“Let’s meet at Macy’s. We’ll be there at around 11:30 where the fountain is at,” Edgar Guerzon replied in a chat message I left for him. I wanted to meet the Guerzon family after El Nuevo Dia, the number one newspaper in Puerto Rico, published a news feature soliciting their views on the Pacquiao-Cotto megafight.
Macy’s is at Plazas Las Americas, touted to be the biggest mall in the Caribbean. This mall is a huge box of concrete encircled with hundreds of cars of various shapes and colors. Inside the malls are shops similar to Ayala and SM except for the fact that the advertisements are all written in Spanish. It has the same feel of malls as elsewhere: a mecca of consumerism with long lines of stores that cater to any of your wants, real or imagined. In this case, however, I went there not as a mall customer but as a Filipino trying to connect with people whom I share a similar heritage and ancestry. Seated near the mall fountain were the Guerzon family and a few Filipinos assembled there to welcome an addition to the small Filipino community in Puerto Rico.
Later in the evening, I met more of them in a classy house nestled in one of Puerto Rico’s posh subdivisions right in the heart of Cotto’s hometown of Caguas. At least twenty-five Filipinos and their family members congregated there. Most of the men were at the sala watching the undercard fights on TV, while the women and children socialized at the host’s mini-clubhouse beside an avocado-shaped pool and jacuzzi. Traditional Filipino refreshments were served amidst the friendly bantering and conversations.
Zeny Kare, our host, said that there used to be more Filipino families living in Puerto Rico, the majority of which are families of Fil-Am US servicemen headquartered in the now-defunct US base of Ceiba. When the military base closed down, many of these families left and are now stationed elsewhere. Only the family of Col. Edwin C. Domingo, the decorated garrison commander of Fort Buchanan, stayed on and remains active in Filipino community activities (Col. Domingo was born in Sampaloc, Manila; see http://www.buchanan.army.mil/sites/commander/biography.asp for further details) .
Helping the boxers, Raising Pinoy Pride
At least two Filipino pugilists have visited the island to fight Puerto Rican fighters. Gerry Penalosa fought a gallant fight but was defeated against the youthful Juan Manuel Lopez for the WBO bantamweight crown. Noel Tunacao of Cebu also came and exchanged blows with Ivan Calderon but lost after an eighth round stoppage. Manny Pacquiao visited the island to promote his megafight against the Puerto Rican boxing superstar, Miguel Cotto.
These events were opportunities for the Filipinos here to gather once again and provide a much needed morale booster for the visiting boxers. Amidst hundreds of Puerto Rican fans rooting for their hometown gladiators, the few Filipinos here stood their ground and waved the Philippine flag for every wallop that our boxers delivered. Of course, like we would likely do, many of the Fil-Am residents here lined up for photo op and autograph signing chances with Manny Pacquiao. Many a boxing glove, t-shirt , and other personal mementos surrendered at the mercy of Pacquiao’s signature.
The Filipinos here did more than provide fan support. The visiting boxers were feted to the traditional Filipino hospitality. They were toured around old San Juan, a must-see world heritage site of Spanish-era forts, fortresses, and buildings (quite similar to our very own Fort San Pedro but older, bigger, and better conserved), and other tourist spots in Puerto Rico. The boxers were also welcomed in their homes and given places to rest, a much needed respite especially so after a taxing night on the ring.
Behind the Scenes
Noel Tunacao, the ex-IBO miniflyweight champ, fought against Ivan Calderon in 2005 at the Jose Miguel Agrelot Coliseum. The fight was very lopsided that Ric Solivan of DogBoxing.com describes it as follows:
“Calderón’s masterful boxing symphony in the opening rounds was as beautiful as it was deadly, his foe Tuñacao aimlessly wandered the confines of the ring receiving blistering combinations from every angle and stumbling around looking for something to hit to no avail. The ‘Iron Boy’ would not let up and instead, stepped up in his efforts to overwhelm and outbox his taller opponent, and it was quite clear by the 5th that the Filipino was frustrated and hopelessly looking for a miracle punch, one which would never arrive. “
Eventually, the Mandauehanon succumbed in the 8th round to the dismay (and probably relief) of the Filipinos who were watching the carnage at ringside. Yet the story behind the defeat is a sad commentary of the state of Philippine boxing.
As retold to me, Noel was ill-prepared for the fight and was said to be a surprise replacement for the bout. All that he had seems to be just the mere guts of a warrior and the steely resolve that he could will himself to win against a budding boxing superstar like Ivan Calderon.
Consider this: Noel came to Puerto Rico three days before the fight, tired and alone with no boxing entourage like Pacquiao has. He only brought with him some pieces of clothes and boxing paraphernalia tucked neatly inside his bag. Seeing that Noel got no one on his side of the ring—no cutman, coach, waterboy, or anyone—the Filipinos in Puerto Rico plucked several US servicemen from a nearby US base to assist his corner. “Pati masahista kami pa ang nagbigay, said one of the Filipinos who helped him.
While the tropical climate may be similar to that in the Philippines, the jetlag that Noel might have felt could be equally punishing for the 34-year old fighter. Puerto Rico is a dizzying 24-26 hour trip from Manila with lots of stops along the way (it was at least a 30-hour trip for me including the time spent for the layover at every connecting flight). “Nakakaawa talaga si Noel sa fight na yun”, she remembered.
The stories of Noel, Manny, and other visiting boxers are weaved into the lives of the Filipinos here in Puerto Rico. They are proud of Manny’s boxing genius and are equally proud of all of the Filipino boxers who carried the nation’s hopes and dreams with them despite the challenges thrown their way. I stared at Manny Pacquiao’s famous grin in his post-fight interview and said to myself, “Victory is sweet indeed. Salamat.”