haven of backwardness and chaos.” Sportswriter Hugh McIlvanney called Mexican fans a “screaming mob, whose lust for blood gives the grubby Olympic Auditorium the atmosphere of a Guadalajara cockfight, multiplied a hundred times.” Mexican boxers may have been renowned for their skills, but the Western perception of Mexico still centered on crime, poverty, and corruption. By the late 20th century, while boxing had helped to consolidate PRI rule, it failed to change the international perception of Mexico as a third-world country.
Having demonstrated how the PRI used boxing for social engineering, A History of Boxing in Mexico also explores the way boxing in Mexico intersected with the social issue of race. Mexico officially embraced multiracialism and race-blind policies before any other Western country did. The Cuban-born black boxer José Nápoles seemed to exemplify these claims.
Nápoles moved to Mexico after Fidel Castro banned boxing in Cuba in 1963, and quickly rose to the top of Mexican boxing, winning the world welterweight title in 1969. After Nápoles’ victory, Mexican boxing magazine Ring Mundial called Mexico a country “in which racial discrimination does not exist,” and Mexican elites congratulated themselves on this supposed accomplishment.
Mexican society never fully embraced its black champion. Mexican media “usually presented Nápoles as lighter-skinned than he actually was.” Nápoles publicly dedicated all his victories to Mexico and the PRI, but in retirement confessed that “on more than one occasion I silently dedicated my triumphs to the people of Oriente [the Cuban province in which Nápoles was born], to my people.”
A similar situation exists in Europe today. In July of 2021, an article in The Economist noted that the Italians whose team won the Euro 2020 (the European Football Championship) over England were overwhelmingly Caucasians. In response, critics accused The Economist of unnecessary racialization; but in multiracial countries, the race of athletes does have political and social significance. The Italian far-right enthusiastically cheered the victory of an overwhelmingly White Italian team, an event likely to be consequential in future Italian elections. The Economistwasn’t racializing the situation—it was noting the existence of racial tension.
On the other side of the Euro 2020 final, three Black England players missed penalty shots in the final minutes, losing the game. Afterward, there were fistfights in London between Black and White fans; the police began investigating racist online abuse that the Black players received. Racial demography in athletics has regrettable consequences. European governments should stop ignoring those consequences in the way the PRI did when it cheered Nápoles but failed to respect him.
American sports leagues were integrated decades ago. Initially, non-White players faced hostility from White fans, suffered bias from White referees, and saw their accomplishments and faults judged according to their race. If a Black athlete like boxer Joe Louis succeeded, as A History of Boxing in Mexico notes, he was a “credit to his race.” If Black athletes struggled, their floundering was used to justify racism. However, America eventually managed to progress beyond those attitudes. White Americans made peace with the fact that NBA and NFL players are overwhelmingly Black. The racial demographics of contemporary U.S. sports teams are irrelevant. European countries with significant racial minorities will have to go through this same evolution if they want stability in their multiracial societies. The colorblindness that some Europeans promote merely obfuscates the inevitability of racial tension if it is not forthrightly addressed.
On the surface, documenting nearly a century of social engineering is the purpose of A History of Boxing in Mexico. But the most useful thesis to draw from this book is that race cannot be ignored. As twentieth-century Mexico demonstrated, race is a pervasive issue that will not be silenced by a national orthodoxy of colorblindness. Twenty-first century Europe would do well to learn this lesson of history.
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