News and views from the award-winning author of the novels The Skinny Years, America Libre, House Divided and Pancho Land

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Henry Cejudo, American hero

Henry Cejudo battled long odds to become an Olympic Gold Medal winner. In a story that may one day become a Hollywood script, Cejudo grew up in a hardscrabble Los Angeles barrio and worked tirelessly to become an elite freestyle wrestler. Even after achieving his goal of making the U.S. Olympic team, Cejudo’s struggles continued. He finished 31st in the 2007 world championships. During this year’s Beijing games, Cejudo trailed his opponents in virtually every match, managing to prevail in the closing moments each time. Cejudo’s final Olympic match was a cliffhanger. Once again, he came from behind to win the gold in the 55 kilogram (121 pound) division in heroic fashion.

In a gesture that may become the iconic image of the 2008 Olympics, Cejudo draped the U.S. flag across his shoulders like a cape and danced across the stadium in celebration, tears of joy filling his eyes. "The United States is the kind of place where you can choose your own path," Cejudo told the Los Angeles Times. "We should never forget that."

The son of undocumented immigrants, Henry Cejudo grew up watching his parents choose a path that would give their children a chance for a better life. They chose to leave their homeland and live in the shadows. They chose to work at menial jobs shunned by most Americans. They chose to cope with the scorn of those who resented their presence.

Like African-American athlete Jesse Owens who won four gold medals at the 1936 Olympics, Henry Cejudo’s success is living proof that the American ideals of equality are more than words. But that egalitarian spirit often seems limited to sports.

Jesse Owens lived in a world of unvarnished prejudice. African-Americans were second-class citizen throughout much of the U.S. in 1936. Many restaurants, hotels, and stores refused to serve black customers. Schools, public restrooms and water fountains were divided by “Colored” and “Whites.” Racial segregation was the law of the land.

Today, the law of the land makes criminals out of immigrants who only want to do honest work. Like the Jim Crow laws that institutionalized racism in the last century, today’s immigration laws must change. We need a guest worker program that brings undocumented workers out the shadows. Honest work should not be a crime.

Make no mistake. Henry Cejudo is an American. What’s more, Hispanics born in the United States like Cejudo will become a significant portion of the U.S. population in the near future.More importantly, many of these new citizens will be the children of undocumented immigrants. How we resolve the immigration dilemma may determine whether these millions of young people become loyal citizens or angry malcontents. As Henry Cejudo said, we can choose our own path.

Raul Ramos y Sanchez

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