Find Out How These Two Afro-Cuban Boxers “Became” Mexican And Changed The World

When we speak about the 1959 Cuban Revolution, we tend to only speak about the heroics of a rag-tag team of guerrillas led by Fidel Castro. Or, if you’re on the opposite side of the debate, the Cuban revolution is usually remembered as the beginning of an era that ushered in a host of human rights violations, which forced thousands of Cubans to flee the island to U.S. cities like Miami.

But what if I told you about how the Cuban Revolution also directly impacted the lives of professional Cuban athletes during this era? When Fidel Castro banned professional boxing on the island in 1961 hundreds of boxers were immediately left out of a job. Before Castro banned the sport, boxers were making a livable wage and considered celebrities throughout the island. Immediately after the ban, however, boxers had to search for different careers or box in another country like Afro-Cuban boxers, José “Mantequilla” Nápoles or Ultiminio “Sugar” Ramos, who were forced to do so in 1961.


CREDIT: Credit: Rudy Mondragon


More recently, Afro-Cuban outfielder Yasiel Puig left Cuba to pursue a professional baseball career in the US. After several failed attempts to defect directly to the US, Puig’s Plan B was to travel to Mexico. With the help of five smugglers who were all on the payroll of Los Zetas, the infamous Mexican drug cartel, Puig boarded a cigarette boat accompanied with boxer Yunior Despaigne, Puig’s then girlfriend Yeny, and Lester, a Santeria priest. It was in Mexico that Puig was scouted and signed by the Los Angeles Dodgers.

50 years prior to Puig, “Mantequilla” and “Sugar” left Cuba in 1961 and relocated in Mexico to continue their professional boxing careers. They did so in a country that didn’t always have a positive outlook on people of African descent and often erased the experiences of its own Afro-descendent communities.

Yet for people like my father, who was born in 1956, Afro-Cuban boxers like “Mantequilla” and “Sugar” became household names who, according to him, were “campeones Mexicanos que eran muy buenos.” That he didn’t see them as black boxers can be surprising, but he wasn’t the only one with that sentiment.

It seemed that a whole country was able to “overlook” the racial backgrounds of both fighters by accepting them as “Mexicans.”

But why?

To attempt to answer that question, we have to begin by briefly looking at the history of 19th century Cuban migration that began as a result of the Cuban War of Independence, or later stages of Cuban migration between the 1950s and 1970s as a result of the Cuban Revolution.   

José “Mantequilla” Nápoles was born in the eastern province city of Santiago in 1940 and made his professional debut in Cuba in 1958. Prior to leaving for Mexico, “Mantequilla” compiled an impressive record and was well known throughout the island. Like “Mantequilla,” Ultiminio Ramos also had a prolific career until he left for Mexico in the same year.


CREDIT: Credit: Rudy Mondragon


By the late 1960s, both Nápoles and Ramos had already captured world titles and had become household names throughout Mexico. For Mexican boxing fans, and for people like my father, both boxers had a distinct style that set them apart from their opponents. Mantequilla had a “fino” style of boxing, which meant that he had relied on his technical skills, while Sugar was a “fajador,” which meant that he had an aggressive attack.

Perhaps it was the way Mexico adopted certain ideas about a “universal color blindness” that were created by Mexico’s former Secretary of Public Education, Jose Vasconcelos, in the early 20th century. Or perhaps it was their boxing ability that granted them access into the larger Mexican national identity.

But while both boxers may have been considered “Mexican,” as opposed to Afro-Cuban or black, media outside of Mexico, particularly in the United States, certainly viewed them as black men.

Prior to Mantequilla’s fight against Leroy Roberts, Dwight Chapin of the Los Angeles Times wrote, “Part of the recent lure of Jose Nápoles has been his head-which is shaved-and his lip-which is adorned by a thick, black mustache, making him look much like Rubin (Hurricane) Carter.” Here, Mantequilla was linked to the famous Black American boxer, who was wrongfully convicted of murder in 1967 (Denzel Washington played Carter in the 1999 film, “The Hurricane”).


CREDIT: Credit: Rudy Mondragon

Although links to his Blackness were there, Mexico’s racial understandings greatly differed from the United States. Mexico during this moment simply categorized Nápoles as being a Mexican fighter who came from the island of Cuba.

When Mantequilla finally got his shot at the WBA and WBC World Welterweight titles against Curtis Cokes for example, the Independent Long Beach Press reported that he had dedicated this fight to the people of Mexico and “requested that the Mexican national anthem be played when he gets into the ring.”   

When Nápoles returned to Mexico as a victorious hero, Mexican president, Gustavo Díaz Ordaz, personally called him to congratulate him and offer Mantequilla a car or house of his choosing. But instead of choosing a car or a house, he responded by telling the president that his only wish was to become a Mexican citizen, which he was granted the next day.      

Towards the end of his career, Sugar Ramos had successfully defended his titles six times and fought a total of 24 fights in Mexico. He had great love for Mexico, yet after 12 years of living in Mexico City, Ramos was quoted as saying, “I still feel Cuban because I am Cuban. But I have gotten so much support from Mexican people that I’m indebted to them. Part of me is also Mexican.”


CREDIT: Credit: Rudy Mondragon

That Mexico accepted both fighters during their careers as boxers should come as no surprise given the boxer’s exceptional talent. But how Mexicans accepted them also speaks to the ways in which these two men challenged the whole idea of what it means to be Mexican.

Mantequilla and Sugar Ramos are Afro-Cubans who found a home in Mexico to continue their boxing careers, reminding us that sometimes even a country with a complicated relationship to people of African descent can find ways to embrace them as one of their own. 


READ: Find Out How This Afro-Cuban Rappers Music Video Is Helping The Island Heal After The Latest Hurricane

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