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Mi Tío Durán

 

Minerva Martinez

Art by Ushio + Noriko Shinohara
Courtesy of ANOMALY

 

“I'm not God—but I am something similar.” Roberto Durán

Four of us lived tightly packed in a one-bedroom apartment on West 96th Street. Mami, Papi, me . . . and Roberto “Manos de Piedras” Durán—Hands of Stone. Roberto wasn’t there physically, but he was still present, everywhere, like God. His fierce black eyes, set in a brown, chiseled face, taunted the world from the cover of Ring magazine.
Boxing lore was instilled in me at birth. I was named Luisa Josefa Ortiz after Joe Louis, Papi’s first boxing idol. Everyone called me Lulu. Memories of Big Bird and Captain Kangaroo coexist with the nasal pitch of Howard Cosell’s voice and the sharp ding of the fight bell. A is for apple, B is for boxing, C is for Cosell and D . . . D was for Durán.
Boxing was the only thing my parents had in common, besides me. They met on a sticky August night in 1967. Puerto Rican champion Carlos Ortiz was facing off against Panama’s Ismael Laguna at Shea Stadium. Mami was sitting in the nose-bleeds with her uncle, one row in front of Papi’s. She was twenty-two and had just arrived to the U.S. from Panama a week earlier. Her long black hair tumbled over the back of her seat, catching my father’s eye. When she got up to find a restroom, he got a clear look at her face and figure—it was the perfect one-two punch. Her almond eyes and trigueña skin reminded him of a younger Miriam Colón, a Puerto Rican actress he’d seen on The Dick Van Dyke Show. Papi struck up a conversation with her uncle and gallantly offered to buy them drinks at the concession stand. Eight Budweisers, four hotdogs, and fifteen rounds later, he finally got Mami to agree to a date. Their union—defined by bloodsport since its inception—was plagued with eternal hostility.
Primetime television provided a ringside seat to the rich and poor alike. Embedded in the plastic cream-colored shell of our thirteen-inch black-and-white Zenith television was a thick gray glass screen that resembled a blank Etch-A-Sketch. Its crooked tinfoil-wrapped antenna was pointed toward the window for optimal reception. On Saturday nights we huddled together to watch the fights on ABC’s Wide World of Sports. Instead of yelling at each other, my parents yelled at the TV while drinking ice-cold bottles of Schaefer.
Papi said the first fight I ever watched was in 1972, through the bars of my crib. I don’t remember, but I bet it’s true. I would’ve been about a year old at the time, finishing a bottle of Similac while Roberto Durán finished off Scotland’s Ken Buchanan in the thirteenth round.
Sunday mornings, while dipping slices of bread and butter into café con leche, I listened to Mami talk about the Champ’s philandering. She called him a sinveguenza, a man without shame. News about Durán—Panama’s favorite son—was routinely included with weekly family updates, which arrived by phone from Mami’s three sisters, Pochi, Dora, and Marta. They lived in the Chiriquí province of Panama where Mami grew up. Papi called them el triángulo del bochinche—the triangle of gossip.
In time, the lines between fighter and family blurred, and I began thinking of Durán as a legitimate blood relative, an uncle who beat the snot out of people on national television. Some kids believed in Santa Claus, I believed Roberto Durán was my uncle. Hey, at least he was real. I ripped the cover off my father’s Ring magazine and hung Durán’s picture up over my bed, next to a poster of Kermit the Frog.
My parents played along. They found it amusing. I left gaping holes in the sports pages, cutting out pictures of Durán to secure neatly into my Hello Kitty scrapbook. In some photos he resembled a sweaty caveman, with his thick black hair falling into his eyes and wild, ungroomed beard. His formidable achievements—winning the WBA Light Weight title, thirty-two consecutive wins between ‘73 and ‘78, and winning the WBC Lightweight title—paralleled my own: tying my shoes, learning to read, and taking the bus alone to school for the first time.
“What would you say to your Tío Durán if you ever met him?” Papi asked over dinner.
I gave it careful thought. Boxing was a serious matter. “I would tell him to keep his hands up!”
“Very good, yes, that’s exactly what a smart fighter should do.”
"And why is it important that the Champ keep his hands up?" Papi asked.
"To protect himself."
"That's right. He should be ready for an unexpected blow. That's true for you too, Lulu." Papi got up and shadowboxed next to the fridge. He was lean and muscular, like a boxer. His face carried all the mixed features from the island of Puerto Rico: the high cheekbones of his Taino ancestors, Grandma’s caramel skin, and my grandfather’s lime green eyes. Papi said those eyes were the only good thing his father ever gave him.
The gold cross Papi wore around his neck swung to-and-fro as he danced around the kitchen. I ran circles around him, throwing my skinny arms up in the air—flailing them around like wet noodles. With tightly balled fists I tried sneaking jabs to his ribs and back. He moved swiftly around the table, tapping me lightly on the head when I wasn't looking.
"In life you should always be prepared for the unexpected, pay attention at all times. Hands up! Understand?”
"Hands up!"
Mami watched us from the entranceway of the kitchen, smiling and shaking her head, which looked enormous because her hair was set in giant plastic rollers. "She should tell Durán to stop being such a sinverguenza too. Sit down and eat, Lulu. You can beat your father up later. I’ll help you.”
Papi sat down and laughed, pointing a fork at Mami, "See why I always keep my hands up around your mother? She's vicious."

 
 

In 1978 Roberto Durán was riding a three-year wave of consecutive victories. The singular loss that blemished his record came in 1972 to Puerto Rican fighter Esteban de Jesús. Mami cried when he lost. I was too young to remember that defeat or I would have cried too. The fighters met twice more in the ring in 1974 and 1978. Durán won both fights, handedly.
In April of ‘78 New York City was thawing out from a brutal winter. A month before his scheduled fight with Adolfo Viruet at Madison Square Garden, Durán left the warmth of Panama and moved his fight camp north to New York. While training in the City he stayed at the Mayflower Hotel located on Central Park West between 61st and 62nd Street. Coincidentally, earlier that year, my parents had been approved for a two-bedroom apartment in the projects located on West 62nd Street. Unbeknownst to me, the Champ and I were now neighbors.

 

My parents’ lives revolved around work and taking care of me. Mami worked at a tie factory in the Garment District from 7:00 am to 5:00 pm and Papi was a clerk at Kings County Hospital, the largest trauma center in the United States at that time. His shift started at 4:00 pm, which gave him just enough time to take me to school, pick me up, and make me a sandwich before he left for work. Mami got home in the evening to cook, clean, and get our clothes ready for the next day. Their paths rarely crossed, which was a good thing, because when it did they bickered endlessly. When Papi was grumpy he picked fights about everything. As the years wore on their battles progressed from the amateurs to professional level fights where they cut each other down with pugilistic skill and precision.
“Papi, why do you and Mami fight so much?” I asked, after one of their blowouts had left a trail of broken dishes and furniture in its wake.
“You know, Lulu, fighting is a lot like love. You need a good trainer to teach you how to do it right. My father wasn’t a good trainer, he was angry and bitter. He didn’t know how to love. And, I bet his father was a bad trainer too. I’ll try to do better, I promise.”
Papi took the A train to work every day, from the Columbus Circle stop, right by Central Park. One afternoon, on his way to the subway, he noticed a crowd forming near the park entrance. Unable to see over the multitude, he crossed the street to investigate. Finally close enough make out what was responsible for the commotion, he was in disbelief. It was the Champ. Roberto Durán had just wrapped up an afternoon run in the park and was being interviewed by reporters. Papi elbowed his way through the crowd hoping to get an autograph, but the Champ started walking away with his trainer.
"Campeón!" he yelled, then whistled the way only a lifetime New Yorker would, blowing through two fingers in the mouth as if hailing a taxi. Papi dashed toward Durán with a copy of the New York Times and a pen in hand.

 

That Saturday, Papi got up earlier than usual. I was already parked on the couch, eating soggy Frosted Flakes, transfixed by the latest episode of Scooby Doo. Shaggy was in trouble but Scooby was about to save the day because he’d just eaten a Scooby snack.
“Get dressed. We’re going to the park,” Papi said, half asleep, before disappearing into the bathroom.
It was just past seven and we never went to the park that early on a Saturday. My father usually slept in late on weekends and woke up in the afternoon, tired and cranky, and in no mood for parks. “Papi, I want to watch TV. Let’s go to the park later.” I spoke at the bathroom door and was halfway back to the couch when I heard him flush the toilet and reply, “We’re going now. Hurry up and get dressed.” I went into my room and put on the same clothes I’d worn the day before, grabbed my jump rope and stomped into the living room to wait— seething with childish rage over the hours of morning cartoons I was about to miss.
On our way to the park I punished my father with an ice-cold dose of seven-year-old-girl attitude.
"How was school this week?"
“Fine."
"What did you learn?"
"Stuff."
"What stuff?"
I shrugged, staring at my sneakers, dragging my feet. We walked along 62nd Street up the long avenue between Amsterdam and Columbus, past Lincoln Center’s limestone structures and across a still-quiet Broadway toward the green heart of the City, Central Park. He stopped at Gristedes supermarket to pick up the New York Times, which he read every day, cover to cover. We never bought groceries there because Mami said it was too expensive and that they were ladrones.
"You know, we have a fight night coming up soon, you and me."
I perked up immediately. While other children responded to promises of candy and toys, I lived for those Saturday nights when I was allowed to stay up late to watch the fights with my parents. The fights, they were our thing, our family thing, and a common language between my father and me.
"Yeah I know! Mami said Tio Durán is coming to fight in New York soon."
My father baited me. "Who do you think is going to win?"
"Papi, Tío Durán is gonna win. He's the champ!"
My father took a seat on a bench right next to the park entrance and fanned himself with his newspaper. Temperatures had unexpectedly soared into the 90s that week bringing Manhattan to a premature simmer.
"Let's hang out here a bit and cool off."
After five minutes I became antsy. Papi was absorbed with the Times—its large pages folded neatly into rectangles—and glanced up every now and then, seemingly enjoying the calm of the morning.
“Papi letssss gooooooo…”
He answered without looking up from the page. “In a minute.”
“But I want to jump rope.”
“Jump rope here.”
“But there’s no one to play with.”
“You don’t need anyone to jump rope with.”
I groaned in frustration and looked around, hoping to see other kids on their way to the park. There were none. Just early morning joggers, in striped tracksuits, zipping by. Reluctantly, I jumped rope by the bench. I paused to make way for a group of runners coming in our direction when Papi shot up off the bench. He grabbed my hand and waved them over. Who were these people? Papi wasn’t a jogger. As they approached I stared at the runner in the middle, he looked like someone I’d seen before. The black hair. The caveman beard. The eyes, from Ring magazine.
I let go of Papi’s hand, dropped the jump rope and raced toward them. My sneakers squeaked on the pavement as I stopped short in front of the familiar jogger, blocking his path. He looked down his nose at me with his arms crossed tightly over his chest. I studied his face, which was slick with perspiration. He wore a red headband and a sweat streaked t-shirt with the Panamanian flag on it.
“Tio Durán, it is you!” I cried out and hugged him around the waist as far as my arms would allow. He hugged me back then crouched down to speak to me at eye level. Overwhelmed with excitement, I broke down crying uncontrollably. With the tips of his fingers, Durán gently wiped the tears off my cheeks. His hands, they were actually soft, and not made of stone at all.

 

My encounter with the Champ was brief—longer than a ten count but less than a round of boxing. There was enough time for Papi to snap pictures of us with his Kodak camera and for Durán to reach into the bag of one of his companions and pull out a shiny red boxing glove.
“This is signed especially for you, see?” He pointed to the writing on the glove that read “To Lulu” and under that his name, Roberto Durán, spelled out in print.
I looked back at my father with my mouth slightly open, dumbstruck by the wonder of it all, then back at Durán.
“You know about me?”
“Of course! I hear about you all the time, Lulu!”
“But how did you know you were going to see me?”
Durán smiled and winked at my father, “Well, I wasn’t sure. But I sure was hoping.”
I took the glove in my small hands and held it up high, over my head, to show my father.
“Say thank you to the champ,” Papi said.
“Thank you, Tío.”
“You’re welcome, Lulu. Now, forgive me but I have get going. I’m training hard for Saturday’s fight.”
“Oh, I know. I watch all your fights with Papi and Mami.”
“So I’ve heard. You’re my good luck charm in New York City.” Durán kissed me on the cheek then shook my father’s hand. Waving goodbye he fell in step with his group once more and slowly resumed jogging up Central Park West.
“Don’t forget to keep your hands up!” I yelled.
He gave me a thumbs up.
“Champ!” I screamed again. “Mami says to stop being a sinverguenza!”

“His hands, they were actually soft, and not made of stone at all.”


 

Roberto Durán won his fight against Adolfo Viruet that April, and he won the fight after that and the fight after that. His winning streak took him clear to June 20, 1980 when he solidified himself in boxing history by beating undefeated Welterweight champion, Sugar Ray Leonard by unanimous decision in Montreal. All my classmates at PS 51 had heard me brag about my uncle Durán. I brought in the signed glove for show-and-tell and told the Central Park story to anyone who’d listen. When Durán won against Leonard, my parents and their friends celebrated into the wee hours of night—bottles of beer were kept on ice in the bathtub and Mami played all her favorite Fania All Stars records: Celia Cruz, Hector LaVoz, Rubén Blades, and Johnny Pacheco. I danced with my parents, each taking turns twirling me around until I got dizzy.
By then my room was plastered with posters of the Champ. His glove was prominently displayed on a shelf, sandwiched between a Cabbage Patch doll and Barbie’s Dream House. At bedtime, before shutting off my Snoopy nightlight, I kissed my parents, said my prayers, and whispered goodnight to Tío Durán.

 

The rematch between Durán and Sugar Ray was scheduled for November 25th of that same year at the Louisiana Superdome in New Orleans. “Stone vs. Sugar” posters began popping up all over the city next to advertisements for Raging Bull. Papi bought us three tickets to see the fight on closed circuit at the Beacon Theater, as an early Christmas present.
Mami made me a special dress to wear to the fight. It was dark green velvet and had a cream-colored sash that tied into a large bow around the waist. On fight night, as we walked up Broadway together to the theater, I felt like a princess.
The Beacon Theater was a fifteen-minute walk from our house, its brightly lit marquee could be spotted from 71st Street. Papi held my hand as we crossed the street. In my other hand I carried a picture of Roberto Durán that I had cut out of a magazine and glued to a piece of cardboard. I’d elaborately decorated its edges using Elmer’s glue and glitter the night before.
The entrance to the theater, though weathered, was the most majestic thing I’d ever seen. My father pulled me through the crowd behind him as I admired the marble floors and giant chandeliers that hung from the ceiling like exploding stars. In the smoky lobby there were snaking lines for the bar and bathrooms. The place was charged with excitement. When we entered the theater, I gasped. Its plush red seats and golden walls made me feel like I was inside a jewelry box. The giant movie screen at the front of the theater was flanked on each side by towering golden statues holding spears.
The sound was deafening when the lights went down and the live feed started from New Orleans. People rose from their seats and screamed at the fighters on the screen, just like Papi and Mami did at home.
“Kick his ass!”
“Get away from the ropes!”
“Durán’s got nothing!”
“That ref’s an asshole!”
I joined in, screaming and stomping my Mary Janes into the cement floor, waving the Champ’s picture wildly in the air, creating a cloud of glitter dust around me. Papi and Mami yelled and clapped every time Durán connected. Leonard was smiling even though he got knocked down. Mami called him a payaso, a clown. The rounds went by quickly. Before I knew it we were halfway through the fight, when the unthinkable happened. With sixteen seconds left in the eighth round, Roberto Durán threw up his hands, uttered the words “No más,” and quit the fight. I didn’t understand what was happening but realized something had gone terribly wrong by the stunned looks on my parents’ faces.
“Papi, what happened?”
My father looked down at me, shocked and deflated, and simply said, “He gave up. He lost.”
His explanation made no sense to me. How could Durán have given up? He was still standing, wasn’t he? The crowd hissed and booed at my hero when the final decision was called in the ring. Mami and I left the theater crying. On the corner of West 72nd Street, I threw my picture of Durán into the garbage. When I got home I tore his pictures off my walls and never spoke of him again.

“ It wasn’t right, he said, to be left to die alone like that.”

 

By 1989, my interests had aligned with those of a typical teenage girl—boys, clothes and music. Like Durán, my parents called it quits on their marriage. After years of fights and struggles, it was “no más” for them too. Mami remarried a man named Gus and started a new life in the suburbs of New Jersey. Like old ring warriors, Mami and Papi remained friends. “Forgive his temper,” she once said, “he didn’t know how to be a good husband, but he was always a good father.”
I chose to live with Papi, who still worked nights at the hospital. New York City was battling a growing crack epidemic and an AIDS crisis. One of the first makeshift AIDS wards was set up at Kings County Hospital. It was during this time that I first saw my father cry. He got to know the AIDS patients who were brought in by the dozens. He translated for them, ran errands for them, befriended them and watched them die. He would talk about them to me in the mornings, over breakfast. Angel, who looked like a movie star and caught the disease by sharing needles and later gave it to his wife. Miguel and Santos, a young gay couple who died days apart. Gina, who was a mother of four and caught it from her boyfriend Darius. He lamented that they rarely got visitors. It wasn’t right, he said, to be left to die alone like that. When these patients passed away, he attended their funerals. This softer compassionate side of my father was new to me. I’d never been more proud of him.
Though I’d distanced myself from the day-to-day news of boxing, I still kept track of it on the periphery. There was a new champ killing it in the ring: Brooklyn’s own Iron Mike Tyson was knocking out everyone in the Heavyweight division. I still watched the fights with my dad and read the sports pages on occasion. One evening, while going through a stack of newspapers my father had left on the kitchen table, I came across an article about Durán. The image was much different from those I’d seen before. He was older now, rounder in the face and shoulders. He wasn’t in a ring, he was in a clinic in Puerto Rico, holding a man in his arms. It was his old nemesis from the 1970’s, Esteban de Jesús.
De Jesús’s post-boxing career life was riddled with misfortune. In 1980, after injecting himself with cocaine, he murdered a man during a traffic dispute in Puerto Rico and was sentenced to life in prison. While incarcerated de Jesús discovered he had contracted AIDS from sharing needles with his brother Enrique—also a boxer—who died from the disease in 1982. The news story went on to say that though the doctors warned Durán not to touch de Jesùs, he ignored them and held the dying man in his arms and kissed him. He then asked his daughter, who had accompanied him on the trip, to do the same.
As I’d often done as a child, I cut out Durán’s article and left a gaping hole in the sports page. I carefully taped it to the fridge, so Papi would see it when he got home from the hospital in the morning. Before shutting off the kitchen light and heading to bed, I lingered in front of the fridge, glancing at the photo once more and I whispered good night to my Tío Durán.