PHOENIX — When the White House announced the end of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, undefeated boxer Alexis Zazueta began his most important fight yet: to stay in his hometown of Phoenix.
Faces of DACA
“President Trump removing DACA is like removing his wings and preventing him from flying,” said his mother, Rafaela Zazueta Aceves, of the Sept. 5 decision.
One of nearly 800,000 young undocumented immigrants brought to the United States as children, Zazueta, now 22, was just a year old when his family packed their belongings and left Sinaloa, Mexico, for Arizona in 1996.
The U.S. Department of Homeland Security stopped accepting DACA applications the day of the announcement. This decision has young men and women, known informally as “dreamers,” fearing deportation and an inability to make sufficient money to support their loved ones.
For Zazueta, that includes long-time girlfriend Paola Galvan, a dreamer herself, her 5-year-old son, Daniel, and a baby on the way. His parents also live in Phoenix, along with many brothers, sisters, neighbors, training partners and coaches.
Zazueta’s father, Jose Luis Zazueta, a construction worker in Phoenix, described his reaction to President Donald Trump’s decision with one word.
The word means “disappointment” in English, which is exactly how the family felt when everything the family worked for, to better their lives, seemed to be taken away with one decision.
“They’re called dreamers for a reason. They have dreams they want to accomplish. For that to be taken away, it’s disappointing,” he said through Alexis as a translator.
The family never thought that dream would be boxing for Zazueta, known as “Cabezon” or “big head” around the house as a kid. Alexis’s father said that, as a child, he used to run crooked because his neck could not hold up his head when he moved around.
Nobody in the Zazueta family had boxed, even at an amateur level, but, with lots of brothers at home, Alexis would always rough-house.
One day, walking around a swap meet, Alexis spied a pair of old boxing gloves, and the family left with two pairs, one for him and one for his brother. If the brothers were going to fight, the Zazueta parents figured they should do it right.
From that point, he showed up to a boxing gym with a few friends and realized he had talent, and could see the sport better than most people at his experience level. At age 12, he began formal training.
Zazueta said typical fighters take anywhere between four to six months to prepare for their first sanctioned fight after they begin official sparring and workouts. He was taken aback, though, when his trainer told him he was ready after just a month.
Nervous, with a stomach ache and dripping in sweat, Alexis stepped into the ring and won handily. He was not the only one nervous.
“When he first started boxing, I didn’t want him to fight. I couldn’t watch him. When he would fight I’d look away or walk somewhere else,” Zazueta Aceves said.
At that point, though, it was still just a hobby, and one that would end sooner rather than later, but one he was immediately successful at.
“I thought that if I lost three of 10 I would stop, but all 10 came and I didn’t lose any,” he said. “I fought guys that had been sparring since they were little, and I had three or four fights but was fighting guys that had 30 or 40. I’ll just go as far as I can. Whenever I’m done, I’ll stop.”
Training partner and teammate at Diego Banuelos said the moment they met at Fuentes Boxing gym in Phoenix, he knew there was something different about his care for the sport, and his special desire to improve.
“He came in with determination. From the first day I met him, I was like, ‘OK, this kid’s got something,’ ” he said. “And ever since then we kind of clicked, and I’ve been watching his work ethic and it’s second to none.”
That work ethic has led Zazueta to a 9-0 professional record with five knockouts, as well as an undefeated record in his last 30 amateur fights.
However, as he has found success inside the ring, his immigration status as a “dreamer” has kept him from scheduling sufficient fights to sustain a career in boxing.
Nearing 18 in 2013, it was time to begin to build a career, and Zazueta signed up to fight in the USA Boxing Golden Gloves tournament, the organization’s most highly-regarded amateur annual competition. Many of the world’s top scouts and managers attend the national championship rounds each year, looking for the next young fighter to promote as a professional.
“If I win that tournament it would have impacted me hugely in my pro career,” he said. “That means bigger contracts, more money.”
Golden Gloves requires its participants to be United States citizens, but Zazueta was able to skate by officials at the local and regional rounds, punching his way into the national tournament.
However, with the documentation, specifically an identification card and a license to work in the USA, he thought he could be eligible to fight in Utah at the tournament’s final level.
“The day of the fight, I weigh in and they check my little booklet, and it says ‘USA Citizen’ and they check it off to say ‘no,’ ” he said. “So the people that were in charge of the tournament went up to me, reminded me of the rules. I tried getting by with the social security they gave me with DACA, the permit. They said it wasn’t good, and flew me back here and disqualified me that same day.”
Disappointed in the loss of a stellar opportunity, he said he had competed against, and even beaten, multiple people who advanced into the tournament’s late rounds. In fact, in a non-affiliated competition, he knocked down the eventual national champion months earlier.
It was that day he knew it was time to turn professional.
“It’s crazy because a year and a half before I turned 18, that’s when the DACA passed by,” he said. “I thought it was a hope, it gave me hope to turn pro and make a name for myself and put Arizona on the map.”
Even to provide a stable living as a professional has been difficult. Due to promoter and manager issues, Zazueta’s upcoming fight on the Iron Boy card in Phoenix on October 13 will be his first fight in nearly a year and a half.
To support his family outside the money earned from boxing, which has come at a premium, Zazueta works for the Affordable Care Act at a call center.
His days now consist of waking up at 4:30 a.m. running, often an eight-mile trail along South Mountain, a full day of work at the call center, two or three hours of technical boxing training and an hour of strength and conditioning after.
When he met his girlfriend, Paola, at age 16 at a boxing gym, she said he was a bit lazy and did not have a particular goal or direction for his career.
“Now that the baby’s on the way, it’s coming, it’s different,” she said. “Now it’s making him more responsible, because he knows what he’s chasing.”
The goal now, along with eventually working toward boxing world and national championships, is to support the family, something his parents instilled in him from a young age.
Sitting down to eat homemade ceviche, a Mexican dish made from cold cooked shrimp and diced vegetables cooked with Jose Luis’s special recipe, Alexis pointed to his father as a major source of his work ethic.
Desperate to finally find a house to fit the entire family under one roof, the Zazueta family bought the rights to a Phoenix lot, with a house burned to the ground. Selling the family’s cars, and saving enough money working construction to buy the materials periodically, Jose Luis literally built the house from the ground up over about two and a half years.
To this day, the dining room still has one burned brick wall, to commemorate the hard work put into the living space.
“They tell me to get rid of it, but I like it,” Jose Luis said.
Despite the effort Alexis puts in daily to hone his craft, Trump’s decision to repeal DACA still left the young boxer insecure about his future in the United States.
Anticipating that he might have to buy some time, Zazueta reapplied just weeks before the decision, and has nearly two years left on his new DACA deal. However, he said the clock is potentially ticking on his time in the country.
Banuelos, who was born in California and does not have to worry about DACA repeals, trained with Zazueta the day of the announcement and could immediately tell he was not feeling himself.
“He was bummed out. I still remember the day,” he said. “I kept trying to talk to him, and I was like, ‘What’s wrong with you?’ because we hang out so much that I know when he’s sad, when he’s mad, you name it. I’d seen it, he didn’t have that same determination.”
Alexis’s parents are in the application process for citizenship themselves, and his brother serves in the U.S. Marine Corps, having become a citizen through marriage under the age of 18. Zazueta’s mother said Alexis being left out closes certain doors on his dreams.
Though a “dreamer” herself, Galvan has a much more positive outlook.
“It’s not over, a lot of things could come, either way, good or bad. Alexis was pretty worried,” she said. “Better things are coming.”
Despite living in the United States nearly his entire life, Alexis said he has experienced plenty of messages on social media or TV, some indirectly, that there is a heavy anti-immigrant, anti-DACA sentiment.
Disheartening as it is to receive the messages, he said he celebrates the country that has given him and his siblings such opportunity at all times.
“That doesn’t affect me at all. I still represent Arizona proudly every time I step in the ring,” he said.
Inside and out of the ring, he said his 22 years as an immigrant in the United States have been a struggle, but that his family, friends, teammates and coaches have instilled a passion to keep moving forward in him.
“There are a lot of people who are in my situation, who might just throw the towel in. The way we were raised, we keep fighting.”