Massachusetts Mill Towns

The Golden Glove Fighters From Another Massachusetts Mill Town

May 11, 2015, 2 a.m.

Lawrence, Mas­sachu­setts—Lawrence doesn’t get a lot of good pub­li­city. It’s known as the “Ghetto of Mas­sachu­setts,” and it is one of the poorest cit­ies in Amer­ica. It’s also a heroin den.

Now two young Pu­erto Ric­an box­ers are hop­ing to bring some good news home for a change. Xavi­er Vega and Je­sus Flores, who both live in Lawrence, won the wel­ter­weight and heavy­weight titles at the New Eng­land Golden Gloves cham­pi­on­ships this year. Now they are train­ing for the na­tion­al cham­pi­on­ship in Las Ve­gas, which starts this week. It’s the same tour­na­ment that launched the ca­reers of box­ing le­gends like Mike Tyson and Oscar De La Hoya.

Flores, 21, was born in Pu­erto Rico and now stud­ies aerospace-en­gin­eer­ing at the loc­al com­munity col­lege. Vega, 20, is a Lawrence nat­ive who wakes up every day at 4 a.m. to work a full-time job as a de­moli­tion­ist. Both of them spend every even­ing box­ing with their coach at Canal Street Gym, a large gym owned by a Pu­erto Ric­an fam­ily in an old brick mill along the Mer­rimack River.

Vega’s grand­par­ents were part of a wave of Pu­erto Ric­an fam­il­ies who moved to Lawrence dur­ing the in­dus­tri­al boom to work in the tex­tile mills. Now, about three-quar­ters of the city’s res­id­ents are Latino, mostly from the Domin­ic­an Re­pub­lic and Pu­erto Rico. Lawrence’s nick­name, “Im­mig­rant City,” comes from its his­tor­ic­al role as a des­tin­a­tion for work­ing-class im­mig­rants ar­riv­ing from coun­tries like Ire­land, Italy, and Slov­akia to work in once-thriv­ing factor­ies.

Flores hopes box­ing will take him all the way to the Olympics, and Vega would love to go pro. Neither one is des­per­ate to leave Lawrence, even though it gets a bad rap.

“It’s def­in­itely rough grow­ing up here,” says Vega, who of­ten hears gun­shots in his neigh­bor­hood at night. “But Lawrence is my home. It’s full of good people who some­times make mis­takes.”

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