Friday, August 22, 2008

What an undocumented immigrant can do... inspiring!

Wow! Very inspiring. -Dra. Valenzuela

From the Los Angeles Times
The son of illegal immigrants, American wrestler hoists his flag with pride
Henry Cejudo had a ragged upbringing. Now he has a gold medal in the
55 kilogram freestyle.
Bill Plaschke

August 20, 2008

BEIJING ˜ He has shared everything for most of his scuffled life, from
twin beds to sofa cushions to last bites.

It only made sense, then, that when he stunningly won an Olympic gold
medal in freestyle wrestling Tuesday, the Los Angeles-born son of
undocumented Mexican immigrants would also share.

With his most beloved piece of cloth.

The American flag.

Oh, what a pair they made, young Henry Cejudo and Old Glory, dancing
cloth-to-cheek across the floor of a gym that rocked and roared in

That flag gave a chance to a kid who paid for wrestling by selling
tamales on the street. That kid now held it tight as he dropped to the
mat and dissolved in tears.

"I'm living the American dream," said Cejudo, 21. "The
United States
is the land of opportunity, and I'm so glad I can represent it."

The flag gave his mother a chance to raise six children on menial
wages in countless apartments from Los Angeles to Las Cruces, N.M., to
Phoenix. The son now flapped it across his back like a cape, as if
showing the world how it had enabled him to fly.

"The U.S.A. is the best country in the world because it allows you to
express yourself in whatever you can do best," said his brother
Alonzo, watching from the stands. "Wrestling is just Henry's

That flag gave a high school education to a kid too poor to celebrate
Christmas, then gave that kid a chance to become an Olympian even
after he finished 31st in last year's world championships. The kid now
wore the flag around the gym like an expensive new coat, and later
refused to take it off.

"I don't want to let it go, man," Cejudo said about an hour after
55-kg victory over Japan's Tomohiro Matsunaga. "I might just sleep
with this."

The tiny, bushy-haired champion smiled a huge smile, his face a
strange mixture of tears and welts and happiness, and it was then he
was reminded America had one more thing to give him.

For winning the gold medal, he will be awarded bonuses and donations
equaling $65,000.

"I'm rich!" he screamed.

No, it was the rest of us who were rich, witnessing a moment that
could only happen at the Olympics and, yes, perhaps only in America.

"This is unreal," said Frank Saenz, his Phoenix-area high school
who was weeping with others in the stands. "Such a big country . . .
how does this happen?"

How, indeed? Born in 1987 in South Los Angeles to two undocumented
Mexican immigrants, Cejudo faced the same long odds encountered by
thousands in his neighborhood.

When he was 4, his parents separated and his mother moved his family
to New Mexico. Two years later, his single mom moved the family to

With only one couch in his living room, and at least one or two
siblings in his bed until he was 17, there wasn't much.

"So we took off the couch cushions and used them to fight," said
Alonzo, Cejudo's brother. "We were like 'American Gladiators.'

Soon the fighting moved to the gym, where Cejudo and his older brother
Angel became high school stars.

When Angel moved to the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado
Springs, Colo., Henry followed, even though he was just a high school
junior at the time. It immediately provided him the one thing he
thought he had been missing.

"I finally had my own bed," he said. "But I was lonely in

His father died of heart failure in Mexico City after a long battle
with drugs, and Henry couldn't make it to the funeral. He won
championships while still in high school, but matured slowly after
that, and there were times it seemed he would fail his potential.

"He could be in prison, he could be a drug dealer, he could be a lot
of things," said his coach, Terry Brands.

But an Olympic champion?

"Nobody believed but us," Angel said.

He was knocked out of the first round of last year's world
championships, weeping in defeat.

He needed a late comeback to win the Olympic trials. He needed to drop
10 pounds just to make weight Tuesday.

Then, once his long wrestling day began, he needed to come back to win
all three of his preliminary matches.

By the time he reached the finals, he was a little tired, a little
sad, but plenty inspired.

His mother, Nelly Rico, was not in the Beijing Agricultural University
Gymnasium stands, because she does not have a passport.

"If you ask my mom, she will tell you she is American," he said,
adding, "This gold medal is hers."

A collection of family and friends did show up, and with such vigor,
they were nearly ejected. During his match, the Cejudo clan refused to
sit down despite repeated admonitions from frustrated security people.

"We didn't want to get thrown out but, if your little bro is down
there, what are you going to do?" Alonzo said. "After a while, [the
guard] just got tired of it."

Down on the mat, Cejudo was tired of messing around. He immediately
attacked Matsunaga's legs and pushed him around the mat, scoring
enough to win each of the first two rounds in the best-of-three
format, giving him the victory.

After which, Cejudo immediately began crying and looking for that
flag, taking it back to the mat for what will become not only the
signature celebration of his career, but perhaps of these entire

"The United States is the kind of place where you can choose your own
path," he said. "We should never forget that."

Henry Cejudo's path -- slippery and scrabbled and wonderfully
star-spangled -- perhaps ensures that we won't.

Bill Plaschke can be reached at To read
previous columns by Plaschke, go to

Copyright 2008 Los Angeles Times

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