EAST LOS ANGELES-Two words Mexicans want to hear: Free tacos!
After the last of the cross-country press conferences to hype the Oscar De La Hoya and Manny Pacquiao showdown was held under the somewhat famous Whittier Boulevard East Los Angeles arch on Tuesday, it was the East L.A. fighter’s shout for free grub that shocked the more than 5,000 people.
“Really! Free tacos for anyone who says my name for the next two hours at King Taco,” said De La Hoya to the joyous crowd.
Also added to spice up a show that didn’t need spicing was comedian George Lopez, a good buddy of De La Hoya’s and a fellow East L.A. native.
If you’ve never been to East L.A.’s Whittier Boulevard, it reminds some people of Brooklyn with its streets and buildings, but not as large. There are a lot of stories derived from the Boulevard over the last several decades.
When De La Hoya was growing up as a kid the days of cruising were just about over. It was on this same Whittier Boulevard that dozens of car clubs comprised of low-rider cars with hydraulic lifts and expensive paint jobs would traverse back and forth on the strip between Atlantic Boulevard on the east and Eastern Avenue on the west, looking to show off their rides or meet the other sex.
It was a colorful time with thousands of people coming from all over the Southwest to engage in cruising the Boulevard. You could meet girls and guys from El Paso, Albuquerque, Denver, Salt Lake City and Tucson on any given weekend.
But it was a Southern California tradition that was bolstered by high school kids who belonged to a number of car clubs with names like Thee Imperials, New Life, Groupe, Klique, Sons of Soul, New Breed, Orpheus, The Nomads and Volksmen to name a few.
Up and down Whittier Boulevard the cars would drive. Sometimes on a crowded night it would take almost two hours to go three miles from Atlantic to Eastern Ave. The alternative was to park on the street and meet with fellow club members or friends from the neighborhood to check out everyone.
Not all was innocent.
There were always shootouts, gangbangs, knifings going on between rivals or emanating from the small bars and cantinas that are strewed along the strip. More than once I dodged an errant bullet meant for somebody else. More than a few times fights broke out that exploded from one-on-one to suddenly mushroom to 30 on 30 and more.
It was kind of a stream of consciousness moment while De La Hoya and others spoke about the upcoming fight in Las Vegas. On the south side of the street was a bar that I remember parking in front on a Saturday night and a couple of guys stepped out of the darkness. One guy was holding up the other and I couldn’t really get a glimpse of the slumping guy’s face. As they got closer I could see that the slumping guy had no face. Somebody had taken a razor to it and sliced it in about a dozen vertical pieces. He was trying to hold his face together.
Another time in 1970, a rally against the Vietnam War erupted into a riot with several people killed including the first Mexican-American journalist to work for the L.A. Times, Ruben Salazar. Almost every building on the block was burned, bricked or pillaged.
Episodes like this happened all the time on the Boulevard.
About 1979, after numerous complaints from merchants, the County and Sheriff’s Department shut down the Boulevard to cruisers. Ironically, at the historic Golden Gate Theater, the movie Boulevard Nights was playing. It was a Hollywood-made motion picture depicting the Whittier Boulevard scene, but not very accurately.
At the time of the closure, De La Hoya was probably six years old and in the first grade up the street at Humphrey’s Elementary.
After two years of looking for a new cruising place, cruising dried up. The only thing to look forward to doing was watching a chunky Mexican kid named Fernando Valenzuela lead the Los Angeles Dodgers to the World Series and victory against the New York Yankees in 1981.
Valenzuela was the toast of East L.A. and anywhere that Mexicans, Mexican-Americans or self-named Chicanos lived. When his career ebbed in the late 1980s that’s when a youngster from Garfield High School in East L.A. picked up the gauntlet to carry the torch that El Toro had held.
De La Hoya’s gold medal win in the 1992 Olympic games in Barcelona was huge in this unincorporated city of nearly 400,000 people. The U.S. Census says 250,000 but they can’t get the accurate number when many are afraid of “la Migra.”
Though many Mexicanos, especially first and second generation, despised De La Hoya. It was the third, fourth, fifth generation Mexicans and up that took a liking to the East L.A. kid because he represented them in a good light for once. Not some drunken rowdy whose only claim was he could knock a guy out.
Plus, he won plenty of world titles and didn’t even look like he’s ever been hit.
Now he faces Pacquiao, a fighter who dismantled the seemingly unbeatable Mexican Triumvirate Marco Antonio Barrera, Erik Morales and Juan Manuel Marquez. Who can stop this Filipino slugger known as Pac Man?
“Only God knows,” said Pacquiao, a humble and honest boxer of tremendous talent.
Up on the rooftops, on the sides of the street and behind the platform thousands of fans screamed and cheered.
Decades from now people will talk about the day Whittier Boulevard was closed for a public press conference for a fight between De La Hoya and Pacquiao.
And that will be another story from the Boulevard.
Golden Boy Promotions announced that $20 rebates could be obtained with purchases of Tecate Beer. The price for the Pacquiao-De La Hoya pay-per-view fight is going to be $54.95. People are going to need those rebates.
The Pacquiao-De La Hoya fight on Dec. 6, at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas is sold out. It was an almost immediate sell out.