Wrestler Henry Cejudo seeks immigration law change, another gold medal
Published on Mon, Apr 04, 2011
Henry Cejudo could have stayed away. He already left his signature on one of America's hottest hot-button issues. The son of illegal immigrants from Mexico, he held an American flag high while celebrating his wrestling gold medal at the 2008 Summer Olympics.
Henry Cejudo celebrates after defeating Japan's Tomohiro Matsunaga in the finals of the men's 55 kg freestyle wrestling to win the gold medal in 2008.
Afterward, he spoke openly about his mom naively crossing the border in high heels, his drug-abusing dad dying impoverished in Mexico, his itinerant childhood spent evading rent collectors. He put the details in a book titled American Victory.
He settled back in his home state of Arizona. He didn't stay settled for long.
"We're living in the damn '60s, the '50s in Arizona," he says.
A state law passed last year requires police to check the immigration status of anyone they stop, detain or arrest that they suspect is in the country illegally. A federal judge's decision to block the law is being appealed. Another proposed law would deny state citizenship to children born in the USA if neither parent has legal status.
"They've done a lot of articles on this whole 'anchor baby' law," Cejudo says, using the pejorative description that refers to U.S.-born children "anchoring" their illegal parents here. "I feel like I'm a figurehead to that."
He could use the speaking circuit as a platform. Instead, he decided to take on the issue in the only place he's ever felt truly at home: the wrestling mat.
In February he returned to the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, determined to win another gold at the 2012 Games in London.
"I've done it, and I know I can do it again," says Cejudo, 24, who was born in Los Angeles. "This time I want to have more emphasis on this immigration issue."
Many of his friends have moved to neighboring states, he says, and an uncle — his mom's brother, who occasionally lived with them when Cejudo was younger — was deported in January 2010 for not having proper documentation, Cejudo says.
"The majority of my friends are Mexican," says Cejudo, who occasionally travels to Mexico including a recent visit to train with the Mexican national team. "These people are scared."
Whether a second gold would shine opinion-altering light on the issue is a debate in itself.
"No one person is going to change the tone or the tenor of the divisive immigration debate," says Ben Johnson, executive director of the American Immigration Council, which last year presented an American Heritage Award to Cejudo's mother, Nelly Rico. "Henry's had an impact, but he's one person.
"But there are a lot of one persons like Henry, and the more that they are out there and willing to tell their story, the more that becomes a really powerful way to change people's hearts and minds."
At the least, Cejudo would like his mother to be able to go to the 2012 Olympics. She has had permanent U.S. residency since 1986, the year before he was born, he says (which means Cejudo technically wouldn't be subject to the proposed citizenship law).
But without citizenship, she cannot get a U.S. passport. She wasn't able to travel to Beijing.
She watched the 2008 Olympics from Colorado Springs, the championship match in the wee hours on a computer that kept freezing up, she says, according to a translation of a USA TODAY phone interview with her. She was so nervous she didn't actually watch much of it. She did see her son's celebration.
"It gave me great happiness (that) you could see something so beautiful with the American flag," she says. She keeps that flag on her living room wall.
Cejudo's agent, Bill McFarlane, is helping Rico apply for citizenship and says he expects the process to be complete by the end of this year.
Cejudo dedicated his first gold to Rico, whom he and his six siblings nicknamed "The Terminator" because of all she has survived, from domestic abuse to homelessness to back-breaking, soul-crushing jobs.
His dad wasn't part of his life — Cejudo says the last time he saw his father he was 5; they last spoke when he was 12.
Rico says Cejudo "gave half of the medal to the United States and the other half to Mexico, but the medal as a whole is mine as a gift from him."
Says Cejudo: "It'll be for her again."
First he must focus on getting back into wrestling shape. Cejudo initially targeted this week's U.S. Open in Cleveland as his first competition since the 2008 Games. But he is not yet able to make weight for the 121-pound class (he was up to 150 during his layoff, he says), so he's aiming to return at the world championship team trials in June.
"Henry needs to focus on wrestling," says Zeke Jones, head freestyle coach for USA Wrestling, who questions whether Cejudo "has the right attitude yet.
"Those values that are important to him will live through his life and ultimately through his journey to London," Jones says. "But none of those things matter if he doesn't win a gold medal."
Cejudo turned to boxing
For a time, Cejudo could not imagine himself reporting daily again to the wrestling room at the Olympic Training Center. After the Beijing Olympics, he moved into the same Phoenix high rise as Sen. John McCain (although neighbors, they haven't met). The $65,000 that Cejudo received in medal bonuses, plus income from endorsements and speaking fees, made possible a future different from the past that molded him into the USA's youngest Olympic wrestling champion.
He quickly realized he still needed an athletic outlet, but he "just didn't have that passion any more" for wrestling. So less than four months after returning from Beijing, he walked into the Central Boxing Gym in Phoenix to train with Jose Benavidez Sr.
"I thought, 'Oh my god, wrestling and boxing are totally different,' " says Benavidez, who trains his rising-star son of the same name, "but why not give him a chance?"
Cejudo seized it. A month into training, he sparred with a boxer ranked No. 2 nationally and Benavidez was "blown away." Within a year, Cejudo won a title at the Copper Gloves amateur tournament at the Arizona State Fair.
"On boxing, I think he could definitely take it a long way, because he already has the key of success. He knows that he has to work hard, and he stays really focused," Benavidez says.
In recent months, Cejudo decided he was not focused enough on boxing to have it lead to the London Olympic podium. Sponsor appearances, speaking gigs and his family and friends in Arizona were dividing his attention.
So he packed his bags for the simple grind of wrestling at the Olympic Training Center.
"I admire him," Benavidez says, "because I'm a Mexican too. If he wants to represent the Mexicans and give us hope, that's great."
The tipping point was a newspaper story a friend sent Cejudo in late January about Arian Lucatero, a California high school wrestler whose parents were deported to Mexico when he was in seventh grade. Lucatero stayed to finish school but struggled to improve in wrestling because he had to work and his living situation usually was in flux, according to the story in the Visalia Times-Delta.
"I could see myself in his shoes," says Cejudo, who has not talked with Lucatero.
Older brother also training for London
For Lucatero and so many others, Cejudo is again lacing up his wrestling shoes to take a stand and make a statement — he hopes from the top of the Olympic podium.
"If that's what it is that will keep him wrestling, then I'm proud of that — more than I am of him winning an Olympic gold medal," says Cejudo's older brother, Angel, 26, also a highly accomplished wrestler aiming for the London Games. Angel, ranked ninth nationally at 145.5 pounds, accompanied Cejudo to Beijing as his workout partner.
"It's good he should do it," Cejudo's mom says. "It shows how great his heart is."
She realizes that the heart of the immigration debate can be a dangerous place.
"It's enough to preoccupy me," she says. "There's a lot of crazy people who do bad things."
Cejudo is familiar with danger, growing up in gang-ridden neighborhoods in New Mexico and Arizona. He used that as motivation to get out. He plans to use the hostile rhetoric about immigration to get back to the Olympics.
"I grew up with pressure," he says. "I was a tough little kid. We didn't know where our next meals would come from. We didn't know who was going to knock at our door and evict us. I'm used to it. I thrive on pressure."
Cejudo?s personal adversity forged him into an Olympic champion. Now his crusade to show that "being American is not a color" could make him champion for a cause.
"I just feel the frustration of America," he says.
Published in the USA Today | Read Article