Editor's Note: On Saturday, Soledad O’Brien introduces you to a Latina boxer about to face the fight of her life as she attempts to make her Olympic dreams a reality. CNN’s Latino in America: In Her Corner, Saturday night at 11 Eastern.
By Soledad O’Brien and Rose Arce, CNN
(CNN) - Marlen Esparza is in London, literally preparing for the fight of her life.
A working-class girl from Texas, she has been training as a boxer since she was 12. Now, at 23, she is about to be among the first women to box at the Olympic Games. Marlen is a 5-foot-3, 112-pound flyweight, a first generation American.
She never expected to become a role model.
Yet, today she is in Spanish-language advertisements for McDonald’s and Coke, representing some of the most well-known American institutions.
“My kids saw her in the McDonald’s ads and they were like ‘wow, she’s a big deal,’” said Dalila Esparza, her sister and best friend, who has four young children. “This is really big in the community.”
Marlen also has sponsorships from Cover Girl and Nike, and the notoriety of being the six-time national champion of the only Olympic sport that didn’t allow women until now.
But fame in the Latino community was a surprise.
“I never thought about it that much,” she told us when we met more than a year ago. “But as time goes on I realize how important this is.”
Marlen speaks very little Spanish and has never been to Mexico. She lives in Houston, where Latinos are nearly 40% of the estimated 2 million residents.
Being Latina was never something she’d given much thought.
Her father, David, who came to the United States from Mexico as a boy, thought differently. He sent his sons to box at Elite Boxing gym in Houston because he wanted them to emulate the success of boxing icon Julio Cesar Chavez. David believed Chavez had given Latinos a hero by becoming a six-time world champ in three weight classes.
But his sons disliked boxing.
When Marlen showed interest, the coach at Elite, Rudy Silva, refused to train a girl. Silva had set up the gym to train and mentor Latino boys from the high school where he worked as a police officer, hoping to fight crime and dropout rates.
But there was something about the way Marlen tried to convince him that got both men thinking she might be the champion they’d hoped to create. Both parents began working extra shifts to fund her boxing and Silva began using all his free time to coach her.
When we sat around their dinner table last year talking about successful Latinos in pop culture, David, and Marlen’s mother, Carmen, both struggled to name people. They mentioned U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, comedian George Lopez and actor Andy Garcia. Both believed their daughter could be an international sports champ in that list of names.
“I think so. In her own way she wants to get to the Olympics so she can say, 'Look, this is who I am. I did it and you’re gonna hear a little bit of what I got to say,' ” Carmen said.
But it took Marlen some time to realize why her parents believed international fame could be significant for a community that suffers from high rates of teen pregnancy, school dropout and is the subject of a rancorous immigration debate.
With each national victory, there would be a spate of articles in Latino-oriented press, and larger and larger crowds of Latinos wherever she travelled. Young Mexican-American girls would mob her at matches trying to get her autograph. “The Mexicans are going to freak when I do this,” she remarked one day at a local match, her eyes scanning a crowd of Latinos that surprised her with its size and enthusiasm.
She realized that this was not just about her, but a community that really needed role models.
She was invited to an exhibition match against the Mexican national team and watched her father sweat out the result as if it were more important than the Olympics. “This is a really big deal for me,” he yelled to her. And when the crowd cheered, Marlen started to feel the same way. “A lot of people think it’s the white, a Caucasian country or whatever, and I really don’t see it like that,” she told us that day after fighting before a cheering crowd. “I am the minority right now, because I’m Mexican and a lot of people don’t respect it. But you can change it, like as soon as I get a gold medal and as soon as everything is different, people are going to be like ‘hey it’s OK to be Mexican in the U.S. you know?’ Like it’s not anything you have to be embarrassed about, it’s not anything that’s a bad thing?”
In the final days before her journey to Britain, local Latino groups began raising money to sponsor her coach’s trip and putting up banners in her hometown. After she arrived in London, she told her sister by phone that she was suddenly feeling the pressure of being a role model like she never had before. “It’s really good to know that all these people are as excited as I am,” her sister said Marlen told her. “She doesn’t want to let anyone down. She feels like she has to perform.” But Dalila keeps telling Marlen that she already has won when her own children are seeing a commercial about something as American as McDonalds and knowing that their working-class, Tex-Mex aunt is a star.
“It’s a blessing. She’s a role model. She is Latino and this kind of thing never happens and I don’t just hear that from Latinos. I hear it from blacks and Asians. She is going to be a Latino role model.”
As for Marlen, she will talk to her family of nothing less than medaling at the Olympics and making her community proud. She won’t even listen to coaches who tell her medaling at her first Olympic Games against stiff competition is a huge expectation.
When Nike asked her to pick a slogan for their Make the Rules advertising campaign, she chose: “IF NO ONE THINKS YOU CAN, THEN YOU HAVE TO.”